Australia may have reached the semi finals of the Asian Cup for the first time, but is the sports mad nation being given the opportunity to really care?
Those who aren’t the most ardent of football followers, and those who don’t have Foxtel, could be forgiven for not knowing that the Australian national side are currently competing in the largest regional competition on the planet. Indeed, after the hype surrounding our last two World Cup appearances, Asia Cup 2011 has been dragging the term ‘underwhelming’ to whole new depths.
The blame can’t be pinned on the squad, or new coach Holger Osieck for that matter. The Aussie’s build up has been strong and as we go to press Australia has grabbed a creditable draw against highly-fancied South Korea and topped its group on the way to knocking out holders Iraq and booking semi-final berth against Uzbekistan.
So where’s the excitement? Where’s the media hype? Sure, it’s tennis season down under but with the AFL and NRL still on hiatus surely there’s multiple column inches and sports-news segments available to give the Socceroos a much-needed push and get the nation behind them? But this isn’t happening.
One reason could be the level of competition Australia’s facing. Let’s be honest, in football terms the names India, South Korea, Bahrain and Iraq hardly roll off the tongue like Germany, Ghana or Serbia (or, indeed, Japan, Croatia and the mighty Brazil and Italy from the World Cup before last).
But the primary factor has to be the coverage, or lack therefore. Whilst during the World Cup the Australian sporting public eagerly tuned in to free-to-air SBS (almost as much for the antics of Santo, Sam and Ed’s Cup Fever pre-match entertainment, not to mention commentator Craig ‘Fozzie’ Foster’s hysterics before and after every Socceroos match), all the Asia Cup bouts are screened solely on Foxtel. This means that those who either can’t afford or refuse to have Pay-TV have to make do with going bars and cafes to watch Australia play (a big ask as games have been screened at 12.15am, and an even bigger ask if you’re under-18) or settle for seeing the goals on SBS news the following evening.
This is in stark contrast to the Australian Tennis Open and its numerous warm-up events which are all free-to-air. No wonder the nation seems more engrossed in a tournament we had little chance of winning this time around, as opposed to the Asia Cup where the Socceroos have a genuine opportunity to go all the way.
This is a tragedy. Football Federation Australia has fought hard to get us into the competition, a competition which several of our neighbouring federations have made it clear they don’t want us in on account of us not being an ‘Asian’ country. But with only having 1.6m subscribers and an estimated penetration of 34pc of the population, what is the point if only 1/3 of Australians can watch us compete?
This analogy extends through to the A-League, Australia’s national soccer competition, which Foxtel has exclusive rights to. With no live games or extended highlights available free-to-air, crowds and revenues are struggling. And they pale in comparison to the AFL and NRL. In terms of participation soccer is the bigger code even in this nation. But in terms of fan-base, revenue and genuine interest, the A-League doesn’t come close. Sure the AFL and NRL have games screened on Foxtel, but their main matches are free-to-air, many of them live. Apart from the W-League (the national women’s league) there is no Australian soccer screened live free-to-air. Is it any wonder then that no one other than a few hardcore soccer fans (many of whom have Foxtel) have any vested interest in the league?
If this is an issue now it could be a much bigger one for future generations. How can we realistically expect kids (those whose parents don’t have Foxtel and who can’t afford to go games) to grow up dreaming of playing in the A-League and pulling on the green and gold? How can they dream of it if they’ve never grown up experiencing it? If they barely know it exists? Are future generations even going to care about the game on a national basis?
The FFA might be making big bucks inn the short-term but they have to look at the bigger picture. Foxtel has done an admiral job putting its money where its mouth is and backing the game and they should be commended for doing so. However, the FFA has to draw a line in the sand during upcoming broadcast-rights negotiations and ensure that all major Socceroos matches are screened free-to-air. It must also take this further and ensure that at least one A-League game is screened live and that there is a highlights package made available on terrestrial TV. Failure to do so might be a lucrative decision for the FFA in the short-term, but further down the track it could sound the death-knell for soccer in mainstream sporting Australia.
Paul J. Laverty is one of the men behind the Immovable Feast blog.