I’ve seen two things that have kicked off my desire to talk about this. One is Netball Australia paying for Free-To-Air TV coverage, following the budget cuts at SBS and their subsequent decision to stop putting netball on. Another is Chris Coleman’s rumour-mill (so it’s going to be a pretty damn solid rumour for Chris to be putting it out in public) about an ABL team – not the league – putting together some sort of deal with the support of a sponsor (maybe Government?) for their games to be broadcast on a Pay TV network somewhere. Add this to the upheaval when the AIHL got their finals onto Fox and then decided (and rapidly undecided) to kill the livestream of the event and I’m hopelessly interested in the place and purpose of getting sport on TV.
What do institutional staff expect to get from having their sport on TV? I’m guessing that the key thing is to increase your cultural ‘presence’ – ie, become water-cooler conversation, have it be remarkable when people don’t know what’s going on in your sport. And I’d guess the follow on is have people come to games, buy the stuff and play the sport. For sports that can’t already draw a 30,000+ crowd, becoming a bigger part of the conversation is key.
How much reach can a TV deal actually get you?
Doing your own livestream, you shoulder the cost (or a sponsor does) and only people who know about it can get it, assuming that they have a good-enough internet connection. According to the ABS figures for 2012-13, more than 75% of households in Australia have broadband internet. Assuming that the stream works well (eg, YouTube or uStream) this is an option that’s going to cost you money, at least until you have a solid enough fan-base to start charging for it in some way.
If you go with PayTV, you’re looking at around 30% of households in Australia (maybe 35% by 2017, or even up to 45% by 2018 if you count Internet Pay TV (eg, QuickFlix/NetFlix, but those guys don’t stream live sport. Yet.). On the upside, this is group of people who have deliberately chosen to get Fox’s sports package and can presumably be interested in watching sports generally. It’s a much smaller potential market than FTA or livestreaming, but self-selected for interest in sports. In terms of reaching a market, it’s probably less useful than streaming, but if it comes with lots of lovely money to spend on marketing and salaries and infrastructure, I can definitely see the appeal. The other main downside of course is that you have approximately 70% of the population can’t easily access your sport. History in the AIHL and the ABL shows that quite a few of the sport’s dedicated followers fall into this group. And quite reasonably are not going to pay $50/month to watch 6-8 games for the three or four months that their season lasts.
Free to air TV is in more than 99% of homes, and more than 7 million people are watching free to air TV between 6pm and 9.30pm. Even a really shitty rating on FTA is still pretty much gold in terms of exposure.
The holygrail has to be getting paid to be on FTA. But if that’s off the table, as it is for so many sports, what are you left with? Netball said that it was more important to be on FTA than to make money. And they’re probably in the kind of financial position where that’s a sensible choice. Their 2013 annual report (the most recent on the website) has the whole of Netball Australia with a real surplus of about $1.5 million.
So – has netball done the right thing by giving the rights to some of their games to Channel 10 royalty-free? I think they have. In some ways, being on 10 might even be better for them than being on SBS, given that it’s a much more mainstream channel. Netball is one of the more exciting sports to watch as a spectator with little or no knowledge of the rules. It’s explosive, ridiculously athletic and ratchets the tension when the shooters are in the D. It has a good chance of snagging and keeping a casual viewer. And reminding people that netball has both national and international competitions.
Is the netball model available to other sports? I guess it depends how much it cost the sponsors and if other sports can find sponsors interested in footing that bill. Netball can point to some pretty healthy participation rates. The ABS has the 15 years and older participation rate at 4.1% of adult women, or 387,000 (2013/14) and another 220,000 girls playing (2012). I can easily see a sponsor and/or sponsors wanting maximum access to that potential market.
Baseball and Ice Hockey definitely appeared in the MultiPurpose Household survey, but I don’t have access to that more detailed level of data through the free version of Table Builder and I’m not $550 interested at this point in time. Baseball Australia’s 2012/13 numbers have 47,000 active members. Ice Hockey Australia counted over 5,000 members, including just over 3,700 junior and senior players in 2012. We’re talking baseball being a magnitude smaller than netball and ice-hockey being a magnitude smaller again.
From what’s being said, it seems that there’s a good chance that at least one of the ABL’s pro-baseball teams will be heading down a similar path to televised stardom with a sponsor paying the way. But in this case we’re talking about getting onto MLB TV and/or Fox Sports Asia (and hopefully an Australian channel somewhere). Without an Australian channel in on the deal, I find it hard to work out what the value proposition would be for the Australian team, though I can imagine some not too far-fetched scenarios that make it something the right sponsor could want to do.
With an Australian channel in the mix, we come back to that uncomfortable balance where if it’s being shown live and exclusive on a Pay TV channel, a big chunk of your audience are going to find it more than a little annoying to arrange to see it. Under the usual kind of deal where the TV channel pays something for the rights to broadcast your sport, that’s a manageable pain that most fans of small sports will understand. We want you to make money and have everyone get paid! We want you to have an audience! Grow, little flower, grow!
But if you’re not making money out of the deal and/or the games will be delayed to air, I’d expect there to be howls of outrage. ESPECIALLY in an environment where your existing fans are actually reasonably happy with the livestreaming that they’re getting at the moment.
I can’t really see how paying to be broadcast on Pay TV, especially with the low penetration in Australia, could possibly be worth it. The part of the netball deal where they looked embarrassingly desperate is a substantially worse when you’re paying for airtime on Pay TV. I hope that’s not what’s happening with mystery Australian team and sponsor.
Television money is great, but I look at what’s happened with the PAC 12 college football and basketball in the US – crazy start times and diving crowd attendance – and that’s not what I want for baseball in Australia. One thing the choice to move game start times for TV does show is that all parties are cognisant of the need for the game to be live to air. Very few people want to watch delayed games. And following up from that, a deal where your sport got to be the 3am filler for its first showing on TV would be just a double-up pile of poo.
The AIHL game of the week is broadcast delayed on Fox. Fox generally seems to have no issue with the league livestreaming the games. I liked Fox’ response during the AIHL no-livestreaming finals drama of 2013, which boiled down to “No skin off our nose, might even be good for us”. I wonder what their response would be if they were carrying the games live.
In my ideal world, an FTA station will pay the ABL a bunch of money to broadcast games, but in my secret heart of hearts, I think a deal similar to what netball’s just done is probably about as much as we could reasonably expect for TV. People who know the numbers better would have to tell me whether that’s actually a better bet in the short- and long-term than running livestreams supported by sponsors and advertising those streams on TV and YouTube.
(Things I didn’t think about that need to be thought about – what is the future of TV, anyway??)
 Remember when the AIHL said that they wouldn’t livestream the 2013 season finals and Fox wasn’t going to play them live and AIHL fandom exploded with rage and despair? Good times, right? Good times. Remember 2014 and 2015 ABL finals which weren’t going to be streamed live but would be on Fox live and ABL fandom quietly muttered in corners crankily while remaining incredibly polite about the whole thing? Key thing I got out of this is that LIVE MATTERS TO YOUR EXISTING FANS.
 My proposed solution as a hopeless social butterfly is ‘have a dedicated pub that will always show your games’. So that everyone knows that if you go to place x, your sport will be on and you’ll meet other people who care about your sport. It works all the time for soccer. And honestly (in Perth at least) it is still a lot cheaper to go to a game than to have a meal and two beers in a pub, so it’s unlikely to hurt your gate. And it’s up to Fox to demonstrate that their other offerings are worth the money.
 I’ve actually not had free to air TV at home since the middle of 2013. And even though missing the cricket and new episodes of If You Are The One makes me sad, I’ll probably only get it again if a flatmate has one.
 http://baseball.com.au/Portals/27/Annual%20Reports/2012-2013AnnualReportWeb.pdf – again, this is the most recent available report on the website.
 http://www.iha.org.au/files/uploaded_documents/379/IHA_2012_Annual_Report_2.pdf – again, this is the most recent available report on the website
 MLB, I choose YOU to provide the money for said deal.