Fox fairer to fans but neglects Hodge homecoming

While the relationship between sport and television is typically a reciprocal one, it is the broadcast networks that usually wear the pants.

Sporting bodies around the world are pressured into scheduling games at the behest of their broadcast partner’s demands, with the lure of rights fees and advertising exposure usurping the convenience of those who still like to sit in the stands.

In the National Basketball League’s case, the Wednesday night timeslot on Fox Sports has been a necessary evil. Necessary because it allows the league to escape the competition of other summer sports such as soccer, evil because a mid-week clash is hardly family-friendly during the chunk of the season before and after school holidays.

It’s also particularly evil for those in Queensland, who have been expected to be in their seats by 6.30pm so Fox can maintain its regular 7.30pm timeslot in New South Wales and Victoria. The effect that this can have on attendances was evident in the Round Eight meeting between Cairns and Townsville. While no official crowd figure was given, the number of empty seats was embarrassing for a FNQ Derby which could have sold out the convention centre had it been played on a weekend.

It is appears, however, that common sense has prevailed. Just weeks after the Gold Coast Blaze happily announced that Fox had agreed to push back their remaining Wednesday night games to 7.30pm local time, the Townsville Crocs have struck a similar deal. This is a win-win situation. Fans now have ample opportunity to be in their seats by tip-off, while a larger crowd makes for an enhanced atmosphere and television product for the broadcaster.

This decision bucks the aforementioned trend of networks wielding their power to the detriment of fans, and symbolises a gradual turning point in Fox’s treatment of the NBL. The number of games being shown this year is a significant improvement on last season’s coverage, which didn’t commence until Round Six and included just one live game each week.

There has also been the introduction of regular “every second counts” promos filmed during the pre-season tournament in Darwin, and the decision to replace Steve Carfino with football commentators Brian Taylor and Dwayne Russell has assisted the league in its efforts to “Australianise” the product. Taylor’s wittiness has proven incredibly popular in the AFL and will attract the curiosity of mainstream viewers, although his lack of research and occasional inaccuracies must make some purists cringe.

Fox’s relationship with the NBL still has plenty of room for improvement, however, as all basketball fans will realise on Saturday 5 December. That’s when Melbourne Tigers recruit Julius Hodge makes his much-anticipated return to the Distinctive Homes Dome after walking out on Adelaide last season due to a pay dispute. Sixers fans are known for their passion and hostility at the best of times, meaning Hodge’s reception will make for a compelling spectacle in front of what will surely be a near-capacity crowd.

Compelling for those that can see it, at least.

As it stands now, the clash will only be shown on Rivus TV, a pay-per-view streaming service marred by technical difficulties.

The NBL should have done everything in its power to ensure this game would be accessible to the masses. If Fox refused to increase its broadcast schedule on economic grounds, the league could have asked to swap a future Saturday night broadcast for next week’s showdown. For example, the January 16 clash between Perth and Cairns is hardly going to have fans salivating in their living rooms and could have been sacrificed for the good of the game.

Instead, the only thing being sacrificed is another opportunity to showcase the best the NBL has to offer to a national audience.

Despite Fox’s improvements, it remains an all-too familiar story of neglect for Australian hoops fans.

Fox Sports' improved coverage has been a pleasant surprise, unlike the surprise Shane Heal received when he commentated a recent Snakes game.

Scrutinising the Fourth Estate: A review of the AFL media in season 2009

As the AFL finals draw closer, let’s have a look at how some of the media outlets have performed this season….

seven

The addition of Leigh Matthews has improved Seven’s telecast, as has the end of its ridiculous half-time switcheroo in the commentary box.

 Global Financial Crisis not withstanding, a massive pay rise should also be handed to the bigwig who relegated David Schwarz and Ricky Olarenshaw to Sunday afternoons,  where hung-over  and sleep deprived viewers won’t notice they’re being spoken to by inarticulate buffoons.

Bruce McAvaney’s constant questioning during play suggests he’s auditioning for Eddie McGuire’s gig on Hot Seat (“kicks it to Player X, gee he’s playing well isn’t he? You get the feeling they need one more goal, don’t you reckon?), while someone needs to tell Nathan Buckley that it’s pronounced “isn’t it”, not “innit.”

If Seven can broadcast its talent quests and C-grade dancing contests live, surely it can pay the same respect to football, and it should also return its nosebleed camera to the good folk at Google Earth.

ten

The introduction of ONE HD has given viewers an extra dose of Robert Walls every Monday night, which is sure to curtail the Federal Government’s attempts to promote digital television.  

The channel has also made Julie Corletto and Irene van Dyk household names (what, you haven’t heard of them?) and has inspired little tackers all over the country to erect basketball rings next to their trampolines.

Mark Howard has been a surprise-packet on the boundary line and should permanently replace Christi Malthouse , while Pete Helliar should quit while he’s ahead with his stale “Strauchanie” character. Hey, he’ll have plenty of time on his hands to think of a new gimmick now that Pete and Myf has been given the Robin Nahas from Triple M.

foxsports

It may be off Broadway, but Fox Sports is home to one of the best play-by-play commentators in the business. Brian Taylor is measured and spontaneous with his humour, as opposed to Dennis Cometti who almost forces his colleagues to giggle at his scripted and distracting one-liners.

Unfortunately there’s not much else to get excited about in the network’s commentary box.  Matthew Campbell should stick to spruiking his bookmaking gimmicks, while Dwayne Russell’s predictable commentary really is “enough to make a grown man cry”, with his repetitive expressions (e.g. “Nails it!) and trivial facts.

And has anyone looked more uncomfortable on television than Gerard Whateley on Before the Bounce? Poor old Gerard, who is your in-bed-by-nine type and is accustomed to serious chatter on the ABC, didn’t know what to do when he found himself sitting amongst the blokey banter of Jason Dunstall, Danny Frawley and Damien Fleming.

nine

Footy Classified remains compulsory viewing, although it has suffered from the absence of the Beat the Press segment and regular interview guests.

Grant Thomas is an outstanding media performer and must be recruited by another radio network immediately, while Caroline Wilson appears to genuinely enjoy being on the show.

The only downside is the pretentious Craig Hutchison, who expresses his opinions as if they’re gospel and interrupts the engrossing dialogue of other panel members with contrived conflict.

The Footy Show has improved this year, although it would be even better if Supreme Court judges issued a suppression order on Shane Crawford’s immature antics, rather than worrying about harmless medical records.

sen

Andrew Maher’s elocution has been the subject of much criticism this year, with one letter to the Herald Sun suggesting SEN should give away a bottle of “foine woine at noine” to anyone who can understand him.

 SEN’s refusal to replace Billy Brownless with a new co-host makes the breakfast program sound tired, while The Run Home’s soapbox segment is riddled with cringe-worthy impersonations and in-house jokes.

This blogger has  banned The Good Oil ever since Mark Doran told a talkback caller, who was a South Dragons  supporter expressing his disappointment at the club’s demise, to “get over it” and follow the Tigers.

And is Luke Darcy instructed to leave his personality at the door when he hosts Friday drive with Liam Pickering?

The others:

Triple M’s sliding ratings certainly haven’t been helped by the laconic Hamish McLachlan. Let’s hope Gillon has a job ready for him at the AFL.

 3AW would do well to promote Sports Today producer Bruce Eva to its AFL coverage. Eva’s football knowledge is second to none and he has shown during his time at SEN and NIRS that he’s a competent commentator.

Plagiarise at your peril

 

The New NBL will soon take shape with applications for licences set to open this week. While the interim administration told current owners prior to last month’s vote that any club who could meet the new criteria would be included, the Illawarra Mercury’s basketball writer Tim Keeble reported this week that “it is looking more and more likely next year’s league will feature no more than eight sides…”

 

If this is an enforced maximum, one can only assume that the league, perhaps through the pressure of Fox Sports, is ‘doing a Julie Bishop’ and plagiarising the A-league’s blueprint.

 

Yet, if the interim board were to take a step back and analyse the A-league, they will see that the league’s realities are currently falling short of its perception. This is not to say that soccer is in a “sad, sad state” as Rebecca Wilson’s deservingly criticised article in the Daily Telegraph was titled. It’s ethnic cleansing has tidied the game’s image, it has extracted $140m out of Fox Sports, garnered solid media coverage and the Socceroos now rival the Wallabies and Australian cricketers as the country’s most prominent national sports team. However, the A-league is in a slump. As reported in The Australian, Round 14 was the second consecutive weekend where none of the four games reached the 10,000 mark, while this season’s aggregate is already down nearly 150,000 on 2007.

 

While the league had previously been a strong performer on Fox Sports, there are also danger signs in this season’s television ratings. Take the following analyses of ASTRA’s official ratings figures as an example. Remember the farce that was the Rugby League World Cup, the tournament no one gave a rat’s toss bag about? Well, a live game between Fiji and Ireland had 36,000 extra viewers than the live telecast of that week’s Perth Glory Vs Newcastle Jets clash, or 146,000 more when including replays. 

 

Also, for the week commencing November 16 2008, the A-League’s highest rating game was Melbourne Victory Vs Central Coast Mariners on a Friday night. Yet, it failed to top a “World Series Cricket Classics” filler screening two nights later. For those thinking there must have been more people watching TV on the Sunday night: wrong. There were almost 100,000 more Pay-TV viewers on the Friday night. Speaking of cricket, a Ford Ranger Cup game during that week – the national competition that couldn’t draw a crowd with a HB pencil – had a cumulative reach of 819,000. This was more than triple the Victory Vs Mariners’ 256,000.

 

The significance here for basketball is the main reason for the A-League’s lean patch. Earlier this week, respected soccer scribe Michael Lynch was interviewed on SEN and attributed the code’s halt in momentum to its tired 8-team format. Similarly, Kevin Muscat’s ghostwriter wrote a fluff piece last Sunday in The Age – the Melbourne Victory’s official newsletter – saying:

 

“The A-League’s two extra teams –Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury – have…come at a perfect time. After four seasons with eight teams, people are used to playing against the same opposition over and over again with such a short turnaround between meetings.”

 

This is the true lesson to be learnt from the A-League: eight teams is not a league. It’s a tournament. The unpredictability caused by concentration of talent is nullified by the repetition and predictability of scheduling. Take a look elsewhere to see what constitutes a league: the NBA has 30 teams, the EPL has 20, locally the AFL will soon have 18, and the A-league itself will have 12 by 2012.

 

Will the New NBL learn from the A-league’s greatest flaw, or will it plagiarise it for the sake of appeasing a faceless television executive in Sydney with more dollars than basketball sense?

 

Time will tell, but the shot clock is ticking.