Sport //

Freeballin’

Samuel Chu on why sport on TV should be free

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One day in the July break, I was woken up at five in the morning by my little brother to watch the final of the European Football Championships. Portugal beat host nation France thanks to a late, long-range strike from Eder, who had ironically been dubbed the “striker who rarely scores” earlier in the match.

Disappointingly, the final was one of only eight matches in the tournament that my brother and I were able to watch live on SBS; the others could only be viewed live through Foxtel. All SBS managed to slap together was a daily sixty-minute highlights reel – pretty slack for the network whose broadcasting priorities have spurred “Sex Before Soccer” as a reimagining of its acronym.

SBS’ paltry coverage came as a surprise to my Foxtel-devoid household, which expected a similar broadcast schedule as for the FIFA World Cup, that is, “all matches live and free on SBS”.

So why was this case? The answer: Australia’s increasingly relaxed anti-siphoning rules.

Australia’s anti-siphoning rules, part of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, are clauses that stipulate that sporting events deemed to be in the “public interest” must be first refused by free-to-air (FTA) television networks before they can be taken up by pay TV providers. This essentially allows FTA TV to call first dibs on events including the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, and the NRL.

But only those events on a ‘list’ created by the Act are subject to this process, and currently, the European Championships do not appear on it.

So far, the anti-siphoning list has done a reasonable job of keeping access to sport equal, but it is under increasing threat. Foxtel and governing sports bodies have recently lobbied successfully, in the name of “promoting market competition”, to shrink the list (see timeline), helped by the vagueness of the term “public interest”.

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Subscription TV penetration in Australia currently stands at 27.6 per cent. When sporting codes restrict viewing access to this small subset of the population, they benefit from the increased flow of royalties in the short-term, but expose themselves to two great long-term risks.

The first is that they jeopardise youth participation rates and the future of their sports: kids play the sports they watch on TV. The second, is that they galvanise the link between socioeconomic status (SES) and participation in physical activity, that is, poorer kids play less sport.

Further shrinkage of the anti-siphoning list will deprive low-SES young Australians of sports, and sport stars, to worship. In the context of a populace growing wider and more sedentary, the government cannot afford to continue along its path of capitulation to the interests of greedy pay TV.

The Government then, should maintain a robust anti-siphoning list. Doing so is as much in the country’s physical and mental health interests as it is mine and my brother’s, who just want to watch the Euros live and free.