There’s been a recurring theme surrounding W-League matches this season. Unfortunately that theme is me, following games on Twitter, thinking ‘damn, I wish I could watch that.’
Why can’t I watch? Well, only one (1) game per round is broadcast on TV. There are occasionally radio calls of certain games, but they are sporadic, and truthfully I’ve never been able to rely on just audio. Getting down to games, even when they’re in your city, is sometimes difficult too. A lot of the teams use multiple grounds and they’re not always in easily accessible, central locations.
Understanding the unpredictability of the W-League would be easier for those of us just getting into the league if GAMES WERE BROADCAST!!!!!
— Marissa Lordanic (@marissalordanic) January 3, 2017
This season the league was able to post highlights packages from all the non-broadcast games, which has been an absolute godsend. I know what you’re thinking. The games are filmed in order to create highlights packages but aren’t available to watch? What’s that about? I’ll get there.
And while the one game a week, the sporadic radio broadcasts, the sometimes-easy-to-get-to venues and the highlights packages are all good, they can’t provide the full picture. I want to be able to immerse myself in the league (and its unpredictability!) like I have with the men’s equivalent for the last six years.
But the lack of broadcasting is so much more than me whining about not being able to view games. How can the W-League grow if no-one can see it?
Where we are
So here’s the current situation. The league has had a long-standing relationship with Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC. This was put in jeopardy when government funding cuts were announced in 2014. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, women’s sport coverage was deemed to be something…expendable.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) then stepped in, as Ann Odong, editor of The Women’s Game, explains: “FFA got in contact with Fox Sports [a pay TV channel which shows the men’s A-League] and struck a deal which would see the one game a week broadcast on Fox Sports and simulcast on ABC on live and free to air TV. That arrangement is paid for and fully funded by the FFA to the tune of almost $500k a year.”
Yep, the sport’s governing body now foots the bill to show just one game a week, ensuring the league has at least some TV presence.
It gets worse, though. Remember the games being filmed but not available to watch?
“Whoever looks after the rights normally gets all the rights, and I mean that’s the ability to stream online and also put it on broadcast TV. It’s been a part of the bone of contention, it’s meant that if clubs wanted to stream the games or if [state] federations wanted to do that they actually don’t have the ability to do so because Fox and previously ABC owned all the rights.”
So FFA pays for one game a week to be shown on two channels in a deal which currently prevents other forms of broadcast.
Where we want to be
Online streaming is the Holy Grail. A combination of streaming and TV exposure is the end goal.
#wleague is entertaining, features star Aussies & quality imports = marketable. Imperative the FFA resources & promotes it appropriately.
— Justin Civitillo (@JC_Kazama) February 12, 2017
This sort of access allows all the games to be watched. And a solid streaming setup would mean there are no limits to the league’s potential reach—with the right marketing campaign, anyway.
If there was any doubt that this works, all we need to do is look to NWSL’s broadcast situation. The 2016 season saw select games shown on FS1 and all games streamed for free through YouTube.
The combination saw positive TV numbers — 70,000 on average with the final reaching a reported 180,000 viewers — but while also allowing fans access in order to “slowly build consistent support” says Nathan Reynolds in a piece on the18.com.
Online streaming allows football to play to one of its strengths — its international appeal. Thanks to YouTube I was able to watch NWSL. Meanwhile, there are women’s soccer fans all over the world who want to be able to watch the W-League. Not many other sports can claim to have the reach of football, so why not utilise it?
Sports, both in Australia and abroad, have recognised the value of having a combination of platforms to show their games, something Odong points out in our phone conversation.
“It’s noticeable that a lot of competitions are trying to diversify what’s available and what a lot of people use now with mobile and mobile communications they have to try and make it as accessible as possible.”
From the NFL using Twitter to stream games to cricket and Australian Rules football using their respective websites to stream the Women’s Big Bash League and the AFL Women’s respectively, diversity in broadcasting is critical.
When will we get there?
Trying to predict change in Australian football is basically an impossible task. The A-League recently negotiated a new broadcast deal, and part of the increased funds from that are expected to be invested in the W-League generally. But any time frame on the W-League getting an improved broadcast deal is unknown.
However, Odong is optimistic about the future:
“I’m hopeful that the broadcast situation will improve. I’m hopeful that there are going to be discussions with people who consume the product to find out what works best considering it’s all about making sure people who are going to watch and engage with it are able to see it. So I’m hopeful for the next season and hopeful that we’re going to think about how best to facilitate that access but I’ll wait and see.”
While improved broadcasting is a necessity, it is not the sole solution. It’s just one part of the quest to grow the W-League. There’s also securing better pay for all players, ensuring teams are subjected to professional conditions (did you hear, sometimes they have to get changed in tents or store rooms) and increasing the marketing of the game so people know the league actually exists, to name a few.
Regardless, FFA needs to open up the W-League to as many people as possible. Potential viewers can only become fans if there is an actual opportunity for them to watch the league properly.