One of the luxuries of being the "Chairman Emeritus" is that I get to help but I'm no longer responsible for the nitty gritty between the AFL, networks, and AFANA on TV issues. I can also offer my perspective as the "old man" on the block -- the gray haired veteran with (hopefully) sage wisdom. Now that the details are finally being published on the new AFL contract with ESPN and TSN in North America, I can also talk more freely without jeopardizing contract negotiations.
Fans are already starting to weigh in and predictably, reaction is mixed. For slightly less than 3 1/2 seasons, Setanta Sports was the main network and offered live AFL coverage. For that entire length of time, AFANA was the recipient of many, many messages from unhappy fans. Unhappy because they didn't get Setanta, or it was $14.99 a month, or they were a "lower tier" network and wrong for growth of the sport, and more. It's amazing how many writers today are telling Kimber Smith, the new co-chair, how angry they are that Setanta is gone. It all reminds me of a mask with one side white and the other dark.
From our founding in 1996, we heard from fans via our surveys, e-mail, telephone calls, and letters that they wanted the games live more than anything. We tried to do it ourselves several times in the late 90's and early 00's without success. There simply weren't enough fans willing to pay the high cost of pay per view. When Setanta came along, with their subscription model, a door opened. With our encouragement, the AFL walked through that door and we finally achieved live coverage in 2006. All along though, we had warned fans that if we got live coverage, it wouldn't be free, and it would be on a secondary network. Not that too many remember that right now. The economics of the US sports media market simply don't allow a sport like Australian football to break into the "big time" without major sponsors or lots of capital. That's the reality folks. This isn't Australia.
When Setanta debuted, AFANA also let fans know that this was our test. Would we, after 11 years of begging, step up to the plate and support live coverage on Setanta in sufficient numbers to make it work? The verdict after 3 years is now in: no, we didn't. The problem isn't that Setanta wasn't widely available. Setanta is now available to about 45% of US viewers. Among footy fans, our current survey seems to be tracking toward the result that over 55% of fans can get Setanta. Of those, about 40% didn't subscribe. Many thought 2-4 live matches a week wasn't enough (compared to what? zero?), the cost was too high, or you couldn't be bothered because it had other sports on it, or didn't like the times, etc. Instead of the 50,000 plus subscribers the footy community should have delivered, our subscription numbers at Setanta probably peaked at less than 15,000. So, when times got tough for Setanta (and they are), the expense of AFL coverage was too much. That is what happened this week. (Neither the AFL, nor AFANA, wanted to drop Setanta. Setanta dropped the sport.). Even at 2 matches per round, that $14.99 works out to $1.87 per match. Is live footy not worth that to you?
Setanta was a historic breakthrough for the AFL and AFANA in the US and Canada. They were good to work with and mostly straight with AFANA (in an industry where truth is a nicety). The coverage had a real impact on the clubs around the country and got lots of exposure in pubs. We did prove that live footy can work. It just didn't work well enough. We warned fans that if we lost Setanta, no other network would step up to the plate, and can you blame them? So ESPN has thrown us a lifeline and a second chance. But be careful what you wish for.
ESPN is the big kahuna of sports worldwide. They have lots of channels in lots of places. Clearly, being on ESPN is an achievement for any minor sport. However, this isn't 1982 any longer. They cover every major US sport with big dollar contracts. For those that remember, footy left ESPN after 1986 and returned, ever so briefly for the 1996 and 1997 seasons. In part, AFANA exists because of ESPN. The early 80's exposure created the first serious fan base and the mid-90's were the motivation for creating AFANA. When the AFL lost coverage on Prime Sports after the 1995 season (the channels were being sold to Fox Sports and became the backbone of Fox Sports Net) fans organized a lobbying campaign to get footy back. We succeeded, against all odds, at getting the AFL and ESPN to do a deal for weekly highlights on the then new ESPN2. It was anything but a happy marriage. In 1996, ESPN declined to air the Grand Final even on a delayed basis, so AFANA stepped in and did the national pay per view telecast that year with the help of the AACC of Southern California. In 1997, despite promises all year, the Grand Final went from live to delayed just 30 hours before bouncedown. Fans were furious and we buried the phone and fax machines in Bristol with complaints. The AFL was furious and canceled the contract after that season. The next year footy moved to the new Fox Sports World channel with the help of AFANA and Wade Hinkle, then AFANA President. Now let me be clear, I hold no grudges against ESPN. The management personnel responsible for those problems no longer work at ESPN and it was 12 years ago. The lesson though was that given a choice, ESPN will opt to delay, reschedule, or not air footy if it gets in the way of baseball or American football We're the goldfish and those sports are the whales.
In the intervening years, I've heard many fans say "you should get this on ESPN" or "if the AFL knew what it was doing footy would be on ESPN not [fill in the blank: Fox, Setanta, etc.]. The underlying assumption was that the AFL, AFANA, and ESPN never talked to each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. At every opening where a new contract could be negotiated, ESPN was asked if they were interested. The answer, through almost all of the last 12 years, was always "no". For a deal to occur, all parties must buy in. The primary reason the AFL was not on ESPN has not been AFL or AFANA incompetence. It was economic reality.
Since about 2001, AFANA has followed a very clear strategy when advising the AFL on TV coverage. Get live coverage on a more limited network where it can get fair attention, and push free to air coverage through local markets. The second part is now coming to fruition with MHz Networks and America One. Together, the two reach half of all local TV markets in the USA, large and small. There is a ways to go, but within a year or two, footy might have a full match, one week delayed, available on a local TV station virtually everywhere in the US. The first part was fulfilled by Setanta and from here forward, will have to be filled by ESPN360 and to a limited degree by ESPN2.
In a perfect world, the AFL wouldn't have been in a situation where it had to change networks mid-season but since it did, the new contract was an excellent deal under the circumstances. It gets the sport back on ESPN where fans say they want it. But and this is BIG: the fate of the sport on ESPN2 after 2011 probably depends heavily on ratings. Fans must help sell it when it does air and get everyone they know to watch otherwise the AFL won't be a position to get any deal, let alone a better one, for 2012.
Is AFANA doing cartwheels over the new deal? No, and we realize it has serious limitations and having to get most matches via the internet is less than perfect. (Time to get an internet ready TV??) Canada has suffered an even greater loss in coverage. To go forward, we all have to go back to the spirit we had in 1995-1996 where we said "we will get our footy!". We will succeed collectively or fail collectively. Everyone: AFANA members, local clubs, the USAFL, AFL Canada, and AFANA leadership teams, etc. must be on the same page with this. Sniping about how this deal isn't right for you might seem harmless but it isn't. It's partly why are where we are. Sure, if I don't get footy on my cable system Friday night at midnight, I am disappointed. Whinging might make you feel better, but it won't guarantee the future of AFL coverage on TV in North America and it won't help footy grow in your community.
Under our new leadership team, I am confident that AFANA will go forward as the best voice for the footy fan anywhere. They will carefully listen to your messages to us, study the survey results, and tell the AFL what they see as the best future on TV for the sport in North America. You should do your part: study our TV pages, know the facts about the TV coverage, and be a voice that is positive for the sport in your community. Oh, and please watch the coverage wherever you can!
-Rob de Santos
Chairman Emeritus and 2nd assistant senior Grumpy Guy