A Telstra-free way forward for the AFL

If the AFL were to create its own digital platform, it could cut Telstra out of the equation, giving itself more freedom to prepare for the upcoming wave of digital change.

The American NFL struck an online sports broadcast milestone last week. Just over 2 million unique viewers tuned into the internet live stream of the Superbowl, making it the most-watched single-game sporting event online.

The webcast was a joint venture between TV station NBC and the NFL. It was geared towards enticing extra viewers through additional content and gave fans the ability to pause and rewind the game, view different camera angles on the fly and have access to expert commentary through a Twitter sidebar on the screen.

The webcast paled in comparison to NBC's proper telecast of the Superbowl, which reached a grand total of 111.3 million viewers. Yet NBC and the NFL were still happy with the outcome. Kevin Monaghan, the managing director of NBC said the stream “exceeded their expectations in every way”.

The NFL example shows that there is another option the AFL could explore to better protect itself from future copyright furore.

The Superbowl broadcast demonstrated that there is some success to be had with sports organisations creating their own digital platforms and using partnerships to sustain it with content. It could be the best digital strategy playbook available to the AFL.

Currently the AFL only sells the rights to other groups to use, and profit from, its content and branding. The AFL employs a media team to create both written and video content which is displayed on Telstra’s websites.

If the AFL were to create its own digital platform, it could cut Telstra out of the equation.

And it may just be worthwhile for them to do so. A Telstra spokesperson said the Bigpond conglomerate of AFL sites – the AFL home page, Dream Team and the team’s websites – were: “the most popular sporting website in Australia” during the sporting season.

The added advertising revenue the AFL would gain by owning its own sites may be incentive enough for the change.

To implement this plan, the AFL would need to create its own network of websites, and develop a means to distribute the content. This doesn’t mean it needs to do everything alone. It could form partnerships with other companies to make up for the skills shortfall. But, the AFL would need to take a more active role in managing and distributing its content. Much like the NFL did with the Superbowl.

The AFL already has a team of content makers that would be able to fill the site, so the change may not be as drastic as it seems. 

Technology analyst firm Ovum suggested the move in a report outlining its stance against the government intervening in the court's decision on the Optus case.

BuddeComm Analyst, Paul Budde agrees that the AFL should break away from its arrangement with Telstra.

“If you don’t have the foresight to innovate, others will and you will miss out,” he says, citing Apple’s takeover of the digital music industry as an example.

Budde’s golden rule with technological change is to “follow the customers.” And in this case Budde says the AFL owning its own platform will give the league more content options when catering to its fans.

He says the move to a digital platform will not guarantee the AFL will be immune from technology further undercutting copyright, but it will give the league more flexibility in how to deal with new technological challenges.

Telsyte technology analyst Chris Coughlan was not as keen on the idea of the AFL divorcing itself from Telstra.

Coughlan says the AFL’s current arrangements with the telco mean that it can offer a service that, for mobile subscribers, does not impede on their data usage or charge them extra for HD streaming.

Coughlan adds that with mobile and internet-based TV on the rise, the league would need to deal closely with a telco anyway to ensure that its product reached its audience and that it is affordable.

We approached the AFL asking for details on their plans for digital content. They refused to comment, citing the Optus court case as a reason for not discussing the issue.

The AFL has led a 35-year partnership with Telstra, and last year the AFL signed a four year contract with the telco, so it seems unlikely that anything drastic will happen soon.

But shifting profits and technology may have the ability to dissolve or at least alter this long-standing partnership. As Budde says: "You can't stop technology, you can't stop the tsunami from coming". It's now up to the AFL as to whether it will ride this wave or continue to fight against the currents of change.