(This is the first in a series of long form editorials on the state of footy on TV in 2016 and the future outlook.) A long time ago in TV world far, far away, a small group of passionate AFL fans managed to get the AFL and ESPN together and save the weekly highlights coverage on US and Canadian television. It was an early and largely unnoticed accomplishment of the internet age as e-mail and newsgroups were the media used to launch coordinated action. Looking back, it was an amazing achievement in 1995-1996. It also was the catalyst for the formation of AFANA.
Over the past 20 years we’ve evolved from lobbying by fans to more sophisticated ways of attempting to drive the AFL’s TV strategy (with varying degrees of success). We’ve successfully helped steer them to new TV homes for the sport when old ones blew up on us. We’ve succeeded in keeping it on the air for 21 seasons without fail. Now, we have to decide what we do in 2016 and beyond. The answers for 1996 and 2006 no longer are the right ones. The TV market has changed. The fan base has changed. The AFL is far more media savvy than before and nominally, has an “international” strategy (although fans and marketing seem not to be a big part of that). We must change our tactics and strategy to deal with the AFL, TV networks, and fan development to match the world as it is in 2016.
Let’s take a look at the US landscape today (we’ll deal with Canada and Mexico in a future article):
Fox is in the last year of the AFL contract in the US. Fox has been tight-lipped about whether they will continue in 2017 but history tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised either way. We believe the AFL and Fox are in communication but we can’t say more than that at present. Last year the two Fox networks provided more than 430 separate telecasts of footy including over 135 live matches (preseason, in-season and post-season). Coverage reached the astonishing level of just under 1,200 hours! (Back in 1996, we were thrilled to get less than 24 hours and just 3 hours live.) By the way this exceeds the number of hours of coverage of many better known sports and is on a par with UFC.
Fox Sports 2 (FS2) is growing slowly, mostly on the back of UFC coverage not footy. Ratings for FS2 overall have roughly doubled in the past year but still hover in the single tenths of a point most of the time. Subscriber numbers have crept up slowly and they are now in about 47 to 50 million homes (around 40% of all US homes) FS2 needs Comcast desperately to pick up the network and grow its audience. Comcast subscribers shouldn’t plan their celebration though. We know that the Comcast issue is the single biggest complain of fans as they constitute about 20% of US TV homes. **[The Nielsen number of TV homes (116 million), on which the percentage is based, and which had been declining, magically jumped by 8 million last fall after networks complained)]. **Read this for some financial insight: http://www.outkickthecoverage.com/the-15-most-valuable-sports-networks-050715 Note FS2 at #10.
Ignoring the Grand Final, a special case and not on FS2, even the semi-finals and prelim finals last year only garnered, on average, 9 to 11,000 viewers per hour live on FS2. Undoubtedly, delayed viewing probably doubles or triples the total, but the live number is flat. There is no growth of the live ratings number over the past 3 years even as the channel as grown. Time slots are an issue and one that we can’t do much about with live programs. In the last week of the NAB Challenge, not a single AFL match cracked the top 100 programs on cable sports. None even registered on the Nielsen ratings. This means we’re not drawing news fans and existing fans aren’t watching in enough numbers to register. **[By way of explanation, for Nielsen to indicate a program had 10,000 viewers this means that about 1 home and 3 to 4 people out of some 100,000+ Nielsen panelists were watching. Even they acknowledge that the number isn’t statistically significant. If most viewing is delayed, then the live ratings are not indicative of the true audience.]
Fox Soccer Plus (FSP) continues on the back of the soccer contracts it has and the subscribers that sport generates. Speculation has continued that someday it may be converted to a standard cable channel but Fox has not indicated any such plan. It is also blocked by the Comcast issue. The subscriber numbers are small in TV terms and probably not growing much. It’s great for live AFL coverage, numerous repeats, and for current, hardcore AFL fans. It does very little to grow the sport or audience.
WatchAFL provides live coverage of every match via the internet. For hardcore fans or those without the necessary cable or satellite access, it has and continues to be a great alternative. Based on the numbers we’ve seen, the largest international markets for WatchAFL are the USA and UK by a wide margin. WatchAFL is however, in our opinion, overpriced. (Subscribing to FSP is now cheaper than WatchAFL!). It is not an effective way to grow the fan base since no novice fan is going to fork over the subscription fee to watch a sport they know little about. Part of the reason costs are high is the ridiculous overpayment by Telstra for the online rights. Some of that cost is passed to US fans via Rightster. The AFL has opted to take Telstra’s overpayment rather than grow the sport internationally over the longer term by taking less money. It’s a short term gain for the AFL to crow about but it is a long term loss for the game.
Fans often write us to complain that either their cable system doesn’t offer FS2/FSP or the programs should be on another network (ESPN, NBCSN, etc.). What you should know is that we keep in close touch with our sources across the US TV sports landscape so we have a good feel for what other networks might offer in terms of coverage and who might be interested should Fox and the AFL not reach a new deal. At AFANA we always have a plan B (but it isn’t plan B because it’s better than plan A.). It is our belief there is no better alternative than the current deal. We say this because of several factors:
- No other network is currently likely to offer as much live coverage as we get on FS2 and FSP combined;
- No other network is likely to offer the number of hours of repeats in more viewer friendly time slots as FSP;
- There are few better distributed outlets and neither Fox nor ESPN is going to put any footy on ESPN1/ESPN2/FS1 etc. It isn’t going to happen with the current ratings. (Note: As of Round 3 in 2016, we were pleased to learn that Fox moved one live game per week to FS1. This is likely to continue only if ratings justify it and other programming doesn't bump it in the future. For now, it is exposing new fans to the sport.)
More specifically regarding alternative networks, ESPN has been very clear in the past that they only would consider footy for WatchESPN / ESPN3 and nowhere else. At present, that won’t happen because of the online rights held by Rightster and Telstra. We are our own worst enemy in so far as those who have paid for WatchAFL discourage the AFL from choosing a different path. So far NBCSN has shown no interest. We’re watching CBSSN and NFL Network closely.
For those who feel the AFL is clueless or mistaken in dealing with Fox or that the deal with Fox is misguided, we’re sorry to say, we disagree. If AFANA felt there was an alternative, better for the majority of the fans, we’d lobby the AFL for that alternative immediately. Every alternate choice has major drawbacks that hurt a significant number of fans or reduce the coverage dramatically. We'd like to be wrong on this but so far there is no better alternative.
We will get “better” coverage in the US when, and only when, the ratings improve and/or we get sponsorship for the telecasts. The AFL can help by working with AFANA to find those sponsors but beyond that, only fans can help by watching the coverage and getting friends to do the same. WatchAFL is a great tool and in some ways, the future, but it cannibalizes the telecast ratings and hurts that aspect of the coverage. We love WatchAFL, too, and support it, but there is a downside.
To grow the ratings, we also have to grow the fan base. We cannot over-emphasize this point: for the sport to have a future here, we need more footy fans. When we lost coverage of the highlights on MHz a few years ago, it was a major setback. At AFANA, we consider it a high priority to find ways to expose new fans to the sport on television and online. This will do more to benefit everyone, fans old and new, than anything else we can do in the long term.
On the up side, after lots of persistence by Jeff Hemelt and our staff, we have the most complete and accurate TV schedules for footy available anywhere. If it can be seen on a screen in North America, we can tell you where and when. Every match, every repeat, every show. No one else can do that. Not your on-screen guide, the AFL, any individual network, or any other website. Moreover, we update the listing at least daily, and it is 99.9% accurate. We remain constantly amazed that so many of you rely on the on-screen guide, often chock full of errors and not updated very often, rather than check our web site. What can we do to make those schedules easier for you to use? Let us know.
We, as fans, have to focus on is what we want going forward and how we can grow the audience. AFANA has more data and more research and better connections with you, the footy fan, than anyone else. We’re always looking for your input. We’ll continue to use that and find better ways to get you the most footy we can.