Politicians need to give TV audiences a sporting chance

US streaming giant Prime Video has acquired the Australian broadcast rights for all ICC cricket events until the end of 2027.

US streaming giant Prime Video has acquired the Australian broadcast rights for all ICC cricket events until the end of 2027. Photo: TND/Cricket Australia

The federal government is desperate to identify ways to ease the cost-of-living crisis and most involve making tough choices. But there’s one very easy win within reach.

The proliferation of subscription streaming TV services such as Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and Apple TV has dramatically increased the cost of watching television content that used to be free.

Many Australians are paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year for access to sport, drama and movies. Four in 10 Australians under the age of 30 have had to cut back their subscriptions due to the cost of living.

The streaming services argue they have provided additional choice to the market – but what happens when they start acquiring the really special sporting matches and events that have always been free and accessible to everyone? 

Australian households struggling to make ends meet may soon have to pay to watch nationally significant sporting broadcasts such as the NRL or AFL grand finals – but this can be avoided with the right rules in place.

A unifying force

The government could make a real difference to households by further expanding the list of sporting events that must be shown for free – and by making sure people who watch TV on demand have access to them.

Sport brings us together like nothing else. We’re often reminded we live in fractured times. We don’t know our neighbours. We’re alienated from our communities. We’ve been siloed by social media into customised echo chambers. 

But the exquisite thing about sport is its power to transcend all this. We were reminded of this for a beautiful moment last August when the Matildas united us as Australians.

In the days that followed the historic World Cup quarterfinal penalty shoot-out against France, millions of conversations about the match between acquaintances, colleagues, and strangers were struck up. 

But sport’s unique power only exists if the big games are freely accessible to all Australians, on all devices. You can’t expect that an entire nation will pay to share a big moment. 

But that’s the path we’re now on. 

The global giant international streaming platforms are buying up sports rights around the world and locking them behind paywalls.

Amazon, in particular, has been on a spending spree, snapping up Premier League soccer matches in the UK and NFL games in the US.

It has already left its mark on Australian sport by snaring the exclusive rights to men’s and women’s International Cricket Council tournaments until 2027. 

Given their massive size, corporations like Amazon can easily afford to distort our local market by paying loss-leading prices to shut out Australian free-to-air broadcasters.

Cricket or soccer, but not both

So you can see where this leads. Different sports controlled by different pay-to-watch streaming platforms, requiring families to shell out hundreds of dollars a year to watch them all. 

Parents affected by the cost-of-living crisis may literally have to choose between letting one child watch Australia play soccer or letting another watch Australia play cricket. They won’t be able to afford both. 

This is bad for Australians and bad for the sports themselves, which will lose viewers and grassroots participants. 

This is why the England and Wales Cricket Board ended an exclusive deal with Sky Sports in 2017, fearing the paywall was making it ‘the richest, most irrelevant sport in the country’. 

To its credit, the Australian government has recognised it needs to act. The problem is it’s bringing a 1994 solution to a 2024 situation. 

The existing ‘anti-siphoning’ rules stop traditional pay TV from exclusively acquiring big sporting events. The government is now seeking to extend these rules to subscription streaming platforms like Amazon. 

But the proposed law only requires free TV channels like Nine and Seven to be offered the rights to old-school terrestrial TV – and not for online streaming.

The anti-siphoning rules are supposed to ensure that every Australian can watch our iconic sporting events for free, no matter where they live or how much they earn. But under the new rules, people who watch their free-TV services online are left out of the equation.

There is no requirement for free coverage of our major sports to be offered in the online world.

This is a mammoth oversight. Soon a majority of people will watch their free-TV through digital streaming. In fact, most new homes and apartment blocks don’t even have antennas installed. 

When the Matildas played their World Cup semifinal against England, for example, almost a million people watched on the 7plus streaming platform.

Pay, pay and pay some more

As a result of that freely available digital coverage, the Matildas were able to bust through sport’s glass ceiling and become national megastars.

Could anyone seriously argue this would have been possible if the only way to watch them was via a pay-to-watch streaming service or an old school antenna? 

By 2027, half the country will be accessing their free-TV through the internet on platforms like 7Plus, 9Now and Ten Play. And unless they can find a traditional TV antenna set-up when big sporting moments arrive, they will be locked out from watching unless they pay an expensive subscription.

In other words, millions of Australians will be denied free TV if this bill isn’t adjusted to be made fit for the modern, digital world we live in. That will only add further pressure to the cost of living.

The government still has time to get this rightIf it fails, the magic and unifying Australian sporting moments of the future will only be enjoyed by those who can afford access.

Bridget Fair is CEO of Free TV Australia and has previously held roles with Seven West Media the ABC, SBS, and in private legal practice. She is a former chair of Screenrights and was a director of OzTAM, Freeview and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism & Ideas.

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