Australia chief confident of A-League appeal

MELBOURNE - Australia's football chief has dismissed suggestions the ailing domestic league faces an uphill battle to sell the game to media buyers after a rival football code sealed a record A$1.25 billion ($1.34 billion) rights deal last week.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) are expected to kick off negotiations next year for a new deal after the current seven-year A$125 million agreement with Premier Media Group, pay-TV provider Foxtel's controlling body, elapses in 2013.

While Australia's international matches attract huge interest, the domestic A-League may prove a much tougher sell amid declining crowds and financial difficulties that have dogged the competition in recent years.

By contrast, the Australian Football League (AFL), who run the professional league for the country's popular indigenous football code Australian Rules, have sealed a five-year deal up 60 percent on the previous A$780 million agreement.

The deal, which includes live broadcasts on both pay-TV and free-to-air networks and digital broadcasts on the Internet and mobile devices, kicks off in 2013.

"I think (the AFL) extracted a wonderful result for their game. It augurs well for sport in general," FFA Chief Executive Ben Buckley told Reuters in Melbourne on Thursday.

"There's still a strong appetite for sports' rights. There's a rapidly evolving media landscape now.

"I think it's up to sports to be able to demonstrate to companies that own those media platforms that we can provide value and I think football is in a really good position to do that."

Harold Mitchell, one of Australia's most prominent media buyers and chairman of new Super rugby side Melbourne Rebels, told a business lunch on Wednesday the FFA would be hard-pressed to get a similar increase from their current deal.

"I rather suspect right now football has a big job ahead of it to be able to say to major networks and to pay-TV companies: 'We need more money. Why? Because we want it.'

"You won't get it... It's the same with rugby, where we have a lot of work to do," added Mitchell.

FURY COLLAPSE

The FFA's bargaining power may be further crimped by the National Rugby League, who are due to announce a new rights deal to replace the current agreement worth some A$90 million per annum when it expires at the end of the year.

Buckley brushed off the notion that the A-League could be crowded out of the rights market, and defended the FFA's deal with Foxtel despite the limits on the game's exposure.

"We're confident that we'll get a good outcome in due course. We have another two years to run on our own agreement with Fox Sports," he said.

"Without that agreement, without the investment that Fox Sports has made, the game wouldn't have achieved what it's achieved over the last five or six years.

"I think what's important is that we can demonstrate to our existing partner and any other interested parties that football has a great future in the country and we would be a good investment and we think we can do that."

The FFA turned down a revised A$42 million-a-year offer in 2009 to continue with the pay-TV provider, when administrators were bullish of expanding the league into a 12-team competition, according to local media reports.

Since then, North Queensland Fury have collapsed and the league has decided to shelve plans to add a second Sydney-based side for the 2011/2012 season.

A number of other clubs remain on financial life support from the FFA, who in turn have drawn millions in funding from the federal government.

Despite pundits crediting the A-League's improved product on the pitch, the FFA have decided to delay its season kick-off from August to October to avoid clashing with the AFL and NRL's postseasons, local media reported.

The FFA have been slammed by local media for expanding the fledgling league too quickly, but Buckley stopped short of saying the governing body had mismanaged its development.

"I think you can always learn from decisions that we've made. Those decisions were right at the time. Certain events unfolded that disappointed us," he said.

"I think we need to take stock, we need to take a breather, we need to assess the landscape.

"I think what's important is that we have to make some considerable investments - we have to effectively stabilise the 10-team competition that we have today, that's what's really important."


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