Is Watching The World Cup For Free Our Right?

The Optus debacle that frustrated millions of Australian World Cup fans has had many chanting that the World Cup should re-appear on Australia’s anti-siphoning list.

The anti-siphoning list contains a range of sporting events ‘of national importance and cultural significance.’

The scheme was developed before the introduction of pay television in Australia in 1992, to protect free to air broadcasters from their pay television companies poaching the big ticket items of Australian sport.

Under the current rules, sporting events on the anti-siphoning list must be first offered to free to air TV before other media platforms.

The fact the scheme was developed well over 20 years ago is problematic, for few industries have evolved as rapidly and dramatically as the media industry. In the early 90’s consumers were still trying to get their heads around the arrival of pay television.

The sports broadcasting landscape has drastically changed since the 1990s. (Image: Dave Kendall - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Notions of multi-channelling, smart phones, digital media and social networks were simply not part of the equation.

Likewise, over the last 20 years some sports have grown in terms of their national importance and cultural significance, while others have lost their lustre.

For example, at that point in history Australia had not been to the World Cup finals since 1974. It was still very much a case of footy in the winter and cricket in the summer, with traditional sports such as tennis and golf also held in the highest esteem.

International sports competitions such as the EPL and NBA, which are now accessible and consumed via digital platforms, were simply not shown or available as readily and as easily as they are now.

New platforms for sports are exploding but the anti-siphoning list has undertaken few changes. (Image: Getty Images)

Yet, even with the changing sporting landscape and the avalanche of new media products and platforms entering the sports market, until recently the anti-siphoning list has undertaken very few significant changes.

However, last year’s Broadcast and Content Reform Package handed down by the federal government gave us a glimpse of the future of sports packaging.

Gone from the anti-siphoning list were all domestic and international golf tournaments. Wimbledon and the US Open were also given the flick, while the French Open wasn’t on it.

Across the board, international events were significantly reduced. When it came to the World Cup, matches involving Australia and the final stayed on the list, while everything else was opened up to pay TV and digital platforms to bid for.

Of course the backdrop to all of this is the philosophical debate about which sporting events should be acknowledged and endorsed as culturally significant in Australia and accessible for free, against the commercial reality of today’s modern sport.

Which sports are culturally significant to Australia, and should be accessible for free? (Image: Getty Images)

It’s no great surprise the free to air broadcasters want the anti-siphoning list protected at all costs.  As Seven's chief executive Tim Worner stated in 2016: "The anti-siphoning list needs to be maintained, not dismantled, cut back or – another word I have heard used – trimmed. We agree that it should be extended to new content platforms."

It’s a safe bet that fans around Australia would agree.

But the sports themselves are not necessarily convinced this is the way of the future. They’d much prefer an all in bidding war for their product that included free to air broadcasters, pay television providers, telecommunications companies, digital organisations and the world’s biggest social media platforms.

It’s no secret sports are increasingly financially stretched in an ultra-competitive market place and rely on their broadcast rights deals to survive and grow their product.

However, an open slather bidding war may not auger well for free to air networks who are battling against new digital media to attract their fair share of advertising revenues. They only have so much money to give and currently, they’re spending much of it on premium sport to lock in viewers across their various platforms.

Producing sport is expensive, so they need some guarantee the sport will pull big numbers.

So, even if the World Cup was on the anti-siphoning list there’s no guarantee one of the free to air broadcasters would snaffle it up for as remarkable as the event is, here in Australia when the World Cup is played in un-friendly time zones, most of the games are played sometime between midnight and sunrise.

While the first two Australian matches drew audiences of more than two million, the final attracted a metro average of 484,000 fans. Most other matches attracted less. As a point of comparison, the average Friday night AFL audience is almost a million.

Plus, whatever you make of the Optus calamity, rest assured this is only the beginning of large scale international events being streamed via digital platforms, not the end.

This means in the future it’s more likely than not that the anti-siphoning list will further diminish and at some stage most sports, be they considered culturally significant or not, will be streamed via digital platforms, not broadcast on TV.