Over the last 16 years, one relationship has been a constant in the world of Australian football, Fox Sports and the A-League.
The competition’s original broadcaster, Fox helped nurture the A-League in it’s early days and aided the growth of not only the competition but the sport in this country.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, ‘Matchday Saturday’ with Adam Peacock and company was a staple in the diet of football fans with A-League games flowing through to the overnight Premier League fixture.
Along the way, broadcasters have been involved from the free-to-air realm with SBS and the ABC jumping on board at separate times, however it is without question that Fox Sports has been the biggest overall stakeholder in the production of the A-League.
“They’ve been the games main financial benefactor for 15-16 years, they’ve ploughed millions of dollars into this sport and nobody else was willing to do that and still isn’t as far as I can see,” said Simon Hill, a member of the Fox Sports team for over a decade.
“You’ve got to say that the game has to be very grateful for Fox Sports and the way that they not only invested in the game but the way they covered the game.
“They gave the A-league gravitas and coverage that perhaps many people felt it didn’t deserve.”
But, Hill believes that all good things come to an end, and the nature of the relationship between the league and Fox Sports has deteriorated over time.
This season we have seen less advertisement and effort into the production of the league than we ever have before in a year where the league arguably needs it most as it tries to rebound from a COVID-affected 2020.
This issue is not a foreign one for football in Australia, though. It happened to the NSL and continues to happen to the A-League, not only with Fox but with the mainstream media as a whole.
“We have a difficult relationship with the mainstream media because we are not of the mainstream,” Hill said.
“They’re entitled to cover what they want, it’s up to us to make it more engaging to the general public and at the moment, not enough people are watching either inside the stadium or on television, but it must also be said that the mainstream media has played a big part in that.
“This has been a specific strategy that has been pursued by NewsCorp, as I said on my podcast a couple of weeks ago.
“It has sought to actively, consciously devalue it’s own assets because it felt it had paid too much for the rights.
“I’ve got some sympathy for that view. Television networks are not charities, they want a return on their investment and they weren’t getting that, but the game has to be strong enough by itself to stand up and say that’s not good enough.”
So what now?
The deal seeing Fox hold the rights to the A-League is set to expire come July 2021 and with the league now independent from the FFA, the question is, where does the A-League go?
Hill believes that, thanks to the nature of the sport and the digital age we are moving into, the league has a unique opportunity to move into a new realm of broadcasting, one that would be beneficial for the sport.
“The good news for football, because of the digital revolution, is we aren’t as dependant on the mainstream media as we once were for publicity,” he said.
“A lot of people get their news and watch stuff on their phones, their tablets, their laptops.
“Things are changing, we’ve got an opportunity to move into a different space and to make it work through that space.
“The good news for our code is the mainstream sports are tied into long deals with television networks. Okay, that gives them financial security but it also locks them in to that sphere of the media.
“We have an opportunity to move into what’s coming, which is the digital space. If we can do that successfully, we don’t need the mainstream papers or television.”
Football has already seen a move towards streaming platforms, you only have to look as far as the Premier League rights being acquired by Optus Sport a few years ago to see that there is certainly a market there waiting to be tapped.
More recently, Stan Sports became the sole partner of Rugby Union and is currently trying to up the ante in terms of engagement.
Where the A-League will land has been the subject of debate across social media for weeks now as the contract end date draws closer and closer.
Many have advocated for the competition to follow the Premier League across to Optus Sport, others prefer Stan, the one thing most can agree on, though, is a need for change.
“I think the game should say thank you to Fox because it did a terrific job for many, many, years but I think it’s time to move into something different,” Hill said.
“The next phase of the sport and the league’s evolution needs to be with a broadcaster that will show it love, take care of it, promote it and treat it with the gravitas that Fox once did.
“It’s a pity that it’s gone that way with Fox but as I say, all good things come to an end.
“It appears, and obviously it’s not 100-per-cent certain, that in a few months time the game will part ways with Fox and I think it’s about the right time for both parties, to be honest.”
Whichever direction the league chooses to go in, the challenge will be ensuring that the league and the fans get the attention that they deserve.
In part one of our three part series, Hill identified the need for the relationship between the clubs and their fans to improve and the passion we saw in the mid 2010’s to resurface.
The new broadcaster, or indeed Fox if that is where the league chooses to take their business, will need to tackle this problem if it truly wants to help the world game thrive in Australia once again.
“We need to market to our own supporters. We’ve got to believe in the game because it’s the best game in the world for a reason and make sure that football people get what football people want,” Hill advised.
“We’ve spent too long pandering to mainstream media, trying to make the game more like Aussie rules, more like cricket, more like rugby league.
“The catchphrase was, ‘we are football’, well we’ve got to believe in that and sell to our own people first.”