Analysis by Patrick Avenell

SYDNEY, NSW: Later this week, the Federal Government will cease accepting submissions for the direction of the anti-siphoning list, the contents of which are set to be reviewed. Senator Conroy, the minister leading this inquiry, has already flagged his intention to add sporting content to the list, specifically, soccer.

This would be naive move by the new minister, who is already fighting battles on multiple fronts with his internet censorship policy, the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN), and his proposed break up of Telstra. To add another field of conflict to his portfolio, one that will involve the free-to-air stations, the pay TV providers and the relevant sports’ governing bodies – all powerful entities – would be akin to the disastrous Eastern front that ultimately cost the Axis Powers in World War II.

The anti-siphoning list was introduced to keep significantly popular sporting events free to all on the commercial networks, the ABC or SBS. It was a move that ran contra to the spirit of the free market, and it enabled these networks to secure the broadcast rights to events below their true commercial value. This led to sub-par coverage, at times truly awful, of events including Socceroos matches on Channel 7, the Melbourne Cup on Channel 10 and the Ashes on SBS.

Since the anti-siphoning list’s inception, the subscription television networks, of which Fox Sports is the most prevalent, have expanded rapidly, and their coverage of sport is the best in the country. On the weekend just past, viewers were treated to exceptional, commercial free and dedicated coverage of the Socceroos’ fighting draw with the Netherlands, a breathtaking run down the straight in the Caulfield Guineas and the excitement of the world’s best golfers in the President’s Cup.

The free-to-air stations do not have the want nor the resources to deliver such comprehensive coverage. Back when Channel 7 held the rights to the Socceroos’ friendlies, it showed delayed coverage of the team’s match against Ireland, complete with commercial breaks, at 6am in the morning. Since taking over the rights, Fox Sports has committed to showing every game, including pre- and post-match analyses, live. This has included broadcasts from Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Japan and Indonesia.

Senator Conroy has made his intentions clear: he wants to put the Socceroos on the anti-siphoning list. This will mean that one of the networks, most likely Channel 10, through its ONE HD sub-channel, will pick up the rights. Because it’s on the list, they will not have to pay true market prices for the rights, just more than whatever its free-to-air rivals offer. This means that the FFA, which owns the product, will suffer.

And the viewer will suffer too. No commercial station has been able to make soccer work in Australia. Because there are no breaks in play, as in rugby league or Australian rules, it is harder to wedge commercials into the coverage. As it is a nuanced game, it has a dedicated, niche following in Australia, unlike the other football codes, which have mass appeal. This means the analysis will be dumbed down to suit the middle ground, and instead of Simon Hill’s wit and Mark Bosnich’s pragmatism, viewers will get washed-up Socceroos from the pre-Lowy revolution regurgitating clichés and platitudes. Ultimately, the coverage will be unbearable, just as it was when Channel 9 had the rights to the 2002 World Cup.

And then there’s the question of availability. If the anti-siphoning list was intended to keep the most popular sport on free-to-air, isn’t the whole process counterintuitive? If a sport is popular with the mainstream, won’t it be financial viable for a network to outbid its competitors to broadcast it? The answer appears to be ‘no’. The free-to-air networks clearly don’t want soccer, at least not enough to pay for it, but Senator Conroy seems determined to make them show it regardless. And, just as in the Socceroos draw with the Dutch, there really will be no winner.