One fans plea to the AFL to improve its service.

Australians are, as a group of people, well known for a love of travel and equally for a love of footy. I’ve been overseas for nearly 10 years, and like many ex-pat Australians, have found it difficult to follow my club, the code, and the game during this time.

This is to be expected: we’re not in the country, and being a domestic league, it’s not surprising that coverage is limited overseas. However, the desire to keep up with footy and with your club, is not curbed through geography. The ultimate expression of this enthusiasm is watching live games. Live sponsored scorecards are fine, live radio streams fill a gap, but as a spectacle, and as a mainline into the heart of the game, nothing comes close to watching a game broadcast live.

It is no surprise then, when the technology is available, that people will use it to access broadcasts of live games; typically through Peer2Peer streaming networks or through BitTorrent networks for archived material. But, as reported in the Australian papers recently, it is these avenues that the AFL is looking to close down, 3 weeks from the end of the season, and at the start of the finals.

Its worth pointing out, that despite of the the ‘fog of war’ created by the pursuit of file shares by RIAA in America, or the Pirate Bay court case in Sweden, the motivation for majority of fans trying to access content, in this case, is not born out of a malicious intent. Nor do they do it through some vengeful desire to extract retribution from your organisation, or to try and swindle cents per capita worth of advertising revenue. What they are, are fans, who are just trying to watch football. What they are doing is using whatever means necessary to do it.

What this situation highlights is that there is a gap in the market here, a gap, that over the last 10 years, the AFL has continually failed to do anything about. In fact, the coverage you provide for overseas fans has been, frankly, pretty abysmal over the years. The fact that you are bothering to crack down on people trying to remedy this lack of service, means that these activities must be perceived as some threat to your revenue. If not, then it may be perceived by some as an excessively mean spirited guarding of your content for no appreciable reason at the expense of fans of the game.

Rather than leave it there, I would like to go over what I feel are the major issues with the current broadcast situation in order to show why people are migrating away from current avenues of watching AFL and moving into live game telecasts through P2P streaming services. The exact same services you are wanting to crack down on.

Live services to the UK are inconsistent and piece-meal

In the UK, your overseas partner for delivering live AFL game broadcast is now ESPN, who acquired the rights from Setanta who went bankrupt. And like Setanta, ESPN provides pretty piece-meal coverage averaging about 2 games each weekend and a paltry highlights package during the week. This means that 6 games a week are not telecast, around 75% of the content is not available to watch live.

There is no consistency in programming either: you never know which game is is going to be telecast. Match of the round status means nothing and its just as likely to get a Sydney v Melbourne clash rather than the St Kilda v Geelong blockbuster. Moving away from specifics of each round, what this coverage means for for a fan is that on average, you can get about 4 live games a year….if you’re lucky. Think about that, 4 games a year. If you wanted an idea of the motivation of why people stream games, then this would be enough for most people.

Access to archive games is poor

Your online delivery platform is through a site called, Aussiesport.tv is rubbish. A couple of years ago you decided to ‘outsource’ your online delivery component to this organisation. If you thought Telstra was bad, this mob takes the biscuit. Their over reliance on Windows Media player for delivery provides such a hamstrung service that its almost unusable and is seemingly more concerned with rights management than delivering content to fans.

The most amusing part is that the homepage of their site highlights some sample content, which is nothing like what the real service is like, hampered by its god awful implementation of Windows Media player.

Telstra’s current level of service is rubbish.

Your technology partner, Telstra is, well… rubbish. When the broadcaster Setanta went under earlier this year, you provided live games through Telstra Bigpond. Excellent I thought, until I tried to use it. It was hopeless, poor stream quality, the content continually buffering and never actually playing.

It’s worth at this point comparing this service to what other industry leaders are doing, who also provide cross platform, robust video content over the internet.

Youtube is the first that comes to mind, and they do it very well, through a Flash interface (for the video content, not for the entire site as Telstra currently do now for Bigpond video). The Youtube site also works for the Firefox browser, something that Bigpond video site fails to do. I understand that there probably was a business decision taken somewhere to provide a site that the majority of fans can access, e.g. for Windows IE users. On the surface it would seem to make economic sense to spend the development cash on the majority user base. However, this is a false economy that happens time and time again. Sites that cast their net judiciously wide enough and develop for as wide an audience as possible tend to develop better and more robust platforms. Maybe it’s because the focus of the site is to provide a good service and that artificial limits provided by a business case, can in fact inhibit development rather than focus it.

The BBC also take a similar approach with their incredibly successful iPlayer service. Both provide geo-location controls to authenticate users in the UK. The BBC has to do this as their content is free to people in the UK (who pay the licence fee).

Another commercial broadcaster in the UK, Sky.com, have an excellent service imaginatively called SkyPlayer. It uses Microsoft’s Silverlight, as an interface to deliver their video content. It provides geo-location, and decent user authentification (a bit buggy at times but their support was pretty good). I saw Australia lose the Ashes through this service and paid, like many Aussies I know, for the privilege.

Rather than just sink the boot in, here is what I perceive as some of the benefits that introducing a live service may offer:

Increased revenue

Targeted Ad serving is the obvious choice here as a revenue stream. Geo location of users would also provide much more streamlined ad serving mechanism and also improve on revenue.

A subscriptions model should also not be ignored. It will not kill off the threat that P2P poses entirely, but providing a robust and solid stream, will mean people will pay for that option rather than the the flaky streams provided by other means. You could also introduce a tiered system, professional organisations, pubs in the UK for example, could pay an increased charge for higher quality streaming. Would they do it? Well, some already do now, and they’re not paying you for it.

Perhaps a mixture of a subs and advertising model may not be the best option, but the point is, providing a legal way for fans to access to games does not mean ‘giving your content away for free’.

Promote the game overseas

For every press release I read about emerging teams coming from Soweto to Tokyo, what better way to promote the game to an overseas audience, than to give them access to it. This alone should, in most peoples eyes, be reason enough to broadcast the game for free. Many people in the UK like the game. They all remember Channel 4 showing games on Saturday morning, which was almost 15 years ago! Yes, 15 years! And we’re talking the real English here, not expat Aussies, still remembering fondly, games of AFL that were broadcast over a decade ago.

Start something important in your organisation.

The development of technology that provides live games for overseas fans to enjoy, I am sure will benefit the AFL domestically. There is no doubt that people will continue to watch more and more TV on their computer. In fact, the line will be blurred when your TV is your computer monitor, and IPTV is more mainstream. As a content generator, why not follow the music model, and start laying the foundations for delivering your own content.

However, let’s not lose site of what’s going on here. P2P streaming services, provides live access to games for overseas fans. Current ‘live’ services do not adequately fulfill this, providing either only a fraction of the games or at such a poor quality that even flakey P2P streaming is better.

Cracking down on these services, whilst not providing an alternative, can be viewed as punitively protectionist to a fan who doesn’t really care about how the online rights have been negotiated, but just want access to games.

The season has only 3 weeks to run. Please, over the off season, look into this. You have the perfect pathway to do this. firstly, you have over the end of the year and the start of next to get the technology right. Then the NAB cup pre-season to beta test it, ready to launch worldwide for the home and away season.

kind regards

“Golden Boot”

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