When the ABC confirmed it would be axing its W-League broadcast as a result of Abbott and co.’s $259 million budget slashing, my immediate response was not ‘Really? I can’t believe they did that!’ but ‘Of course they did’.
Women’s sport generally, and the W-League specifically, would have been the first and easiest victims to pick when Mark Scott and his cohorts were forced to implement drastic cost-saving measures. They are, as women’s basketball star Lauren Jackson once noted the ‘sacrificial lamb’.
No question I’m pissed at the axing. It reeks not just of budget belt tightening, but also of wider inequality issues. Whether it’s that they have to play with little to no pay, go without any broadcast coverage, or that they’ll have to play a World Cup on astroturf (or all three, as is the case with Australia’s female footballers), sportswomen are constantly being asked – nay told – to lump things no sportsman ever would.
The single, solitary boon to this broadcast axing travesty is that it represents an opportunity to finally get women’s football broadcasting right. While I’m grateful for the ABC’s W-League coverage to date, it’s never truly suited the league or the audience.
First, the ABC has only ever been able to allot time, money, and airtime to one W-League match per week, which makes it completely and utterly impossible for anyone to gain a full picture of the league or follow their team.
Second, those broadcast games are largely determined prior to the season’s commencement. The schedule doesn’t easily adjust to the results, meaning the most adrenalin-thumping, finals-determining matches are often played out in a visual black hole while a dead rubber is arbitrarily broadcast. This frustrates avid fans and does nothing to attract new ones who will change channel, unaware that the match they’re seeing isn’t indicative of women’s football at its best.
Third, social media waits for no time zone, yet the television broadcast isn’t always live. Take it from currently Queensland-based me: an hour delay is an eternity. And there’s no point tuning in when you’ve already accidentally heard the score via social media, which is virtually impossible to entirely block out these days.
Fourth, most fans will recall the pesky timing of a certain golf competition the ABC covers and which always seems to coincide with the W-League semi finals. The piss-poor result has always seen the W-League coverage shafted (annoying fans who very reasonably turn on their televisions at the usual time only to find golf instead of football) and a sub-standard, condensed ‘highlights package’ shown later in the day long after the games are over and the results are, via social media, well and truly spoiled.
Fifth, the W-League generally kicks off its games between the oppressively hot hours of 1pm and 3pm. This may have something to do with having to fit within the only available timeslot the ABC has for them because it’s certainly not in the interest of the players, the fans or of producing good football. Remember the last time anyone played a cracking game of football in 40-degree heat? Or the last time any fan enjoyed sitting in said heat to witness and support that game? Yeah, me neither.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) released a statement saying they will “work with all broadcasters to explore options to ensure the ongoing coverage of the W-League”. First up, no other broadcasters are truly interested in taking on the coverage. And by that I mean going all out, heavily promoting the game and investing in it and its future, not showing a token game here or there. There’s never been a bidding war. It seems the ABC has only ever really been showing the league as an if-no-one-else-will-I-guess-we-will favour.
Fox Sports has previously shown some of the double headers and has apparently said it will consider picking up where the ABC will leave off. But even if it does, the locked-down nature of pay TV, available only to those who can afford it, isn’t a viable long-term solution for expanding audiences and the sport. Women’s football needs to be freely available to all.
Also, television broadcasting isn’t the current answer or the coverage future. Seriously. Forget television broadcast rights. Or have them, but only if they are one part of a wider, more accessible broadcast strategy. We need to be able to view women’s football on the device we have handy not that the broadcaster prefers – that means a television, a computer, or an iPad, or a combination of all three.
Because the solution to the women’s broadcast issues is simple. So simple, so immediately possible, in fact, it’s galling.
Of every single W-League game (and Matildas game, while we’re at it).
Without delay and without region restrictions.
Based on research I’ve done around A-League pre-season matches, live streams cost as little as $700 per game. Add approximately $250 for a commentator who knows their football stuff and you’re looking at just shy of a $1000 outlay in total for a match.
Those live streams can be, and have been, embedded into clubs’ websites, drawing more eyeballs to the sites and offering greater opportunities to engage audiences and pump up those website analytics to attract potential sponsors and advertisers. At four games per weekend across 12 weeks plus finals, we’re looking at broadcasting the entire W-League season for less than $50,000. In the world of football that’s small change.
As a side note, the ABC has always had the capacity to live stream games.
The irony is not lost on me that the W-League broadcast axe comes down at the very time when broadcast coverage of the A-League is expanding.
There’s now a dedicated Fox Sports football channel (Fox Sports 4/Channel 505). You can see selected A-League games on free-to-air TV every Friday night, without delay. That’s on top of the fact many A-League pre-season games were live streamed. I mean, really, what do pre-season games count for other than whetting our appetite to watch more football?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t live stream/free-to-air broadcast the men’s matches, quite the contrary. It’s just especially galling when clubs and the FFA can find and stump up cash for nothing games and yet can’t and won’t find it for the actual W-League season itself.
And for the Matildas games, while I’m at it, the team is ranked in the top 10 in the world. The Socceroos are 94th and predicted to further slide to 101st – triple figures! – in the FIFA rankings released later this week. Yet the Matildas’ games are rarely broadcast and every single one of the Socceroos’ are. Even when they fair nearly bore us to death eking out a nil-all draw with the United Arab Emirates.
Provided they’re done properly (not region restricted), live streams also offer enormous potential to engage international fans. It’s worth noting the US women’s football league has often made live streams available to those of us tuning in, sleep deprived, from non-US time zones.
We’ve had, and continue to have, some top-tier female footballers coming to play in the W-League. Game-changing Megan Rapinoe and Ballon d’Or-winning Nadine Angerer immediately spring to mind. Yet we’ve to date ignored and alienated overseas fans keen to follow their favourite players’ endeavours and, by proxy, become fans of the Australian league and Australian players, by locking down content for Australian-based eyeballs only.
As someone who’s been overseas for three of the W-League’s frustratingly short 12 rounds, I can attest to how goddamn frustrating it is to not be able to follow the W-League from afar.
The chicken-and-egg issue all along has been that W-League attendances are low, that the W-League doesn’t earn clubs/the FFA money. Those attendances won’t improve until people can see the games. Money will only follow accessibility. I’d argue they shouldn’t be worrying about getting bums on seats in stadiums so much as fans in many locations, and then concentrating on making money from things like merchandise sales. A case in frustrating point: despite there being a market for it, it’s still impossible to buy a Matildas jersey.
So, while the ABC’s forced-hand decision to scrap its token W-League coverage is monumentally crap, it’s one that yields opportunity. The broadcast deal has never suited the W-League or its audience, and has hindered rather than helped the W-League grow its profile.
The question isn’t what to do about the vacuum left by the ABC’s broadcast axing, but will the FFA and the clubs do what they should have been doing all along and go down the path of restriction-free live streams?