August 16, 2010

IT'S fitting that the opening round of the English Premier League season features a clash between Liverpool and Arsenal - these two giants of English soccer have certainly left their mark on the sporting landscape in Australia this year.

Earlier this month, Network Ten-owned sports channel One HD announced it had secured the rights to two three-hour programs, Liverpool TV and Arsenal TV.

In Australia, Foxtel owns the rights to live EPL broadcasts, but now faces a challenge to its position. In the wake of One HD's announcement, the pay-TV operator has increased its advertising of that fact.

Live EPL matches have been a cornerstone for pay-TV sports networks around the world. In many countries, it is the goose with the golden egg and consumers are willing to part with considerable dollars to watch the world's most popular soccer league.

For the first time since SBS lost the rights to EPL replays in 2004, the competition will return to free-to-air television, albeit with replays of the matches of just two clubs each week.

Foxtel has responded to the attack by increasing its coverage of the EPL, sponsored by British bank Barclays, for this coming season. Fox Sports chief executive David Malone has described this season as a ''watershed occasion'' for fans of English soccer in Australia.

''When you tally up the many hours of Fox Sports television coverage, plus an extraordinary digital offering on, this will be by far the greatest coverage of the Barclays Premier League ever broadcast in Australia,'' Mr Malone said.

''We've just had a fantastic World Cup in South Africa, and there is plenty of buzz around football as we enter the new seasons both at home and abroad.''

The international demand for EPL matches has been a driving force behind the league's recent financial success. Domestic TV revenues in Britain will plateau at 594 million next season, only a marginal rise from the 568 million ($A1.1 billion) paid three years ago.

That's a trend Australia's domestic competitions and clubs should note - local TV money is not an endless pot of gold.

Thankfully for the EPL, international interest in the competition continues to grow, and as a result overseas TV rights' revenue has grown from 208 million three years ago to about 460 million this year.

But the deal done by One HD takes advantage of a peculiarity in English soccer: the clubs maintain the rights to the broadcasts of their matches. As a result, One HD has been able to strike deals outside Foxtel's agreement with the EPL to obtain content from the clubs.

''These are two of the greatest football clubs in the world and we are delighted to partner with them in Australia to bring fans not only their games for free, but additional content produced by the clubs,'' said David White, general manager sport for Ten.

So the battle between One HD and Foxtel begins. The pay-TV broadcaster has already been reducing the length of contract commitments and

connection fees to increase its audience for the better part of a year. Just what difference two EPL matches a week on free-to-air will make will be a litmus test for the company's business model.

The rumour that Socceroo goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer might move to Arsenal provides another delicious twist to the tale; he was on the bench at current club Fulham for this weekend's match, further fuelling speculation he will transfer to the Gunners. That move would provide a timely boost for One HD's broadcast of Arsenal TV, and every Arsenal match, this season.

The only other Australian to play this weekend was Everton's Tim Cahill.

Of course, the arrival of the English football programs represent a new world of sports broadcasting, in which clubs are able to broadcast their own matches.

Both clubs own considerable online businesses and also broadcast their games over the internet. The building of Australia's national broadband network can only make it easier to watch footage direct from the clubs, and bypass networks altogether.

Just this week, Arsenal announced a new deal with international sports media company MP & Silva. Arsenal TV, produced by Input Media, will be Arsenal Media.

''The new Arsenal Media brand reflects the paradigm shift from a traditional television-centric approach to one that is focused on creating broader, multi-platform content and program formats that can be effectively delivered and re-appropriated across different broadcast and media channels,'' its chief executive, Andrea Radrizzani, said.

The message is clear. Once broadband infrastructure capable of sustaining high-definition broadcasts is built, England's privately owned clubs, such as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, will be able to sell directly to overseas fans.

To that end, Arsenal part-owner Stan Kroenke, who owns 29.9 per cent of the club, made a significant investment in 2008.

Many in England pondered if the American, who owns a number of sports franchises, would make a full takeover bid for the club.

Instead, he spent 22.7 million to buy a half-stake in a company called Arsenal Broadband.