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  • Ian Cohen

Is Australia's approach to sports rights immature?

Is this week’s Superbowl and the NFL TV rights deal pointing to the possibility that Australia’s sporting media and the clubs and codes involved are still immature when it comes to promoting the game?


Not the people within the sports, but the Australian approach and the limitations we place upon ourselves as media operators.


Are we big enough to allow a little competition for the betterment of the sport?


In comparison to our bigger cousins across the pacific, it seems we are not – instead we bicker and fight about who can go where and when, gloat over access into change rooms, invent reasons to showcase our ‘TV rights’ and in the end work only to their own dedicated market.


This narrow minded and almost toddler style attitude of ‘that’s my toy, you can’t play with it’ means we don’t get any real diversity, our choices are limited, and the games are not grown. Sometimes rival networks are not even allowed on the real estate around the stadium who’s sports rights are with another network, let alone inside to cover the matches or promote the game.


By way of example, in the NBA the media are ALL allowed in for the shoot around 90 minutes before the basketball match – the local country station, all the way to the network broadcasters, and everyone understands it is for the betterment of the game. However, given the Superbowl is upon us I want to home in on the two football codes – our own AFL and NRL as compared to the behemoth that is the NFL.


The Cozalive Media team was fortunate to spend some time with the New Orleans Saints (and the Dallas Mavericks) 12 months ago, and we got a direct understanding of the openness and access that simply has not been explored here in Australia, where the approach of jealously guarding rights is still seen to be paramount.


Davis Friend, New Orleans born and raised, started interning at the franchise as a 15-year-old high school student and is now the Football Communications Coordinator, and the transparency and openness of the media access also applies to the teams where there is little to no surprises, and no pretence of the ‘ducks and drakes’ selection smoke screens that coaches and clubs attempt here.


“My week starts on a Monday morning and this week since we are hosting a game, I started a flip card which is a big roster card that has our depth chart and the other teams depth chart (see attached, basically explain who is playing where and how ‘deep’ the roster goes to 2nd, 3rd and 4th string players – courtesy ESPN) where I explain that information with my counterpart and this week it’s the Falcons so we discuss how that’s going to look and I put the whole thing together and ship it off to him for approval. After that we have coaches press conference for everyone, some players come in, we have an open locker room scenario as well.”


We then have accreditation for the nearly 140 people from the opposition, so he sends me those names, and I have to make sure all the names and numbers for access are right as the NFL looks over all of that and want to know who everyone in that stadium is. And we have the broadcast media on a Friday, a network production meeting ahead of the Sunday game, so I bring players upstairs to where the commentators and producers can talk with them about the backstories and how they are travelling and that gives a real personal aspect to many of the players and comes across in the broadcast.


The NFL has SIX different broadcasters, including social media giants, who all deliver the game in slightly different ways. Some broadcasters have exclusive access to particular days/nights and build their audience via weekly delivery. And under the new $100B USD inked in the last two years, the broadcasters even share the Superbowl on alternate years, with no singular network dominating it for decades.


But one key and very mature differential is that each broadcaster actually promotes and highlights what is coming up, or has happened, on other networks. There is no childish “don’t mention the other channel’ type behaviours, and subsequently the game is better off as its story gets told across a range of platforms. It is so refreshing to hear a CBS commentator promote a blockbuster Monday night game on ABC without the walls caving in. They actually point to each other’s content and keep the games momentum on the move, not just their own stations.


In Australia Foxtel does provide some point of difference, and while the indications are that the cable provider is looking to change this, currently many of the games on Foxtel have the commentators and production of the free to air (FTA) network that is covering the game – so in essence little to no difference other than some studio hosting pre- and post-match. But this will change in 2025 when Fox gets an opportunity to broadcast all nine AFL games with their own commentators. At this stage the NRL Fox coverage is yet to broker the same deal, but it already has more matches than the Nine network.


But the bickering by FTA stations is so plainly obvious, they generally do not even take each other’s coverage to deliver news packages on matches (unless its exclusive) – they will instead take the middle ground of Fox’s sporting coverage as it is seen not be direct competition! Watch your news service next time, be it 7, 9, or 10.


With streaming platforms like Amazon Prime and YouTube already in play in the annual $20Billion AUD US NFL market we can expect a similar incursion here, which will again change viewing habits from the older legacy stations to new age digital media digestible to a younger audience. The big question is will they continue the isolationist Australian approach or take on the ‘broad church’ American style.


As a note on US broadcasts, the NBA has two broadcasters that contribute nearly $4B AUD, Major League Baseball has four including Apple collectively tipping in over 43B AUD and the NHL with funds of just over $1B AUD tipped in. by two networks. So you can see the dominance of the pigskin and shoulder pads game, similar to the way the AFL and to a lesser extent NRL dominate out nation.


Much of this huge rights deal environment is actually sheeted home to our own Aussie Rupert Murdoch who shelled out around $2.7B AUD for a four-year NFL deal to secure the game for his emerging FOX network back in the early 90’s. Basically doubling their value overnight!


The other notable difference in maturity is player and coach access. While our networks preciously guard time in the change rooms for the rights holder TV first, then rights holders for radio and print next, there is no allowance for non-rights holders to get into the changeroom and interview any player they want.


In the US the teams still have to nominate a coach and key player (usually the Quarterback) to front an all-in media conference post-match, ANY media has access to change rooms and can interview any player they desire – and that ranges from local community stations and publications to national networks who are NOT rights holders. They are nit restricted to club supplied content or ‘all-in’s.


That’s why you see players, some half stripped or in towels, talking with the media and a plethora of microphones and recorders in their face – and they don’t mind this or complain about it, and being American they are generally articulate and considered in what they say.


So, the message gets out there, the conversation is on so many more levels, but it does make it more challenging for journalist to get exclusive content, so they have to work harder and formulate tight relationships


Senior reporter Mike Triplett is in his 18th season covering the Saints. He has written for the local paper, ESPN, and is now contributing to new online site


“There is no off-season, their simply isn’t – the appetite for Saints news is insatiable – in February when they are making transactions, In March when they are signing free agency in April when there is a draft, in May and June when they have simmer camps, July when they have a training camp……and sometimes the off-field news is bigger than the on field news depending as to how good the team is going”


But the access does make it tougher to get and exclusive story – ‘ In any area of this business ideas are paramount – unique ideas and approaches, research and asking questions no one else thought to ask, but yeh sure sometimes you want to get the person off to the side, so everyone doesn’t hear you – especially in the age of Twitter (now called X), you know you might have a great idea or great interview and then before  you get back down to sit at your computer and write the story three people have already tweeted it out, so now it will be old news by the time it appears on my platform or publication”


“But access is the number one thing that allows me to do my job as a story teller, access in the form of getting to interview these players, but especially when we have an ability to really sit down and gain insight and maybe they share their parents number, or a high school football coaches contact, they are the best stories – and that goes hand in hand with the access that we can get, behind the ropes and spending a week or a day with someone”

Davis on managing the access – “Most of the people who are here today have been covering the Saints for a long time and relationships are built on trust and journalistic integrity – bit as far as managing  it, yes we do get some requests and they have to be legitimate, so you can’t just start a podcast and ask to get in you have to have some legitimacy  to your outlet and publication, so while it is open, it is open to a certain level”.


The NFL’s own media access policy has some strict terminology and dictates amazing access like “Clubs may not put assistant coaches off limits to the media and may not unreasonably withhold permission for coordinators or primary position coaches to speak to the media’. And that “Head coaches must be available to the opposing team’s media each week via conference call. A weekly player conference call with opposing team media is at club discretion.”


And if players and team personnel do not speak, then they risk incurring the wrath of the NFL and fines that total hundreds of thousands of dollars – even on the players mega contracts that still stings! And while Covid put a temporary stop to locker room access, and could easily have been a reason to stop the practice altogether – it is back and stronger than ever.


However they do call for a ‘sensible’ self-editing of what the media can shoot within those lockers rooms, as outlined by the Ravens media policy “INFORMATION IN LOCKER ROOM & COMMON AREAS Any information intended for players, coaches and staff that is posted in or dispersed throughout the Ravens’ facilities (such as memos/notes in lockers or building signage) may not be reported, photographed or captured on video. Additionally, media must refrain from reporting or displaying personal information, effects or products that are in a player’s locker.”


And another thought for another day – does this openness and growth allow for the fact that the privately owned teams in this sport do not even need sponsorship on their strip, and are beholden to no one but their owners and their fans – not ‘nickel and dime’ companies paying to be on the fabric, no betting agency controversy, no conflicts of sponsors, just clean shirts and a booming economy around the sports.


It grows out of the staggering coverage of college football and goes all the way to the top.


This year at the Superbowl, watch the post-game field get flooded by media (some of which will be Australian correspondents) all vying for a feature interview – it is not just ‘rights holders’ but is instead an open invitation to local, national and international media to promote the game. Maybe that’s why it is now worth as much as what it’s worth – even before the ‘Swifties’ got interested in playbooks and running patterns.


So can Australian media learn a lesson (yes!), or should our codes start dictating a more open philosophy that a ‘rising tide floats all boats.’


Have your won look at how it unfolds -  review the USA Pro Football Writers association guidelines have a look at this link – simple, clear, very open and considered

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