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Australia’s Sports Broadcasting Shift & The Anti-Siphoning Debate

Australia’s Sports Broadcasting Shift & The Anti-Siphoning Debate

Australia is in the midst of a major re-evaluation of its long-standing anti-siphoning legislation, sparking tensions between free-to-air television networks and subscription-based services as they grapple with the digital evolution of sports broadcasting.

The purpose of this review is to bring the laws established in 1992 up to date, with a focus on ensuring that key sporting events continue to be accessible to all and are not monopolised by paywalls.

The recent addition of Matildas FIFA World Cup matches to the anti-siphoning list by Communications Minister Michelle Rowland reflects the changing landscape of sports broadcasting. This decision signifies a significant milestone, placing women’s soccer on equal footing with men’s events in terms of broadcasting rights. The success of the Matildas in breaking TV and streaming records played a pivotal role in this landmark move.

The government initiated the scrutiny of the anti-siphoning scheme last year and unveiled a provisional list in March 2023. The ongoing review is of paramount importance to the broadcasting industry.

Bridget Fair, Chief Executive of Free TV Australia, has described it as “probably the most important review of the anti-siphoning rules since they were established.”

The Foxtel Group, which encompasses platforms like Fox Sports and Kayo, argues that the existing regulations are outdated and hinder competition, innovation, and potential funding for grassroots sports.

A spokesperson for Foxtel emphasised that “the rules remain stuck in a time warp.”

Foxtel asserts that its Kayo Freebies service could broadcast events without charges if necessary. They contend that the old rules are incompatible with the way modern audiences consume sports, highlighting the need for a fresh legislative approach to accommodate modern streaming methods.

In contrast, Free TV Australia, representing networks such as Nine, Seven, and Channel 10, argues that the regulations safeguard the local TV business model, which is built on widespread access, community engagement, and the sustainability of sporting codes.

Greg Hywood, Chair of Free TV Australia stated that, “Australians should not be forced to pay to watch these events that they currently enjoy for free, and this is more important than ever with current cost-of-living pressures.”

Free TV Australia also cautions against the risk of streaming services selectively securing rights to culturally and commercially significant events, potentially undermining free-to-air networks.

Their submission to the government points out that streaming services’ practice of offering ‘teaser’ content behind paywalls is essentially a tactic to attract more subscriptions and advertising revenue, which could come at the expense of local broadcasters.

In a report commissioned by Foxtel, economist Geoff Edwards raises concerns about unintended adverse consequences for women’s sports due to the anti-siphoning list. Edwards suggests that the inclusion of women’s sports may create a ‘grass ceiling’ and has cautioned against imposing such limitations.

A government spokeswoman has emphasised that feedback from various submissions will play a crucial role in shaping forthcoming legislation. These proposed laws aim to incorporate online platforms into the existing regulatory framework for the first time and could expand the list to encompass more women’s sports and para-sports.

In a rapidly changing media landscape where Australians increasingly consume content through digital means, such as streaming services like 9Now and 7Plus, this review is taking place at a critical juncture. It has the potential not only to redefine the landscape of sports broadcasting in Australia but also to determine how millions across the nation will watch both men’s and women’s sports in the future.

The submission period for the review concluded last week, and it is expected that an update to the legislation will be introduced to Parliament later this year.

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