The AFL has taken football reporting into its own hands, raising questions about independence. Charles Happell, of backpagelead.com.au, examines the impact of an emerging media giant.
IMAGINE if the Federal Government – or a multinational such as BHP Billiton, say – decided to launch their own website, one that employed 100 or so people and was devoted to publicising their policies, philosophies and achievements? But one they insisted would be totally independent, report without fear or favour, and publish both the good news and bad about their performance?
Would you trust a site like that? Would you feel you could rely on it for open and honest coverage of stories that related to the organisation: in particular, the negative stuff? Every damning poll, every public criticism, every environmental mishap, every unflattering reader’s comment, every detail of executive salaries, each and every broken promise?
Readers, I suspect, would have their doubts.
Besides, which organisation in its right mind would employ a bunch of journalists to so rigorously critique its performance that it would be barely distinguishable from the coverage provided by newspapers, radio and TV?
The cynicism, even by the mainstream media’s hyperbolic standard, would be profound.
But early last year, the AFL, the biggest sporting entity in the country, decided to do just that – produce a website to report on every aspect of its operation, good and bad.
The league wanted to give its website a much 'newsier' edge so that it rivalled the online offerings of Fairfax (The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald) and News Ltd (The Herald Sun, The Australian, Brisbane’s Courier Mail and so on). Instead of just being a hub for Dream Team devotees, stats nerds and people looking for match-day scores, the league wanted afl.com.au to be the first port of call for all footy fans, seven days a week.
And to attract this new readership, they embarked upon this controversial ‘without fear or favour’ approach to producing strong news and outspoken views. In short, they were willing to take the media on at their own game.
“Of course, they’re a competitor now,” says the editor-in-chief of The Age, Andrew Holden. “Their comprehensive coverage of football makes them a competitor.”
In its quest to become all things media as well as all things football, the AFL went on a recruiting drive, beefed up its ranks of reporters and editors and have (gently) asked the 18 AFL clubs to help make afl.com.au more relevant and ‘newsy’.
It is an extraordinary business model but one that does have a precedent. In the United States, Major League Baseball, for example, owns and publishes a site that is run completely at arm’s length from the sport’s headquarters – both metaphorically and geographically speaking. Staff work from a building completely separate to MLB Central. The website editors said it took all of five years before the clubs – and the public – became comfortable with the idea of owner-as-publisher, and the inherent conflicts of interest associated with its role.
There have been teething problems at afl.com.au – strife-prone clubs in 2013 such as Melbourne and Essendon, for example, have railed against some of the overly honest reporting about their problems – but the site is quickly gaining acceptance.
After 15 months of operation it is, according to Head of Content at AFL Media, Matt Pinkney, the biggest sports website (that is, afl.com.au plus the clubs’ separate sites) in Australia – bigger than the online sport sections of the entire News Ltd network and Fairfax.
The AFL’s online behemoth draws almost 3 million unique browsers a week, well up on last year’s figure. In line with news site viewing trends more generally, there has been a surge in mobile phone usage this season while desktop traffic has decreased marginally. Visitor numbers to the site, year on year, have increased via mobile phone by 37 per cent and to the AFL Live App by 91 per cent, but are down 3 per cent on desktop.
Mr Pinkney acknowledges the unusual position he’s in, and the novel business model of the site, saying he’s become accustomed to the accusations from media rivals that he’s running footy’s version of Pravda – a state-owned propaganda sheet.
“Yes, we get a bit of misinformation put out there by our rivals but that’s OK. I hope people will see in time that we can be trusted as a credible news source. That’s our aim over the next few years.
“We plan to create a content hub for AFL material that services every requirement that the AFL fan has so, whether it’s video content on various platforms such as tablet and iPhone and text, that that’s what the aim is, to create an independent credible news organisation which reports on AFL football.”
But the primary motivation for trying to muscle in on traditional newspaper territory and poach readership is clearly commercial: specifically, the pursuit of extra advertising revenue.
“The impetus behind this is to create a mass audience, an enormous audience,” adds Mr Pinkney. “We would like to be the number one destination for football content in Australia and with that comes commercial results based on sponsorships and advertising and that’s essentially the size of our challenge.”
Understandably, newspapers, long the primary purveyors of critical AFL analysis, aren’t thrilled by the emergence of a major new competitor, lest of all one that they view as instinctively compromised by its ownership. They’re not happy that a highly profitable organisation, the AFL, by bankrolling its official website, threatens the lifeblood of the media business – diverting revenues and readership from traditional media players.
A senior News Ltd executive, who did not wish to be named, noted that the "AFL Media’s newsroom would be bigger than our newsroom at the Herald-Sun — and many other papers across the world — so of course they present a huge challenge for us."
But he did not begrudge the competition: "The most important people in this case are the readers and they’ll decide who offers the best quality sports coverage and I'd back our content in every time. I don't think AFL Media can ever be seen as an independent arbiter; they’ll always be compromised.’’
Andrew Holden has been watching developments at AFL headquarters with interest, but also a growing sense of foreboding.
“They would seem to have as many reporters as we have [in The Age sports department] and all are concentrated on football coverage,” he says. “What I’m worried about – in these difficult times for newspapers – is having to spend extra money on our footy coverage, to stay ahead of the AFL’s offering, which would be hard for us to justify.”
Mr Holden said he was not so fussed about the issue of independence at afl.com.au. His concerns were purely about the threat it posed to The Age’s business – specifically, online readership numbers – and how it impacted on the take-up of The Age’s app.
If footy fans were sated by footy news and views on the revamped AFL site, they would be less inclined to subscribe to The Age’s online products for football coverage alone.
Given the swelling traffic volume at afl.com.au – mobile site usage is up 50 per cent and app traffic by 234 per cent for the year to date – Mr Holden’s fears are well-founded.
Mr Holden also wonders about the access that afl.com.au reporters have to the code’s decision-makers, who work on the floor above them. “Their reporters are based in the same building as the AFL. It’s inevitable they’ll hear and see things they wouldn’t otherwise do if based elsewhere.”
He cited a recent example when Cameron Schwab resigned as Melbourne’s CEO. A news conference had been scheduled by Melbourne for 3pm, flagged as a major announcement. The AFL site broke the story of Schwab’s sudden exit at 2.50pm, raising suspicion that the AFL had wanted its own site to be first with the news.
In response, afl.com.au reporters explain the exclusive as the result of good, old-fashioned news-hounding, nothing more sinister than that.
News Ltd had a run-in with AFL officials last year over the seemingly minor issue of using Twitter at tribunal hearings. Regular media outlets were prevented from "Tweeting" tribunal decisions from the sittings, yet AFL Media reporters were not subject to the same ban, leading to some spirited dialogue between the two groups.
According to the News Ltd executive, a high-ranking AFL official admitted privately that the league wanted to give its website a commercial advantage and this was one small way of doing that.
"That, to me, is the thin edge of the wedge,’’ the News Ltd executive continued. "If the AFL can give its website a leg-up in that way, what’s to say it won’t continue to do that with more important issues as AFL Media becomes more entrenched? That’s where the dangers lie from our point of view.’’
He cited the recent example in India where the BCCI locked out some independent photo agencies, such as Getty Images, from the Australian Test series and insisted everyone use their own approved BCCI pictures.
There are concerns, too, within mainstream media about the access that AFL journos have to the players. They figure if the AFL’s official online publication comes calling and requests a player interview, club managements will be more inclined to say yes to afl.com.au than to The Herald-Sun or The Age.
Mr Pinkney says that notion is not supported by facts. To appease their major sponsors, clubs would generally prefer their players and/or coaches appear in a photo on the back page of the Herald-Sun or The Age, wearing the branded club uniform. That exposure in the mainstream media is considered to be more valuable to sponsors than having that same story appear on afl.com.au.
The expectation – and the AFL business plan – is that increasingly sponsors will see greater potential in that all-encompassing coverage.But that is likely to change down the track given the league’s evolving media presence. AFL Media is now a centralised news service that runs AFL Films, prints the Footy Record, publishes the AFL website and, when the current broadcast rights agreement ends in 2016, could well film every AFL match itself, on-selling that material to free-to-air and subscription TV networks.
Right now, the AFL’s website is a content provider for the clubs, (it has a reporter devoted to each of the 18 clubs) and last year produced about 400 items for each of them – club notes, match summaries, video highlights and so on. Clubs can choose to run all of that content or, as in the case of Essendon and the ‘supplements’ scandal, filter out the material that they do not want appearing on their club-branded site.
Despite the obvious benefits, it has been a steep learning curve for club administrations accustomed to a more gentle ride from the league website. Under the old model, they were subject to very little criticism, more a steady stream of puff pieces.
Mr Pinkney says he has had tough conversations with club media managers, CEOs and presidents about the site’s aims and strategies. Some of those officials have been so incensed by negative coverage they’ve gone straight to AFL chief Andrew Demetriou or his deputy Gillon McLachlan to complain.
Mr Pinkney sees those conversations as part of an inevitable education process. He hopes, like the MLB experience in the US, clubs will understand that occasionally they might cop a whack on the site, but 90 per cent of the time it will be plain sailing.
In the end, the pain will be worth it: ultimately, any increased advertising revenue from the site will eventually find its way back into club pockets.
“Melbourne haven’t been happy with some of the stories we’ve been running about ‘tanking’ and then their ordinary form this year, and Essendon were annoyed by a lot of the stuff we ran about the supplements saga and [anti-doping] investigation, but we’ve been able to have mature discussions about the site etc.”
One senior reporter at afl.com.au says the AFL team get remarkably few ‘free kicks’ from either the clubs or the administration. “We can’t even get an early look at the League teams on Thursday, even on an embargoed basis. They go straight to Channel Seven because it says so in Seven’s contract.”
Occasionally, the newsroom will get a heads-up about AFL Hall of Fame or Life Membership selection but that’s about it.
Mr Pinkney says he has not yet baulked at a column or hard news story for being too close to the bone and might have upset some at HQ. Nothing, so far, has been ‘spiked’. But he has felt the need – like all editors – to tone down some inflammatory headlines that have not accurately portrayed the content of the story.
“We’ve run stories about drug use, Andrew Demetriou’s salary and Jason Mifsud’s comments about Melbourne’s treatment of Aboriginal players,” he adds. “[Columnist] Damian Barrett has gone in quite hard on a few issues, but all the clubs want is a right of reply. So, no, we haven’t pulled a piece in 15 months.”
OK then, what about this hypothetical: what if Mr Demetriou – who was paid $1.88 million in 2012 – received a pay hike that took his salary to $2.5 million this year? That would make him better remunerated than many CEOs in charge of bigger organisations. Would afl.com.au examine that issue forensically? And, if so, how would the boss react?
“He’s the one who cares least about what we write,” Mr Pinkney responds. “As long as it’s not factually incorrect, he’s fine with it. In fact, he’s the least of our worries.”
Which might be easy to say with regards to straight up news reporting of any Demetriou pay rise, but which columnist at afl.com.au is going to have the guts to write an opinion piece saying that pay rise is unjustified, that Demetriou – the writer’s boss, effectively – doesn’t deserve that sort of reward?
That could be the ultimate test for afl.com.au – criticising the code’s top brass, as newspapers and the electronic media have done without fear or favour.
There is also the matter of public perception. As long as afl.com.au exists within the same building as the AFL in Docklands, is bankrolled by the AFL and its senior staff appointments are made by the AFL, then it may struggle to gain wholesale acceptance. Ultimately, it will remain an instrument of the AFL.
Many fans won’t be perturbed by that lack of purity, or by the fact that traditional media is slowly having its power and financial clout stripped by partisan groups such as AFL Media. They’ll be happy as long as the footy content appears daily, on tap.
But for the media industry more broadly, the rise of afl.com.au represents yet another front in the attack on their business model and profitability, one that they will be forced to defend vigorously. And from an enemy that few saw coming.
Charles Happell is a former Sports Editor of The Age and now Publisher of sports opinion website backpagelead.com.au