Federal communications minister Stephen Conroy has reportedly raised the ire of free-to-air networks by outlining a revamp of future AFL and NRL coverage agreements.

Currently, free-to-air networks get first preference on ‘blockbuster’, high rating games, and Foxtel has to buy the games it broadcasts off the main network rights holders. But the changes flagged by Conroy could allow Foxtel to make a bid themselves, potentially serving as a large financial windfall for the AFL, with broadcast rights for the next term being decided in the coming months.

But does the short-term financial gain of larger broadcast bids for the AFL justify restricting audience numbers by placing popular games on pay TV? Around one in every three Australians has subscription television, and network TV still overwhelmingly draws the highest audiences, so could restricting the AFLs broadcast reach hinder the sport’s growth in the long term?

Managing director of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment Andrew Condon tells Marketing magazine that it is not such a simple issue.

“Whether it will inhibit the growth of the game, I couldn’t say,” Condon tells Marketing magazine. “The AFL has a large war chest to make sure the game continues to develop, but I do believe it will be a further erosion of sponsor value. It’s not an uncommon trend at the moment, rights holders are trading off eyeballs for revenue and turning sponsors off. In the last AFL agreement, one more game went to fox spots than the agreement before that, and we’re seeing more and more sports sacrifice the reach of network for revenue offered by subscription or digital channels.”

While subscription television is undoubtedly growing, a full rights broadcast agreement with Foxtel seems inconceivable in the near future. Nevertheless, Marketing magazine asked Condon to speculate on how the AFL’s marketing of its brand and the game of Australian rules football would be affected if Foxtel had sole broadcast rights.

“I don’t think coverage is the sole grower of the game. The money from the rights will incrementally give money to grassroots and grow the game, but it will potentially slow the growth of the game in undeveloped markets and emerging markets. People in growth prospects of Queensland and Western Sydney are unlikely to subscribe to pay TV just for the AFL, which may not be their first sport of choice.”