Has television coverage of the AFL and NRL reached saturation point? Has the seemingly endless TV appetite for our two biggest winter codes been sated at last? And now, sitting bloated and burping in front of the great smorgasbord of televised sport, have the viewers finally said: enough is enough?
Figures released last week indicate that the two biggest winter codes in Australia have suffered significant falls in free-to-air TV ratings this year.
According to The Australian last week, almost 40,000 fewer viewers per match tuned in to watch the AFL this season (telecast by Networks Seven and Ten in a shared arrangement). That represented a drop of 5.5% on the previous year.
Channel Ten copped the biggest hit of all, its average audience falling by 9.4 per cent – or more than 70,000 viewers a game, an astonishingly high number. At Seven, the figures were marginally better. Their audience was down 2.5%.
There was even talk in The Australian that Channel Seven had tried to move its Friday telecast of the Sydney-Western Bulldogs semi-final later in the evening in Sydney and Brisbane, or have it transferred across to Foxtel, in contravention of its agreement with the AFL.
So, what’s going on here? Is this some deep-seated trend revealing itself? Are we falling out of love with our winter codes – or is this some blip on the graph that can be explained away by, among other things, the fact that some of the successful clubs this year struggle to pull decent TV audiences in their traditional markets (see North Melbourne, Sydney Swans, Melbourne Storm etc)?
It will be interesting to see the TV ratings from the two codes over the weekend.
In the NRL, average audiences for the home-and-away season on Channel Nine are down 3.6 per cent on last year, or almost 20,000 viewers per match.
The surprisingly modest AFL crowds over the first two weeks of the finals have reflected this lukewarm TV response throughout the year. Sydney and the Kangaroos drew just 19,127 in the first week of the finals; Sydney and the Western Bulldogs 42,731 to the MCG on Friday night, and then two Victorian powerhouses in St Kilda and Collingwood played to just 76,707 on Saturday night.
It might seem churlish to question that sort of crowd figure but, in an elimination final on a dry night involving two of the biggest supported clubs in Melbourne, you’d imagine they’d draw at least 80,000 or 85,000.
The AFL is hoping to reap $1 billion from the sale of the next five-year TV rights deal from 2012, a 30 per cent increase on the $780 million it received from Seven and Ten (and Foxtel) in January 2006.
It plans to extract this price from the networks by extending the season from 22 rounds to 24 (with the advent of teams in western Sydney and the Gold Coast), introducing Monday night games and forcing TV networks to show more live matches.
But in light of these recent figures, and the slowing economy, I wonder which network is really going to stump up that sort of money. They’d want some guarantees that this year’s viewing figures are an aberration, and that they’re not buying the rights to a sport that has suddenly lost its TV lustre; where fed-up viewers are begging for something other than a relentless diet of football.