Bumper deal a boon for AFL, but not everyone’s a winner

If outgoing AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan was looking for a way to cement his legacy as a sports administrator, inking a seven-year broadcast rights deal worth $4.5 billion was the way to do it. The windfall should guarantee strong growth for every aspect of the game, from the grassroots to the elite level.

After months of wrangling, it was hardly surprising that the league stuck with the current contract holders Seven and Foxtel. What was surprising was the ability of McLachlan and his team to retain the incumbents but extract more than $600 million a year – a goal it had set itself. Many had considered that an ambit claim. It also put to rest the talk that the increasing cost of sports broadcast rights had become unsustainable.

The deal, signed on Tuesday, also sends a strong message that while a generational shift towards streaming services has eroded live TV ratings, Channel Seven still sees value in paying big money for content on its free-to-air channel – with some help from 7plus, its video-on-demand offering. Meanwhile, Foxtel, which has also been hit hard financially by the influx of streaming services, is banking that it has secured its future with the deal.

McLachlan spent a good deal of time on Tuesday spruiking the deal as good for the grassroots of the game. For those backing the inclusion of a Tasmanian team, the broadcasting deal is a shot in the arm. The extra revenue will go a long way in reducing the fear that the financial cost of another team would weigh down the league. If the AFL is to be a truly national sport, then it is time for Tasmania to have a team to support.

For players, this will also be a financial fillip. The average men’s wage this season is $389,000. That will increase to $500,000 under the new contract. For AFLW players – who this season were given a 94 per cent increase in salary, lifting the average wage to $46,280 – the extra revenue should help in the stated goal of the AFL Players Association of enabling them to become full-time players by 2026.

Most importantly, the league’s announcement last week that it would spend a minimum of 10 per cent of annual funding on community football now looks far more generous.

But not everyone is a winner. Those supporters wanting to watch their football live and free on a Saturday night will find it’s no longer be possible for the first eight weeks of the season. In the developing states of the north, the Swans, Lions, Suns and Giants will each lose three live games on free to air. Fans of West Coast, Fremantle, Adelaide and Port Adelaide, however, have retained the status quo for free-to-air games overall. As The Age pointed out recently, this is potentially a problem: in the states where the AFL most needs to build a new audience, the barriers to entry are highest.

Some have suggested this deal is the last hurrah of an old era. The next contract for the broadcast rights of the AFL will not begin until 2033, and there is every possibility before then of another seismic shift in viewing habits, brought about by new technology or some other disruptive force. It was only seven years ago that Netflix arrived in Australia, and look at the revolution that heralded. For a younger generation, watching live TV has become a rarity.

This new seven-year broadcast deal locks the AFL into a mix of technology that could well be antiquated before it comes to an end. By then, McLachlan and the people who negotiated this enormous deal are likely to be long out of the picture.

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