A week ago the first American, born and raised in the United States, make it to the top level of football down under. I hope that these closing weeks of the AFL season will see Jason Holmes (and perhaps Mason Cox, also) do enough to stay there in coming seasons. It's been a long wait. Twenty years for fans. We've also seen the conclusion of a huge new domestic TV contract for the AFL. It's also a milestone year for AFANA. Two decades of promoting the growth of Aussie rules in North America. From scrambling to save one hour of one week delayed highlights on US / Canadian television back in 1996 to having 12 hours per week of live coverage in the USA & 3 hours in per week in Canada plus highlights and repeats now. We have seen six networks come and go in that time. It's been a long journey.
I've been reflecting on that journey and giving serious thought to what it means now and where the sport in North America needs to go in the next two decades. I never expected in 1995-1996 that in 2015, I would be here and I have no plans to be doing this in two more decades. Retirement beckons in the not too distant future but I have some thoughts about the coming years.
On one level, we've made huge progress. We hoped and thought that we could get an American into the AFL in 5 to 7 years back then. We were way too optimistic and grossly underestimated the resistance in the AFL toward recruiting Americans (that only changed in the past five years). In the end, it didn't come via footy played here but through the AFL recruiting ex-college basketball players. It's still a great achievement but it also indicates that growth of the game here has a very long way to go. For an American to reach the AFL via footy played here at home, it clearly means that there must be more growth in clubs in North America and those clubs have to have youth, teen, and college programs. It was the pathway for soccer and lacrosse and it will be the ultimate pathway for the US to develop significant numbers of homegrown AFL players.
How that happens is not AFANA's domain but we do have a view because we're all in this together. Growth of grass roots football, youth leagues, development of a fan base, and consistent accessible media coverage are all necessary. It also means a cultural change away from seeing the local footy club as only a place for guys to have a kick and drink beer. It's important for local club members to have fun and bond. However, until growth of the game is a high priority then progress will be slow, and youth programs will be sparse. Young mothers, even if they overcome the stereotypical view of Aussie rules football as too violent, aren't going to sign up their kids for the sport so long as what they see around the local team is simply a drinking club. Local clubs need more resources and better management. Perhaps time and maturity will change this.
More importantly to AFANA is the marketing of the sport. We've accomplished everything we have in the past two decades without any direct or indirect AFL financial support. We don't ask the AFL for money for ourselves and we don't expect any, regardless of how deserving our volunteer staff might be. Dear reader, your generous donations support what we do. Rather we want support from the AFL to market and promote the sport and to grow the fan base. The NFL, mistakenly thinking that local clubs meant interest, launched NFL Europe a few years ago. Despite their millions, the league flopped. Why? One reason was that it didn't have a large enough fan base. Without an audience, it was doomed. Here in the US, we see that manifested in the weak ratings for live AFL games on Fox Sports 2. Granted, the network is itself still an infant without 90% distribution and the games aren't exactly in prime time in the East and Midwest. Fox does not promote the coverage much outside of FSP, but even so, the ratings are not giving Fox much reason to get excited. In part, that is because the latent interest in the sport has not been developed. Fans have not been sought out or educated beyond what AFANA can do. Many don't even know where to watch despite our hard work.
We've said it before so I will say it again. If AFANA had even a few tens of thousands of dollars over the next few years, we could raise the visibility of the sport significantly. When big events (like Holmes' debut) happen, we could plan for publicity and not simply react. We need marketing and media staff to do this. We need budgets for occasional travel and marketing materials beyond what we have now. We also need a change by AFL International and Commercial staff not to view the US solely as a recruiting pool or a market to sell WatchAFL subscriptions. There are nearly 355 million people in the USA and Canada combined. The sports market, above and beyond TV rights, tips past half a trillion dollars per year now. Surely, that warrants more than an annual combine. A one-half of one percent market share here would generate three million a year for the AFL. That's significant. About a decade ago, an Australian firm working with Gallup reported that there were seven million footy fans here. Assuming that's even half right, if we could generate one dollar of annual income from each of them, it would mean great things for the sport here.
For existing fans, we continually hear from you what's wrong with the coverage. Before we discuss that, there are some myths that should be dispelled. Here's a few facts: 1. Fox does not hate you. 2. The AFL works hard to get good coverage here. 3. AFANA knows that Fox Sports 2 and Fox Soccer Plus are not in every American home (though over half can get at least one of them by cable; nearly all if you include satellite) and wider distribution would be better. 4. Yes, networks like NBC and ESPN have had opportunities to get AFL rights and did not because what they had to offer (if anything), did not match what the AFL wanted. 5. Most program directors at US or Canadian networks do not think footy is the greatest sport ever invented.
Having that out of the way, what does need to be done? Understand that there are dozens of sports which would give both hands and much money to get the amount of live coverage we have on Fox each week. Therefore, we have to work hard (as fans) to keep it. The last few years have had exceptional coverage by historical standards. It's not perfect but with the rapid shift to internet distribution of video, we're probably already near the best deal we can expect over the next five to seven years on broadcast cable and satellite distributed TV. Without better ratings or better sponsorship, there is no incentive for Fox or any other network to give us better coverage. Therefore, the coverage needs sponsors and we have to find ways to get more people to watch in 2016 and beyond. Your help in spreading the word is important. Tell your co-workers and friends and where possible, invite them over to watch a match.
We do have a reasonable expectation to see that some qualitative improvements occur. The cutoff of post-match coverage for replays of rugby bloopers must stop. It's unprofessional and Fox should not do it. Fans deserve to see the full 3 hour feed. We'd like more opportunities to give input to Fox on which matches are chosen for each week -- not withstanding their schedule limitations. We're not going to get everything tagged as a "blockbuster". (That must be the most overused term in the AFL media.) Every match that is aired should be in HD and DirecTV shouldn't have any excuse not to air a match in HD. We hope that last problem is solved but events the past few weeks raise doubts. We want to reach more homes and even one repeat a week on Fox Sports 2 would be a plus. One way to help that would be for the AFL to work with us to find sponsors willing to buy advertising on Fox during the AFL telecasts. Fox (or any other network) would place a much higher value on the games if they returned revenue and viewers to Fox.
The TV world seems to be moving rapidly to internet fed television. Therefore, restructuring the online video is essential. Today, if you are a new or prospective AFL fan in the US, the only coverage you can see without forking out money is live on Fox Sports 2. There have to be more options, probably online, for fans to see the AFL at least a bit in order to justify them spending money to see it even more. Without that, all the coverage on WatchAFL does is bleed existing fans and it does not expand the market. Unfortunately, given the extraordinary amounts the AFL is extracting from Telstra for online rights in Australia, plus whatever Rightster is paying for international distribution, all but insure that the game's online future is limited until the AFL realizes what it is costing them in terms of the future. The loss of distribution via MHz a few years ago was a huge setback. At the time, more than 50% of the new fans registering at this site were coming here from the MHz coverage. This validates how important some free coverage is to growth. The Grand Final needs to move to Fox Sports 2 in the future (or the place with the best coverage under any future contract). The most important game of the year should be on the best outlet.
Making AFL merchandise available via the Fox "store" and other outlets might be a good thing, too. The value of selling Sherrins with sponsor or Fox logos here would be yet another way to raising the profile of the broadcasts. There are many other ideas on what needs to be done. I'm sure you'll share those with us, too.
Just last week, I lost track of the number of articles on Jason Holmes that mistakenly stated the coverage was on ESPN. ESPN has had the coverage for four and a half seasons since 1985. Yep, less than 15% of the time in the past THREE decades. Isn't it about time we get that right in the US media? A real meeting of the minds between the AFL, its broadcast partners, and AFANA needs to happen to find ways to better promote the coverage and educate fans where to find the sport. AFANA has suspected for some time there are more fans who don't know where to find the sport than watch it on a weekly basis by a wide margin.
Now, I will turn to our role going forward. One thing won't change so long as the current management team at AFANA have say in the matter: we will be the voice of the fan. Fan is the middle of our name and it is there intentionally. We will continue to list TV schedules for as long as it makes sense to do it and that may be years into the future. We will continue to have staff down under who contribute mightily to the original content on this site as long as we can find them and get them into AFL matches as members of the press.
Circumstances have changed since our early days. Back then we could move ESPN to act because they weren’t internet savvy; they didn’t have much experience with interacting directly with an audience; and they weren’t overwhelmed with other sports who desperately wanted the exposure and legitimacy gained by getting on their network. Simple fan lobbying no longer works and the competition for airtime is tougher. These reasons, as much as anything, have meant that we depend less often on asking fans to contact networks directly. Sometimes that makes sense (perhaps with social media) but often it isn't going to be effective so other strategies are important. We work to maintain contacts at the networks with whom we can work on an on-going basis.
Likewise, with the AFL. In the early days, the AFL was a different organization with less of a "corporate" nature to it. Often they did not even respond to us. Now we have direct contacts with the AFL at the working level (and very good ones) but find it difficult at times to get executives to listen if what we say does not fit the current internal script in the C-suite. As we go forward, we will continue to evolve our strategies to achieve the goals we have for growing the game and improving the lot of North American footy fans including how we work with the AFL.
As I wrote in another recent article, we are committed to better serving fans who do not speak English as their first language, particularly Hispanics in the US, French speakers in Canada and Spanish speaking fans in Mexico. The additions of schedules for French and Spanish networks was the first step. For the game to grow, it has to be accessible to all fans in North America. Coverage on a Spanish language US network will be increasingly important. Over the next few years, we will be adding resources in French and Spanish to explain the game and complement our growing number of web pages and resources in English. We welcome speakers in those languages who are willing to volunteer for our team and help us as we move forward. The AFL has said Latin America is off the table due to the difficulty at present. We can help.
We will never stop listening to what you, the fan, tell us. Every day we hear from someone about how much he or she loves Australian football and how important it is in their lives. We get it. That's why we even exist. A few fans, twenty years ago, decided that we would form a group whose goal was to represent what fans wanted. Not sponsors. Not broadcasters. Not the league. Fans. We figured then that no one knew better how to make more fans than other fans. There wasn't any organization like it in sport around the globe then and it was a radical idea. Much to even our own amazement, it worked. Thanks for all of your support over those years, especially those who have coughed up hard earned money to make it happen and our countless volunteers. Speaking on behalf of the other founders, Wade and the late KC Swan, thank you!