As we woke up to 2016, we had a brilliant article from Joe Gorman in the Guardian expressing the tide of failure and ineptitude of our governing body. One of his biggest criticisms was reserved for the handling of SBS and the Daily Telegraph.

It sparked my attention of how Perth Glory's bid to enter the NSL was on the proviso that the governing body moved the games onto commercial tv. These discussions are now being repeated. The question is posed how important is SBS to Australian football? 

In presentations at conferences in Melbourne and Perth I have outlined the bid arrangements that Arena Investments required in order for a new club out of Western Australia. In April 1995 it wasn't all about Perth wanting to get a side in the NSL. David Hill had won an election on it and knew he could transform football with Perth on the governing body’s side. There were, however, three key outcomes that Nick Tana and Paul Afkos wanted assured before they would sign up to the NSL after Hill won the election as Soccer Australia Chairman on the 17th April 1995.

  1. A concession of not having lights at their ground which had been a NSL requirement because of the summer heat. 
  2. A concession on not having a major stand that held 2,000 people because of the lack of venues suitable in Western Australia
  3. That football was to be played on commercial TV to branch the competition into 'mainstream' Australia  

David Hill and Arena Investments were very close. They had a vision of transforming Australian football; Hill with his high profile and Tana with his football brains would etch a deal that would allow Perth to enter the competition on its terms. 

After years of waiting, Tana wanted to be sure that the entrance made commercial sense. It was not simply a desperate plea to be part of the national competition. 

When David Hill signed the contract with Channel 7, it would have been heavily lobbied by Perth Glory that a move to a commercial station was necessary for their business strategy. This contract has been heavily skewed in its analysis by football historians of its national impact because research has looked at it in terms of the Seven Network hiding the game on the east coast.

The opposite was the case in Western Australia. In fact, it was the commercial TV contract that helped create the surge that was termed 'Glorymania' by those in the west. 

Glory Days was broadcasted weekly for 30 minutes and hosted by Basil Zemplias while Bernd Stange was a household name on Channel 7 with ‘Perthanalities’ Rick Ardon and Susannah Carr falling in love with the charismatic German. 

The Channel 7 deal worked in Perth in the early stages but on a national level was a dismal failure. It also hid our national team from a wide spectrum audience. In Western Australia it formed the catalyst for the 350,000 viewers that watched the major semi final in 1999; Perth Glory had become a beloved sporting entity on the west coast. This was all shaped by the new audiences the game was televised into. Channel 7 was incentivised to cross live to training sessions and to build the game up in the west. 

But the aims in 1996 was to have a flagship club that would create a professional competition in the space of four years. The agenda was to ensure that Perth Glory would be that club that would spark growth nation wide. It was also of upmost priority for Arena Investments that it occurred in order for them to pump money into a crisis hit league. 

In 2015 similar thinking in terms of TV rights growth is being stimulated within FFA headquarters. The processes behind the Glory 's NSL entrance is shaping the FFA's agenda. 

Crowds in the modern era are not the priority. The central aim is TV audience growth so that you can subsidise the poorer clubs, regardless of crowd size. It is the strategy of all the major competitions. If TV rights grows, we can afford to bankroll clubs that get into trouble. The AFL, NRL and Super Rugby all have the same strategy. 

Nick Tana, who had been isolated at the beginning of the A-League and which eventually resulted in his withdrawal from ownership of Perth Glory, is now in correspondence with the FFA on growing the game and he should be. Having voices like Tana inside the organisation is critical, but it also must be balanced. 

The processes and the environment of 1996 in Perth is vastly different to 2015 in Australia. A football mad region of inner Perth which had been working on an NSL side for the best part of a decade had erupted in enthusiasm. Similar to what had occurred with Western Sydney Wanderers, the Glory Mania shaped Soccer Australia and it is now guiding, to some extent, principles around commercial sustainability within FFA headquarters.

But should it? These are the questions we need to ask. But we can't ask them unless we know why these processes are occurring. 

In terms of the FFA's apparent strong relationship with the Daily Telegraph, this is also the process Perth Glory entered into. Roger Lefort as General Manager created a relationship with the West Australian which would at its peak employ three football journalists. In 2015 the paper no longer has a dedicated football scribe. This relationship today can be described in its most positive terms as ‘awkward’. 

But it was Lefort's relationship with the west and their communication prior to the opening game that gave a massive boost to the Glory in the inaugural years of the club. 

It is these experiences that are influencing conversations within FFA. They may have credence but we must also see that the processes involved in these decisions were part of the needs of Perth Glory and its commercial objectives. Is this of critical need to drive TV rights growth in Australia in 2015? 

There are two sides to this sword. We can look at the fact that people tuned into watch Perth Glory on a non-commercial ABC in 1999 in bigger numbers than many games did in proceeding years on Channel 7. But did they all tune into the ABC because they captivated people from commercial TV? We will never know. 

In policy terms we have to look in a more thorough and whole of football ideology to understand whether commercial TV is of the upmost priority for growth in the game. Nick Tana certainly believes this, but in any choice the governing body makes there will be consequences. 

The relationship with SBS suffered after the Channel 7 contract was signed in 1998, and it did cause damage for the game. But it did achieve the policy objectives of David Hill and Nick Tana to get a flagship club to drive change through the creation of a professional league. The profile of Glory was entrenched and its relationship with Channel 7 brought unprecedented media coverage of the club which has enabled it to have one of the A-League’s richest sponsors, QBE Insurance, to sponsor them for the best part of 20 years. 

From the NSL to the A-League the club is associated with the brand. Can this be achieved nationally to create further commercial sustainability for other A-League clubs? Football in this country has very few sponsors that have been dedicated to a club for such a long period of time. This may be part of the agenda that has FFA so determined to sign a commercial tv partner. 

However, there is no doubt that over the past decade of the A-League there has been decisions made that have been based on ideology rather than commercial objectives.

South Melbourne at Bob Jane Stadium, 1999. Coach Ange Postecoglou is seated in the middle of the centre row. (Name the others for a special commendation by tweeting @myfootballtoday).

Its dismissal of South Melbourne's entrance into the A-League was bound by its objections to its cultural affiliation to the Greek community. South Melbourne clearly has an A-League standard facility at Lakeside and would have no ground management costs based on its agreement with the Victorian Government. Based on a commercial strategy, you do wonder why there has been so much opposition to the club entering the A-League. On this basis, it is easy to question the FFA’s capacity to make decisions on the best commercial basis. 

Can we also not look to the K-league, J-League and MLS to see what are other strategies to grow TV audiences that will entrench the code into the future? There may be more negatives in leaving a football loving station at the sideline for the future of the game in this country. But we do need to have this discussion. 

As Steven Lowy mentions, it's a balancing act running the game in this country with consequences for the code on every decision they make. It has to be sure that  positives always outweigh the negatives and that commercial policy looks at outcomes from across the globe.

There are many questions to pose, but in order to work out the right pathway ahead, it's important to understand why FFA is thinking the way it is; why the administration is implementing its current trajectory of isolating some media broadcasters and embracing others.

It may be new football, but the legacy of the past shapes the game today and will into the future.

Edgar (Perth Glory) and Sarova (Sydney United), 2001.

Categories: Opinion | A-League | Football Business

tv rights, perth glory, nsl

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