The following may read like a love letter to a TV network. That’s because it kind of is.
To understand why Australia reveres a television channel and why it is so synonymous with football, it’s crucial to look outwards, toward our politics, our immigration policies, our struggle between pushing assimilation and embracing multiculturalism, and our sporting culture overall.
Australia’s population grew rapidly thanks to post-World War II immigration, particularly from the UK, Ireland, Central and Southern Europe (or countries whose people fit the White Australia policy).
The policy was dismantled during the 70s and Australia finally allowed non-Europeans to come to the country, including tens of thousands of refugees following the Vietnam War.
The death of the policy created a need to move away from assimilation and towards multiculturalism.
That’s where the birth of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) comes in.
In 1979, ‘Ethnic TV’ began as a TV show on Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, and then morphed into its own entity, SBS.
Joe Gorman, the author of The Death and Life of Australia Soccer, details the first episode of the sports program on Ethnic TV, hosted by Andrew Dettre:
‘Hello, and welcome to the very first sports show on Ethnic TV,’ he had said. ‘For the first item on our program let’s turn to the most popular sport in the world – soccer, football, fussball, calcio, call it what you like.’
The seed was planted.
Ethnic TV and its final form, SBS, were there, on free to air television, to act as both a little slice of home for the immigrants and a tool to help quash stereotypes and promote multiculturalism.
With the beauty of hindsight, we now know that the third purpose for SBS was to act as a home for the world game.
Johnny Warren, an icon of Australian football and former captain of the national team, became not only a media personality but a face of the sport. He made it his mission to show the average Australian that football was something they should care about.
One of the chapters in his iconic book Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, is titled ‘Australia’s Best Coach: SBS’. It begins:
SBS, Special Broadcasting Service, or as it has been jokingly referred to over the years, ‘Soccer Broadcasting Station’ or ‘Soccer Bloody Soccer’, has singularly been the most influential organisation on the development of football in Australia.
Yes, Johnny Warren worked at SBS, but any bias present is generally outweighed by the fact that his statement contains more than its fair share of truth.
SBS became a place where people were exposed to football from every corner of the globe.
It was a teacher of the game, not only to kids born in football-loving families but to Australians who knew nothing about the sport until they stumbled across a game on SBS.
It allowed the immigrants to watch the teams they followed back home or the teams they had formed which made up Australia’s National Soccer League.
For some, the fact SBS spoke football, soccer, fussball, calcio was comforting considering Australia has a few of its own football dialects in the form of Aussie Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union. It became a way to keep in touch with football more broadly considering it was seen as such an oddity here in Australia.
SBS fulfilled its purpose as a home for the world game exceptionally well every four years with their passionate and detailed coverage of the World Cup.
Even though football is viewed as a weak, foreign game with inextricable links to post-WWII immigration (even though there’s evidence the game has been in Australia since the late 1800s), SBS knew it was important and have treated it as such since 1980 until the present day.
They also knew that the tournament itself was bigger than Australia’s absence from it; Australia qualified for its first World Cup in 1974 and wouldn’t qualify again until 2006. Once Australia did make it back to the World Cup, SBS was there doing what they had done for decades.
For me, there’s always been an assumed knowledge that SBS was fundamental to Australia’s relationship with football and that I directly benefited from the years of hard work put in by SBS.
So I asked people on Twitter to share their stories about SBS and how it shaped their love of the game.
For some people SBS was their introduction to football when their location had the potential to prevent them from ever being introduced:
I can tell you that growing up in rural Queensland in the 90s, SBS was my only connection to football. In a dry, dusty landscape where there are two kinds of football — rugby and league — what I saw on SBS was a different world. European suits and high emotions! It was a window into the rest of the world through sport. So this is what they like out there…
Maj, also from rural Queensland, spoke of how without SBS, they never would have bought an Alan Shearer poster and consequently been hooked for life.
For others, geography was the biggest roadblock:
I grew up in Alice Springs before SBS was available in the Northern Territory. My grandma used to record world soccer in Adelaide and send me the recordings at the end of each month.
I think she recorded a few different things for my parents and also did the soccer for me (and dad).
Location was only one of the common themes among the stories people shared; the biggest recurring threads were that of migrants and family. For the kids and grandkids of migrants, SBS serves as a connection to family but also a way to gain a little understanding about where their families came from.
One woman wrote:
It reminds me of cosy Sunday afternoons at my grandparents watching ‘The World Game’ and getting an education about football as a child. It’s waking up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and finding my late grandpa sitting on the floor of the living room enamoured by a live game from somewhere far away.
Being on free-to-air meant it was always accessible; her grandfather could put on games and share something that was important to him with his grandkids.
Another man had a similar story:
SBS’s football coverage was really the starting point for me understanding what it was like to come to this country and follow the sport you loved. Not to mention understand the world outside of your English speaking household.
Of all the stories I was told, Alen’s embodied what SBS’s purpose the most. His family arrived in Australia in 1996 from Bosnia. While he quickly integrated into Australian society, his family missed their own culture. And that’s where SBS and France 1998 came in:
The 98 World Cup was special for us. Croatia had an absolute dream team with Šuker, Prosinečki, Boban et al. My dad would wake me up in the middle of the night to watch it on our grainy TV. For some reason we could only get either the vision or the audio clear, never both. Something to do with our aerial from memory, but that worked well for us, as SBS Radio also had commentary in Croatian. So we’d watch it on TV on mute, with the Croatian commentary blaring via SBS Radio. Ended up watching every match [Croatia] played with my dad and that’s how I fell in love with the game. My old man passed away last year so this is the first World Cup without him. But I’ll always have those 98 memories!
It wasn’t just the continental European migrants who were helped by SBS. I had two English migrants tell me how important SBS’s coverage of football was to them:
As a relatively new immigrant to Australia (here 10 years this August) I still found SBS a haven of football when I first arrived. That couple of hours of programming [on SBS] was like an oasis in the dessert of strange sports I didn’t understand. As a Pom in my general life there was no actual language barrier living here but it felt like there was one because I spoke ‘football’ and not that many people I spoke to in my everyday life spoke it. But SBS did.
This person acknowledged that being an English immigrant to Australia is almost as easy as it gets, but SBS helped them adjust and would’ve helped countless others who didn’t have it as easy.
Ben lived in England until he was nearly five but SBS provided him with his first real football memories:
Growing up, SBS and football were pretty much the same entity. My Monday night ritual after I came home from school was always dinner, followed by playing football with my dad in the games room, followed by Toyota World of Sports with Les Murray at 7pm, followed by the highlights show at 7.30pm.
While being English and playing the game were undoubtedly influential in his love of football, Ben credits SBS as the most important factor.
For some, SBS is the reason they are football fans at all. Whether that be casually, like journalist Daniel Cherny who calls himself “a casual soccer fan” but credits SBS as the reason he cares at all, or obsessively, like Copa 90’s Eli Mengem. Eli’s twitter bio includes the phrase ‘Born+raised on the 1 & only @sbs’; a statement which isn’t hyperbolic in the slightest:
Whilst most people fell in love with the game through a club or player, my introduction to football was without a doubt through a television network. With the 2002 World Cup hosted in Japan/Korea, matches were aired at family friendly times and for a young teen falling out of love with his local AFL team and deeply in love with the idea of travelling the world to learn about other cultures, the likes of Senegal x Sweden and Korea x Spain kicking off right as you got home from school couldn’t have come at a better time.
The World Cup taught him about people, cultures and countries he didn’t know existed and his obsession with the world game grew, all while being nurtured by SBS.
That obsession turned itself into his role with Copa90, who have produced one of the best explanations of Australia’s World Cup history and the night we qualified for the 2006 World Cup.
Eli wasn’t the only one who experienced SBS as a teacher of football. Another said:
For me personally, it was incredibly formative as I never would have been exposed to the amount or the variety of football that SBS used to show, even if it was just highlights. I have such fond memories of recording the game of the week on the VCR and waiting for my dad to get home from work so that we could watch it together. SBS is so unique as it kept the football flame alive here, not as a profit making vessel but rather a labour of love.
Watching that huge, like three-hour World Game broadcast on a Sunday really opened up how truly international football is. In a country where football was routinely left off the sports report completely, and we’re fenced in by AFL, League, Union and cricket, every Sunday Uncle Les would lift up a heavy curtain, and reveal a sparkling vista of football that stretched on into infinity. Shit was magical, and completely invaluable.
And for Ben, SBS was not only a teacher of football who always got the coverage right, but the creator of a community:
On more of a societal level, SBS’s cultural importance is so profound because of how it ties together migrant groups. They all bought into the channel as a whole and that meant that the audience formed a collective community that came from a part of the world that loved football. I think it is that community that might be hard to define, but definitely exists now.
We see that community during the big, important moments in both sport and life. At the qualifying game in Sydney versus Uruguay and in mourning Les Murray’s death and I’m sure on countless other occasions, that’s what SBS has built through its broadcasting of football.
Beneath all this love for SBS is an underlying question: is Australian football’s relationship with SBS unique thanks to our history and sporting landscape? Or do other countries’ football fans also have a reverence for the TV network that broadcasts the game?
Chloe, who grew up in Malaysia until she was around 10, was able to shed a little light:
Unless it was a HUGE event, sports was not on free to air and we didn’t purchase the sports package [on Pay TV]. People would go to cafes where they’d show it. So when we moved here to Australia and I found out soccer was on SBS — it was like a godsend. If it wasn’t for SBS, I don’t think I’d be this into soccer now.
Others shared their thoughts on the question, generally coming to the same conclusion. Shane said:
In terms of accessibility and quality of coverage, along with a relative lack of partisanship, I think we actually had it better for so long with SBS than many football-centric countries where the World Cup coverage is awkwardly scattered between different free-to-air networks or confined to pay TV or streaming services to some extent.
While Eli believes that the relationship between Aussies and SBS can’t really be replicated in other countries where the game is mainstream and thus coverage is omnipresent:
With its dedication to broadcasting and celebrating the game as often as possible, SBS served as a counter culture to the traditional Australian sporting media landscape, and that combined with the obscure hours matches aired in Australia, created a special bond and sentiment with the audience that football fans in traditional football communities will never have. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Among all these stories, you’ll have seen the name Les Murray mentioned a few times.
He was the face of football in Australia for so long. His mellifluous voice is a major part of the soundtrack of Australia’s footballing history.
This year will be the first World Cup without him after he passed away in late July last year. Even though we knew he wouldn’t be front and centre of the coverage this time around after he semi-retired in 2014, there is still something strange about a World Cup on SBS without him.
Even without Les, the SBS broadcast will be different thanks to its limited showing of the tournament.
The World Cup was meant to be available through Optus—a telecommunications company—who would stream every match of the tournament (which people could access for $14.99 AUD a month) with SBS broadcasting only 25 matches on free to air.
However, streaming issues plagued the opening days of the tournament. People were livid. It became such a problem, the Prime Minister of Australia called Optus’ CEO, urging him to sort it out. #Floptus became a popular phrase almost overnight.
The pressure to deliver was enormous and ultimately, Optus and SBS came to an agreement that allowed the latter to broadcast more of the group stage as a way to compensate for the troubles Optus encountered, while the former fixed what they could.
SBS is now showing 41 out of 48 group stage matches. The original schedule would have seen them broadcast only 15.
For the Round of 16 and beyond, the original broadcasting plan will return (assuming Optus’ issues don’t also return).
While Optus provoked the ire of Australian football fans who had become accustomed to watching football on TV, the telco has the rights to the Women’s World Cup next year as well as the English Premier League until 2022 (with SBS simulcasting a match of the week). This kind of disruption to traditional football consumption is set to become the new norm.
What effect this has on Australia and football long term remains to be seen. But whatever the football broadcasting landscape looks like in the future, you can’t deny just how much SBS has done for the game here.