Australian TV Deal Has World Cup Viewers Asking: Where Are the Games?

Australian TV Deal Has World Cup Viewers Asking: Where Are the Games?

The Women’s World Cup is by most estimates the biggest sporting event to be staged in Australia since the Sydney Olympics. FIFA, the tournament’s organizer, has trumpeted record ticket sales, and it has hailed the event both as a celebration of the popularity of women’s soccer and as a way to carry it to new fans and new markets.

But while viewers in Australia could watch all 64 games of the recent men’s World Cup played in Qatar on a free-to-air network, FIFA struck a deal for the broadcast rights to the Women’s World Cup — as it did when the tournament was played in France four years ago — with the cellphone operator Optus, which has placed the bulk of the matches on its pay television network.

For viewers in Australia, that has meant the majority of games can only be watched via subscription, making it harder for viewers living in one of the tournament’s host countries to watch the tournament than it has been for fans in places like Europe and the United States.

“It’s very disappointing to not have the coverage the women deserve,” said Beth Monkley, who was in Brisbane with her daughter this week to follow Australia’s team. “It’s a fantastic sport for everyone, so inclusive. And for some reason Australia has decided not to show all the games free to air.”

Legislation in Australia means the entire event cannot be placed behind a paywall, since games involving the men’s and national women’s soccer teams are considered of such significant importance that they are on a list of protected events that must be broadcast for free nationwide. The World Cup final also has a place on that protected list.

This year, 15 tournament games will be available on Channel Seven, a free-to-air network authorized by FIFA and Optus to sub-license some rights. (Optus separately said it would offer to stream 10 games for free to users who sign up for its platform.)

But the uncertainty about which games will be on the air, and when, has led to significant frustration among soccer fans, but also casual fans in sports-mad Australia, where soccer lags behind the country’s most popular sports, rugby, cricket and Australian rules football.

On Thursday morning, Andrew Moore and his wife joined the throng of visitors to a FIFA fan park set up on the banks of the Brisbane River to watch the most eagerly awaited game of the group stage, a clash between the United States and the Netherlands. The Moores stood out.

While most of the crowd were outfitted in the yellow and green of the Australian team that would play later in the day against Nigeria, the Moores were wearing matching maroon and golden jerseys of their favorite rugby team, the Brisbane Broncos, which was scheduled to play at the same time as the Matildas’ kickoff against Nigeria.

Moore said all the pretournament advertising and promotion had led him believe that all the games would be broadcast on Channel Seven, a network familiar to Australian sports fans. So a day after he watched Australia and New Zealand play their openers on free television, he settled in to watch the next round of games.

But when he grabbed his remote control and flicked to Channel Seven, and then to its subsidiary channels, he could not find a game. “I thought there was something wrong with the television,” he said.

Moore said for casual soccer viewers like his family, which already has several pay television subscriptions, signing up to Optus to watch the Women’s World Cup did not make sense, particularly since the sports he favors are on other networks. In Australia’s fragmented television market, most domestic sports rights are split across a number of pay and free-to-air networks. Fans seeking telecasts of major soccer leagues and tournaments from outside the country often must turn to more networks and more subscriptions.

That has left FIFA trying to defend disparate priorities: its desire to attract new fans to women’s soccer, and a new commercial approach that seeks to maximize revenue for a tournament that it hopes will eventually grow closer to the popularity of the men’s event, which is the most-watched tournament in global sports.

FIFA declined to comment on the rationale for its broadcast agreements in Australia beyond issuing a statement saying that both Optus and Channel Seven “have committed significant resources to covering and promoting the tournament” and claiming that their “combined efforts have led to record viewership figures for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the region.”

That record, experts said, was always likely to be met, given Australian and New Zealand’s host nation status and a favorable time zone for the games. David Rowe, a professor at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, described the lack of the type of blanket coverage that the men’s tournament typically enjoys as a “missed opportunity.”

Optus, reacting to the outcry from viewers, has pointed out that broadcasters’ rights fees “are key to ensuring the continued growth and equality of women’s sport, and contribute to everything from grass roots momentum to salaries for our national players.”

Soccer’s place within Australia’s sporting landscape has always been a precarious one, said Rowe, an expert on sports and media in Australia. He said the sport was for decades viewed with suspicion by a population grappling with a wave of migration after World War II.

“Football got a reputation as foreign at time when there was a lot of suspicion toward people who were not British in the early days of multiculturalism,” he said.

He credited the relative success of Australia’s women’s team in establishing itself as one of the best in the world as helping boost the sport’s appeal at home, much as victories and championships by the United States women’s team had popularized the sport in America.

That popularity has been visible in the tournament, with record attendances and packed stadiums for Australia’s first two games.

Still, for FIFA, the Women’s World Cup is not close to being the cash cow that the men’s event has become. The estimated $300 million it will earn from selling broadcast rights to the women’s tournament is only about a tenth of what the organization brought in for the rights to the Qatar World Cup in 2022. FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, have accused broadcasters in Europe of undervaluing the tournament, and at one point even threatened to not sell rights in key territories — essentially imposing a blackout — if the offers were not increased. As the tournament neared, FIFA eventually backed down on that threat.

With FIFA’s coffers swelling with reserves of $4 billion and forecasts of more to come with the next men’s World Cup estimated to generate $11 billion, there was little urgency to sell domestic Women’s World Cup rights to the highest bidder, Rowe said.

“It’s chump change for FIFA,” he said. “I do think it’s a lost opportunity.”

In Brisbane, as Matildas fever gripped the Queensland capital ahead of the Nigeria game, the sense of a missed opportunity appeared to be near universal.

By the time Monkley got to Brisbane with her daughter this week to follow the Australian women’s team, she had been forced to fashion an unusual routine to watch other games in the tournament, by connecting a cable between her phone and her hotel television to stream the games.

In Melbourne, where Australia now faces a must-win game against Canada, Alyssa Birley and her husband, Cameron, had traveled across the state so their children could watch the match. The family even booked the same hotel as the Australian team so that their children could get even closer to their heroes. But they said that they have not shelled out for an Optus subscription.

The result, Alyssa Birley said, was that her children could not follow other top nations.

“It’s inspirational, especially for young girls, to see these top tier athletes and it should be accessible to them,” Cameron Birley said. “Where else can they get that?”

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