The Lost Years

Publication Date: Monday, 10/11/2011

For me, they are the “Lost Years”. The years when a sport was not shown on free-to-air television, and broadband internet didn’t exist – at least, not in my house – for us to view highlights or games on demand.

For the NBA, these years began in the late 1990s and ended a few years ago now. The MVP years of Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Allen Iverson passed me by – it’s like they never existed, Shaq and Kobe never actually played together, and the ’99 Spurs handed the trophy straight to their ’07 colleagues. For the NBL, it’s even worse. As there is so little media coverage of Australian basketball, and as players turn-over relatively quickly, when it re-appeared on Channel One this year, Mrs EPO and I recognised but a few players in the league despite having regularly attended Wollongong home games from 2003-2005.

Similarly, since Les and SBS stopped showing Premier League highlights on a Monday night, I’ve completely lost contact with the league. Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Viera are still running around for Arsenal in my mind.

I raise the Lost Years at a time when the way we watch sport in Australia is in a state of relative flux: the anti-siphoning laws have just been restructured for 2011; James Packer, who owns 50% of Fox Sports, has purchased a 20% stake in Channel Ten which some assume is in part to sabotage or remove ONE HD from free-to-air television altogether; and the broadcast rights for the AFL – the country’s most lucrative sports broadcasting contract – are currently under negotiation.

In the age of broadband and our newly-formed 15 free-to-air channels, there are many reasons to be hopeful that the world of Foxtel won’t win out in the immediate future of sports broadcasting. In fact, let’s hope this for two groups of people: casual and obsessive sports fans.

Let’s start with the more obsessive-folk. To subscribe to Pay TV for 12 months with a package that includes the sports channels, it would cost you $720 a year (not including the initial installation). Of course, along with the sports channels, you score a massive number of other channels screening a range of stuff that is quite probably irrelevant to your life, however you don’t have the option to only purchase viewing on a channel-by-channel basis.

Many sports are now providing a far better service through the wonders of broadband. Take the NBA, for example. For $140 per season, you can buy yourself a “League Pass”. This provides you with: live coverage of every game throughout the season, on demand coverage of every game (Want to start watching a game even though it’s already started? Sure! Want to pause a live game? No worries! Just want to watch the final quarter of yesterday’s game? Start watching whenever you like!), and the ability to watch 1, 2 or 4 games at a time on your screen.

Yep, for less than the cost of a year’s subscription to Foxtel, you could have this type of coverage of all 4 of the major US sports (indeed, if you’re willing to wait 48 hours to watch the most recent NHL games, access to all of them will only set you back $5 per month). Oh, and unlike the lengthy contracts that Foxtel forces its subscribers into, you can access most of these online services for a month, a week or even a day if you’d prefer.

And it’s not just US sports. Pay $25 and you have live coverage of up to 8 courts at Wimbledon. $80 and you have the year’s major squash tournaments or $130 and you have a year’s worth of non-Grand Slam tennis. And Fox Sports itself appears to realise that this is the way of the future – you can pay for their online coverage of the EPL and watch the matches they have access to on demand without having a TV subscription with them. Yep, there aren’t many sports left where you’d say “I signed up to Foxtel to watch [insert sport here]”, as the broadband deals are far superior.

Arguably more important, though, are the casual fans. And here, I don’t just mean people who watch sport occasionally, but I also mean fans of sport in general who are only going to pay attention to [insert sport here] if it’s freely available rather than having to search it out or pay for it.

After 10 years away from the sport, the NFL’s return to free-to-air tv hasn’t captured me the way I’m sure it still would had it never disappeared. Instead, its time has been taken over by a greater familiarity with netball and the WNBL.

Time spent living in Victoria means that rugby league is well away from our consciousness unless the players are named Folau or Hunt – in fact, we’ve watched more of the VFL than we have of the NRL during our 5 years in Geelong.

To a great extent, this is not the fault of the pay-tv stations or those who create the anti-siphoning list. In fact, it’s the sports themselves. If the AFL score less money, but can ensure that their sport is beamed into northern states at a reasonable time – even on a digital channel – then it will provide a much greater opportunity and likelihood for casual fans to pick up the game. It’s the same with the NRL in Melbourne and is the great hope of the NBL. Here’s hoping that the lure of Fox’s cash isn’t so great that it continues at times to prevent this from happening.

Take my 9-year-old nephew who has shown some interest in the Premier League recently. Without his parents paying for some access, he will not be able to see a full game. No wonder the kids at school talk about the Champions League rather than the Premier League.

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