Fox Sports chases an endless summer

James McGrath
By James McGrath | 3 December 2014
Ex-Socceroos Brett Emerton and John Aloisi pose with the Asian Cup on Bondi Beach.

What do you do when you don't have a summer sport to fill the schedule? You help create one.

This year marks the 10th year of the domestic A-League football competition in Australia, and coincides with Australia hosting the Asian Cup in January next year.

From humble beginnings the A-League has grown to be a thriving, legitimate player in the Australian sporting landscape, and all from behind the paywall of a subscription TV model with Fox Sports holding the exlusive rights to the domestic league.

Until recently.

For the past two seasons, Fox Sports and Football Federation Australia has embarked on what its CEO Patrick Delany terms an 'experiment' to allow games to be shown on free-to-air (FTA) player SBS.

Last season Friday night matches were shown live on SBS2, and this season they've made the jump to SBS' main channel.

Allowing another player to essentially show a fifth of the content you've paid for seems somewhat of an ill-advised move, but Delany told AdNews yesterday that this was a deliberate ploy to grow the game.

“The big question is how you broaden the audience for the A-League,” Delany said. “Clearly there is very good participation and good ratings and subscriptions on Fox Sports but how do you then convert that into broad appeal?”

Fox Sports is hoping that more people will switch onto football as part of what it sees as a long-term game, and is willing to accept the short-term losses associated with the strategy.

“We generally see 20 per cent of our subscribers watch, if we're simulcasting, to free-to-air. I don't know why that is, but generally there's a 20 per cent leakage,” Delany said.

Delany said so far it's too early to tell whether the experiment has been a success or not, but the signs are there.

“You have to look at the way [football's] been discussed in the mainstream media and social media,” he said.

“People who are fans of other sports are saying, 'Wow, there's something going on here.' We're approaching a tipping point, but we're not there yet.”

While there are obvious benefits in growing the game from Football Federation Australia's viewpoint, Fox Sports' aim is to make what was once considered a winter sport into a summer one.

“There are good signs the experiment has been a success though; the momentum of football is going well which is especially important to us in summer,” Delany said.

With FTA station Nine locking down the cricket, and Seven holding the rights to the Australian Open tennis tournament, there's no other summer sport Fox Sports could have conceivably picked up with such broad appeal.

However, with the start-up of the A-League, Fox Sports saw the opportunity to do just that and make Fox Sports a year-round proposition by growing interest in the domestic league to sit alongside the English Premier League.

With streaming players starting to filter into the Australian marketplace, Foxtel has responded with what has simultaneously been described as a defensive and aggressive move by dropping its basic entry price to $25 per month.

“Foxtel now on any reckoning is very affordable,” Delany said. “You could not say Foxtel is expensive.”

One other point of difference Foxtel will have is its sports offering.

“Sport's always been important in any subscription product,” Delany said. “It can't be timeshifted, it's something people are particularly passionate about and it usually aligns the local tribes--so it's good for driving subscriptions.”

He also said while football doesn't offer the amount of spot-advertising of other sports, it does pay back advertisers in “equity”.

“Advertisers are looking to find the same groups of people in volume who share the same passion,” Delany said.

“So you're getting that in volume and the way we do it is that, although we don't have ads in live play, I think the equity that comes from subscribers by not having the spot ads but having the sponsorships ... that transfers back to the advertisers.”

A "festival of football"

The broadening of the game for the longer-term benefit of Fox Sports was also an approach it took with the upcoming Asian Cup, a tournament which Delany told a launch event he hoped would be a "festival of football"

It has signed up three major sponsors for its live and total coverage of the tournament in NAB, Harvey Norman, and Telstra. But it has again allowed a proportion of the Socceroos' matches to go onto free-to-air.

The deal to allow Friday night matches onto SBS was driven by both Fox Sports and the FFA, but the decision to allow a portion of the Asian Cup to be shown on FTA was taken by Fox Sports alone.

The final deal done will allow the ABC to show three group-stage Socceroos' matches on delay, all Socceroos matches in the knock-out stage live and live coverage of the semi-finals and final--regardless of whether the Socceroos are playing.

For the privilege, the ABC lobbed in an offer of $1.25 million at a time when the Federal Government was seeking to cut its budget. In comparison, SBS lobbed in an offer of $500,000.

“SBS offered very little money, $500,000, which wasn't worth me doing a deal,” Delany said.

“The ABC offered $1.25 million and the FFA threw in $250,000 so it ended up being $1.5 million and we thought that, together with the goodwill it would create for football, given we own football in this country, it was worth doing.

“Obviously SBS didn't value it highly and the ABC saw that this is an event of national significance in the context of their charter.”

The ABC deal drew criticism from SBS, with CEO Michael Ebeid recently telling The Australian that he was “flabbergasted” by the deal.

Critics also questioned the ABC's commitment to football in general, given that, as a result of the Government's cuts, it elected not to show the women's competition, the W-League, next year.

For his part, Delany said he had not been approached about picking up the rights to the W-League next season, but said he would take a look at them.

But aside from the money offered Delany said the ABC offer was compelling because the game would reach a new audience.

“I think the reason we awarded it to the ABC is because it would be a different audience to the bolted-on soccer audience that SBS and Fox Sports have,” Delany said.

“They have a very big national footprint, it's an event of national significance and so it opens up a new audience, and that's very good for the momentum of football in this country.”

He said it was too early to say what sort of leakage rates it could expect from its deal, but said whatever it ended up doing would be outweighed by the longer-term benefits offered from the exposure ABC could offer.

“I don't think it will impact Fox Sports' audience very much but I do think it will grow the pie of people who have been bitten by the football bug, especially if the Socceroos get through to the finals [semi-finals],” Delany said.

“It would be manna from heaven if they got into the grand final.”

For more news:

ABC kicks off Socceroos deal

What is real beauty?

Socceroos head to Brazil without a major sponsor


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