(This editorial is in response to the following post on the site of usfootynews.com: AFL Decision Fails Sport in USA.)(Ed. note: Link removed as no longer works as of Apr. 2013)
Our friend Wayne Kraska at usfootynews.com recently posted an editorial on why he feels the AFL has failed the sport of Australian football in the USA with it's latest TV contract with Fox Sports Plus (announcement here). Considering his arguments and those of the many fans who commented here on this site, on our Facebook page, and in e-mails to us, I felt it was appropriate to respond.
At the outset, I want every reader to know that I am sympathetic to the fans who feel the sport took a backward step with this new deal. In some ways, that may be true. I understand the frustration of fans who cannot get or afford to subscribe to Fox Sports Plus (FSP). I also believe that there is a lack of understanding by many of the realities the AFL faced, the alternatives available, and the history of both recent events and those since 1980 when the AFL first appeared on the then nascent network ESPN.
I want to address Wayne's key points because he raises some that many other fans have expressed. It is an exaggeration to say that the sport has gone back to where it was in the 1970's. That simply is not correct. There was no live coverage in the US prior to 2006 except for the Grand Finals and a few matches in the early years of ESPN. For 11 years, beginning in 1995, all that AFANA heard from fans in the US was "when will we get live coverage again?". In every fan survey, in thousands of e-mail messages and bulletin board posts, that was the refrain. AFANA and others tried to market live pay per view packages. No one could get sufficient subscribers for it to work in the "big dish" era. (The projected cost of this for one match per week in 2000 was $200 per year [about $30/month] per home subscriber and $1000 for bars and pubs!).
When Setanta came along, offered the AFL its first big dollar US TV contract and promised live coverage, it was a no brainer even though Setanta was only in 2% of US homes (it reached nearly 50% by the end in August, 2009). Many fans were thrilled but many more were upset because they had to pay $14.99 a month for 2 to 4 matches each week. This is despite having been warned for years by AFANA that live coverage would never be free again. In truth, it never was free. You pay for every channel you get even if it is wrapped up in your monthly cable bill. This dirty secret is why the cable and TV companies don't want "a-la-carte" pricing. If you had to subscribe individually they fear you would drop 80% of the channels you now receive. ESPN is the single most expensive channel group you pay for. For the average viewer, that runs to somewhere between $5 and $8 a month.
In 2002, I briefed a number of AFL staff on the future of US media coverage of the AFL. I predicted then that the future distribution of live coverage of the sport would be via pay per view or the internet in the US. I think many at the AFL doubted me and fans in the US generally told me I didn't know what I was talking about. They were convinced, as many are now, that the sport had to be on "free" (??) cable or broadcast TV.
Is it a surprise that a sport that the "converted" believe is, as Wayne accurately described it: "one of the most, if not the most, exciting team sport in the world" and "is relegated to obscure cable TV broadcasts in the biggest sports TV market in the world"? No, it isn't. Just because folks like you and I and Wayne believe it is the most exciting sport, I can assure that the sports programming directors do not and they don't care unless you can show them the money. In fact, aside from the major US sports (American football, basketball, ice hockey, baseball, and some big time soccer) the leading sports networks (ESPN and the broadcast networks), don't show anything else unless it a) has a major sponsor or b) buys the time or c) shares the advertising revenue with the network. Minor sports are relegated to minor sports networks here. The AFL commands neither the ratings nor the sponsors to do better. Until it does, it won't get better exposure. Is it a chicken and egg issue? To get better ratings and sponsors the sport needs better exposure / better scheduling and vice-versa? Yes, however this can be fixed with more and better marketing.
The AFL marketing budget in the US is nearly nil aside from TV contracts. AFANA spends more than the AFL and we're living on a shoestring with minimal fan support. The AFL gives neither AFANA nor the USAFL money for doing the necessary marketing to grow the sport here. At no time since August 2009, could AFANA or the USAFL afford to regularly send reps to Bristol, CT to spend some "quality time" with ESPN management and staff.
A few words about how we got from the Grand Final 2011 to the signing of the contract with FSP. I want to assure Wayne and every fan that to the best of my knowledge and belief, the AFL made every effort to get ESPN back. ESPN indicated to AFANA after last season that they hoped to continue to carry the sport. So what went wrong? Not being present at the negotiations or able to read all of the messages that went back and forth, I cannot tell you for certain. What is for certain is the advice the AFL received from the USAFL and AFANA. With our consent, the USAFL supported expansion of the coverage on ESPN2 and the continuation of coverage on ESPN3. Four matches a year on ESPN2 at unpredictable times won't build audiences. Thus, we wanted more games and more predictable scheduling. However, ratings had not been good. Audiences were generally only 20% better than ESPN2 would get showing some "world's strongest man" tape from 1975 and downloads on ESPN3 were OK but not great.
My best guess is that ESPN never put the offer on the table the AFL was hoping for and the AFL was asking for far more than ESPN was ever going to offer. Two ships passing in the night with different objectives and different ways to evaluate success. This happens in negotiations every day. What fans here wanted was simply not in the cards with ESPN. Should the AFL have settled for far less? Perhaps. However if that happened, I can tell you that fans would be just as unhappy as today that the coverage "had gone backward". Into the breach in the final weeks stepped FSP after they had made a similar deal with the NRL. Considering that Fox Soccer -- then Fox Soccer Channel, the AFL, and AFANA had not parted ways on the best of terms in 2005 this was all the more remarkable. Had FSP not stepped up we would have had the AFL via internet on LiveSport.tv and that might have been it. That's $99/season or about $14 a month this year. Moreover, coverage on MHz was hanging in the balance, too.
ESPN3 is in somewhere between 55 and 60% of US homes via broadband. FSP is available to 45 to 50% of homes via subscription. In some cases it is in a sports bundle at around $6 a month, for others it is $15 per month. Of course, there are some of you who now get FSP who couldn't get ESPN3 and some the other way. Some could bury the cost of ESPN3 in their cable and broadband bills and were happy and some who have to pay more now on FSP are unhappy. Problems like this have occurred every time TV coverage has changed. In 1996, a long and hard campaign by fans finally got coverage back on ESPN but it was "espn2". in 1996, the "deuce" was in 21% of US homes. That meant 79% of our original core group couldn't even see the coverage they fought for! Were they ever unhappy! Sound familiar? Fans who complained when they lost coverage when Setanta folded blamed AFANA though we weren't at fault. They couldn't get ESPN3 and thought internet coverage was inferior. Amazing how many of them are complaining now, too. There is no free lunch and there is no perfect solution. Sadly, episodes like this have given AFL fans a bad reputation with US TV networks. They see us as fans who are "never happy no matter what they do".
There is no "slap in the face" to the USAFL leadership or AFANA here though neither organization is entirely happy with how things have played out. We would have preferred another outcome. The reality is that FSP is working with us and we will work with them. Wayne is absolutely correct that a pay network (whether FSP or LiveSport.tv) will never provide the best way to expose new fans to the sport. For that, the AFL has looked to MHz to provide an outlet for free coverage. Not enough fans and clubs have utilized the MHz option and it isn't available to half the population. (That 50%, the FSP 50%, and the ESPN3 60% are all different and partially overlapping.)
In conclusion, I understand why fans are upset at change particularly when they did not expect it. I also know that the world would be better if we could get footy both live and on tape delay in a prime-time slot every week on ESPN and see every match. Unfortunately, that is not happening and never will happen. The AFL decision here didn't fail us, our own expectations did. The long term solution is for more money to be spent on marketing the sport, growing the audience, building youth programs, and improving ratings and sponsorship. We cannot expect "TV" to save us. The bottom line drivers on network sports no longer allow it. It took soccer over 30 years to break through. By AFANA's estimate, we are barely half way along that window and woefully short in marketing and youth development. The bell tolls not for the AFL, it tolls for thee. Let's get to work and maybe, just maybe, we can convince the AFL to see the light and join us.
-Rob de Santos
AFANA Chairman Emeritus