Television's love of live sport has another happy union to announce as Football Federation Australia is set to trumpet a four-year $160 million broadcasting rights deal with Fox Sports and SBS, beginning on July 1 next year.
Football is the third code to cash in on TV's need for live action, following last year's $1.25 billion AFL contract and this year's $1.02 billion NRL deal.
It is understood Fox Sports will pay about $32 million a year and SBS $7 million to broadcast the A-League's five games a week, including one free-to-air game on SBS, together with World Cup qualifiers.
The FFA's existing seven-year TV deal is worth $19 million a year, meaning the round-ball game has doubled its broadcasting revenue, eclipsing the AFL's 37 per cent increase but short of the NRL's 250 per cent rise.
Football fans will see Socceroos' World Cup home-and-away qualifier games live on Fox Sports and on one-hour delay with SBS. Although the contract officially applies from July 1, four Socceroos World Cup qualifiers - against Oman, Japan, Jordan and Iraq - will be played before that date next year and shown on SBS on one-hour delay.
The new deal allows SBS, which has paid $25 million for all quadrennial FIFA World Cup tournaments until 2022, more than just four weeks' coverage every four-year window. It can now pitch to advertisers its year-round coverage of the world's most popular sport, produce preview and review shows and cement a relationship with the FFA as well as FIFA.
The new Fox Sports-SBS arrangement is a minor technical breach of Senator Stephen Conroy's anti-siphoning laws, which insist that the Socceroos must be shown first on free-to-air TV.
However, the one-hour delay is a realistic solution, given the fact the Minister for Communications was forced to grant the sport a dispensation in 2005 because pay TV was the only broadcaster interested.
The FFA's windfall comes after record TV ratings and crowd figures, following its decision to start the A-League season in October, clear of the shadow of the AFL and NRL finals series.
Fox Sports is convinced it can convert those AFL and NRL fans uninterested in cricket to continue their subscriptions over the summer, rather than churn and renew with the enticing deals Foxtel offers in March.
''Soccer can become a summer sport in Australia and give pay TV year-round consistency of football,'' one analyst said.
The fact there are two teams each in Sydney and Melbourne means the biggest cities in Australia now host a game a week, plus they produce derbies.
TV ratings have risen this season from an average of 65,000 viewers a game to 95,000. The match between Sydney FC and Newcastle, featuring the A-League's two highest-profile drawcards, Sydney's Alessandro del Piero and the Jets' Emile Heskey, was the most watched A-League game ever, with 164,000 viewers, confirming football's boast that the superstar with the ball on his foot can bring a city to its feet.
A-League ratings are still small compared with NRL and AFL but the FFA and TV chiefs are confident they will rise as more young players develop, international stars are signed as marquee players and popular Socceroos return when their careers with European clubs conclude.
''It's an investment for the future,'' one executive involved in the negotiations said.
The record broadcasting deal was the final task of outgoing FFA chief executive Ben Buckley, who switched across to football from the AFL, where he was a pivotal figure in the AFL securing its previous $780 million deal over five years.
Buckley will be replaced by former NRL chief David Gallop, who will start at FFA headquarters on November 13. Gallop faces an immediate challenge reconciling the monetary demands of A-League clubs with the ambition of his hands-on chairman, Frank Lowy, who believes TV revenue should sustain the FFA, while the privately owned clubs must fund themselves.
The gap between the FFA's annual distribution of $1.9 million to A-League clubs and a salary cap of $2.5 million is already narrowing and, with crowd figures rising by 20 per cent, private owners have the confidence to invest in the sport.
Brisbane Roar has become a commercial success, following two premierships and the investment of an Indonesian owner. While Melbourne Victory has had a dismal start to the season after last year's Harry Kewell lift, Heart's form offers promise.
Unresolved before an official FFA announcement next week is the programming of SBS's one A-League game a week.
The FFA is tempted to follow the lead of the AFL and NRL and schedule its free-to-air match of the round on Friday nights but Saturday evenings have been the A-League's big ratings winner.
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
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