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This week the "exclusive negotiating period" enjoyed by Nine and Fox under the existing TV rights agreement ends. It is extraordinary that an agreement that is widely regarded as grossly inadequate gives the rights holders a three month exclusive period to negotiate!
But that is how it is.....and that is how it must not be in the future!
Roy Masters in the SMH on Saturday advanced the possibility that the Seven Network might bid on its own for all eight games, and then on sell some to Fox.
It would be able to share its own coverage between its main channel and its digital channel. In the southern states, it shows the four AFL games it has the rights to on its main channel, and then shows the same games on its digital channel in the northern states. It could do the reverse with rugby league, and in the process give Nine a real run for its money in the negotiations ahead. Fox is simply going to have to put in a strong bid for at least four games live a week.
The ratings the NRL enjoys on Fox continue to grow. Last week's ANZAC Day match was the second highest rating programme on Fox this year - exceeded only by the 20/20 one day cricket final. The NRL premiership on Fox regularly features three or four times in the top ten watches programmes on pay each week!!
The case for rugby league to get the same as the AFL is now getting for its television rights is overwhelming. Rugby league out rates the AFL on free to air and pay TV - but, as Roy Masters highlights, it needs State of Origin to do so! The three Origin games have a cumulative audience of around 11 million.....something the AFL cannot match.
The AFL agreement, now in its first season, is worth around $1.25 million over five years. So far so good.....as I have written previously, but there are a couple of significant hurdles to be negotiated!
The first and foremost is the financial state of the free to air television industry today. It is certainly not as healthy as it was when the AFL secured its record deal last year, and that is a problem. It will be largely offset as a problem if the advertising market place is strong. Sadly, it is not as strong as it was either.
The majority of advertising on sports programmes centres around consumer goods - and we all know the retail market is not in good shape at all.
In summary, we should be getting at least as much as the AFL secured - our overall audience numbers are better. But AFL matches do seem to last an eternity - and that helps when it comes to advertising.
But we are going to need luck, and more than luck, to do so. The "environment" is just not as conducive as it was a year ago. That surely means we must have a competitive negotiation period now.......and that the NRL must let Nine know it does not "own" the game.
And it must also mean that the premiership and the Origin and Tests must be packaged separately, or at the very least valued separately.
Finally, there has been speculation that rugby league may end up only being on free to air television - including the digital channels. That is not going to happen - Fox, which is more profitable that the free to air channels, cannot afford to lose rugby league. And the free to air channels cannot stump up with the $1 billion plus rugby league must demand.....and get!
Sharing the rights is the key to getting beyond the one billion dollar mark.
Let's hope the ARLC can deliver on that - and soon.