Monday saw the season launch of our flagship summer national league competitions, the ISPS Handa Premiership and National Women’s League. New Zealand Football did a nice job, combining the launches of the two competitions for the first time, and putting together some sharp video content and photoshoots that had a colourful and feel-good factor across social media. It was a good step forward for both competitions.
Monday also saw the release of the draw for the 2018/19 Premiership. Unfortunately, a glance at the draw evidences some big steps backwards when it comes to television coverage of the country’s pinnacle men’s football league. It continues a concerning trend where the league’s presence has essentially worsened year on year for three seasons running.
Yes, we still have one match broadcast live on Sky Sports every weekend. Aside from some Phoenix curtain-raisers (which are pretty good for building the Premiership’s profile), these live matches are typically played at 4:35pm every Sunday. It’s a decent timeslot, and it’s good having a consistent spot dedicated to the league. Bravo.
A closer look at the matches scheduled for television coverage, however, throws up some worrying observations. The Niche Cache did a nice job of summarising:
The number of televised matches per club ranges from six (for last season’s battlers Waitakere United), down to a single match for last season’s surprise package Southern United. Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay, and Tasman aren’t much better off than the southerners with just two matches each.
In a perfect world, I’d like to think that regardless of performance or appeal every team was given similar opportunities for broadcast matches. Reality and ratings dictate that this is probably unrealistic, but the current spread is just… bizarre. If not downright farcical.
Breaking it down into matches broadcast per city shows an equally disturbing trend:
That’s right, a single match broadcast from the South Island. Aside from the Nix curtain-raisers, more than two thirds of the televised matches are played in Auckland.
Tasman United’s enthusiastic crowds create an atmosphere the equal of any other club at their picturesque Trafalgar Park, but you won’t get to experience that live on TV this season.
Three of Southern United’s home matches are scheduled for Forsyth Barr Stadium, as good a setup for a televised match as anywhere in the country – and yet none of these will be screened live on Sky.
It’s understandable that televising matches from these South Island venues is probably an expensive and logistic headache for Sky, that can be lessened by simply filming where it’s easiest (Auckland). But are we actually OK with accepting this? And does this even come close to explaining the disparate spread of matches per club?
These imbalances can have massive consequences. Imagine you’re one of Southern United’s main sponsors. Are you going to be happy that your munificence is rewarded with a single measly exposure on live television? Is this going to assist franchises like Southern that are already up against it with smaller budgets and limited resources?
I do need to add a disclaimer that there are four match weeks later in the season that haven’t yet had broadcast matches confirmed, awaiting the release of the OFC Champions League draw. But I would be incredibly surprised if those matches came close to evening out the blatant disparity we see in the current schedule.
There were some disturbing declines in last season’s overall coverage, most notably the elimination of match highlights packages that were perfect for clubs to distribute across social media platforms.
I’m scared to discover exactly what content clubs are going to have available this season. Will it go further backwards?
The concerns all come back to the deals agreed upon between New Zealand Football and Sky TV. It appears patently clear who the master negotiator is out of the pair.
It’s very easy (and popular) to simply cast Sky TV as the monopolistic, anachronistic bully. It’s also not particularly fair. Sky is simply a business making what they think are the best business decisions. A cynic would have to give them credit for the deal they appear to have struck with NZF.
It’s also unfair on the individuals who dedicate themselves to broadcasting these matches. Anyone who has seen Dennis Katsanos buzzing around the pitch on game-day knows how passionate he is about what he’s doing. Narelle Sindos was a breath of fresh air before leaving our shores. That’s not to mention all of the other talented crew working behind the scenes.
They’re also clearly hamstrung in terms of resources compared to their rugby broadcasting counterparts, and you can’t deny that the footage they do provide is generally of a genuine professional quality.
I also understand why NZF don’t mind the current setup. Many people would be surprised at how under-resourced they are in many areas; again, there is a very small handful of staff across the media, operations, and competitions departments who are constantly juggling a number of balls simultaneously.
It’s easy to understand NZF’s apathy towards drastic change in the broadcasting space. Currently, they can rely on Sky to look after everything. One less ball for NZF to worry about juggling.
The thing is, the Premiership’s clubs would be entitled to demand a high quality of broadcast product, given each club pays at least $25,000 per year for the league to be broadcast on Sky (unless things are different this year? I haven’t seen anything to suggest that). $25,000! You don’t have to be a genius to appreciate how much of a financial burden that is on most clubs in the league.
In total, it’s estimated that approximately $300,000 per year goes into Sky’s coffers for the television broadcasting.
If you can cast the issue of money aside, I personally think it’s good to have the Premiership broadcast on Sky. Their production values lend the league the kind of legitimacy that it’s constantly fighting for. For the same reason, I’m sure that sponsors generally love the idea of having matches on Sky and the potential for nationwide exposure that provides.
But again, how happy are some of those sponsors going to be with the incredibly limited exposure many of them will be getting this season?
And that’s not even touching on the ridiculous contractual restrictions that prevent clubs and supporters from trying to broaden their reach. The clubs pay Sky vast sums and in return lose any ability to stream matches which aren’t even televised. It’s madness, and it’s hurting the league.
The most frequent argument for smashing the shackles of the Master-Slave relationship between Sky and NZF is to break free and allow clubs to independently stream matches. In theory, it seems like the ideal solution.
We’ve seen the entire Futsal National League streamed online through the livestream.com platform. A number of Federations experimented last season with streaming National Women’s League matches (which are outside the scope of the Sky deal), with encouraging results.
The problem is, that if not properly co-ordinated then this would be a mess. Quality and content could end up being wildly inconsistent between clubs. Different hardware being used, different streaming platforms – it would get ugly.
You only need to look at how many clubs miss the mark of the Premiership’s relatively lenient social media expectations to see how poorly it could reflect on the league.
So, what’s the solution?
I believe that we need someone with the right credentials to step-up with a detailed proposal to NZF, to provide an all-encompassing streaming platform covering all Premiership matches in the 2019/20 season.
NZF could commence a public tendering process soon to see what’s on offer.
This contract would require them to have the right people with the right equipment at every venue, streaming to the chosen platform. This would be an appropriate platform with easy access from any PC, smart TV, phone, tablet, or smart fridge (what?).
It would provide a centralised hub that could also incorporate a proper dedicated website – something the league sorely lacks at the moment. More exposure for sponsors – check.
It doesn’t have to try and replicate Sky’s coverage – single-camera with commentary and consistent on-screen graphics would be a more than adequate starting point.
As per the status quo arrangement, it would eliminate the need for NZF to get too heavily involved (bar the inevitable early teething issues). It would be up to the contractor to deal with any day-to-day issues.
How much would it cost? I’m sure many people underestimate the costs that would eventuate from consistently streaming matches to a good standard in this manner, but it’s hard to imagine an overall budget for the league on this basis topping the $300,000 that Sky receive. And it would provide total freedom and endless avenues for clubs to get creative with the content.
At the very least, having a streaming model proposed in detail would provide NZF with a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Sky. At the moment it’s the behemoth broadcaster holding all the cards.
Of course, this is probably all wishful thinking. It just feels like the idea would end up back in the too-hard basket. Even with the current NZF review underway, envisioning drastic change in this space unfortunately feels like pie in the Sky.