Why the Australian commercial networks’ interest in cycling is a good thing

Richie Porte has a chat to Robbie McEwen before the final stage.

by Matt de Neef


The new year is upon us and with it comes the busiest six-week period on the Australian road cycling calendar. As well as the addition of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race to the Aussie summer of cycling, there’s another noteworthy development in 2015 – Australia’s commercial TV broadcasters are taking a greater interest in road cycling than ever before. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef looks at what this development means for fans and for the sport in general.

The new year will be just two days old when many of Australia’s best riders line up in Geelong for the first of the four Bay Crits (officially the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic). Unlike in previous years though, it will be Channel Nine and Fox Sports that have the opportunity to broadcast highlights of the Bay Crits, not SBS.

The Bay Crits are just one part of a new broadcast rights deal between Cycling Australia and Channel Nine/Fox Sports which also includes the Road Nationals and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. For Channel Nine, these new acquisitions will sit alongside the network’s coverage of the Santos Tour Down Under, a race Nine has covered since 2012.

Early indications suggest Nine will cover the Bay Crits, most of the Road Nationals and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour with nightly highlights packages*, while the men’s road race at the Road Nationals and every stage of the Santos Tour Down Under will be broadcast live. CyclingTips approached Channel Nine and Cycling Australia for comment but neither party would confirm these details or provide any further information prior to the official announcement.

Meanwhile Channel Seven has also thrown its hat in the ring, securing live broadcast rights to the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race — the final race in the distinguished career of the 2011 Tour de France winner.

What it means for SBS

The biggest loser in all of this is, of course, SBS. The government-supported broadcaster has lost its contract with Cycling Australia and, with it, the opportunity to broadcast any of the big Australian races in January or February. CyclingTips spoke with SBS cycling presenter Mike Tomalaris about the developments and what it means for fans of the sport.

“It’s good that Channel Nine is showing cycling — it’s good that a commercial network has jumped on board, but when will they show these events?”, Tomalaris said. “Will it be three in the morning? Will it be after a ODI [One Day International ed.] cricket match and before a re-run of a Bruce Willis movie? Is it a token partnership or is it a dead-set genuine partnership?”

Tomalaris expressed concern about the apparent short-sightedness of the deal.

“If Channel Nine are only showing the road events during the Australian summer and then they’re dismissing every other discipline for the remainder of the year, then I think it’s a disgrace”, Tomalaris said. “Because the window is only six weeks long. What’s going to happen for the rest of the year?”

CyclingTips understands that Channel Nine and Foxtel also have the rights to cover the National Road Series (NRS) in 2015 (previously covered by SBS) and will likely opt for a highlights program to be broadcast a week after each race. This deal is yet to be announced by Cycling Australia (CA) or Channel Nine and neither partner would confirm or deny the arrangement at the time of publishing.

Commenting on the possibility of Nine covering the NRS in addition to the summer races, Mike Tomalaris told CyclingTips:

“If that’s the case it’s not such a bad decision [for Cycling Australia] to go to a commercial network. I understand why CA have done that”, Tomalaris said. “Malcolm Speed, former boss of world cricket, has obviously got connections with people at Channel Nine through his dealings as boss of Australian cricket.”

But for Tomalaris, losing the Cycling Australia contract and the Australian summer races isn’t devastating for SBS as it will allow the network to focus its attention on the big international races**.

“We weren’t going to show every stage of the Giro next year had we continued the relationship with Cycling Australia”, Tomalaris told CyclingTips. “We were only going to show eight stages, and that would certainly be a reduction [compared] to this year when we showed every stage for the very first time.

“Now that we haven’t got that relationship [with Cycling Australia] we can revert back to showing all 21 stages [of the Giro] in 2015.”

Going commercial

SBS losing broadcast rights to local Australian racing is likely to make some cycling fans nervous. When Channel Nine took up the reins to the Tour Down Under in 2012, many fans expressed concern that coverage of the sport was being ruined by the commercial broadcaster. Even now, a few years on, feedback about Nine’s cycling coverage is often negative, at least from established cycling fans. Indeed Nine and Seven are likely to find themselves facing renewed criticism from cycling fans throughout the summer when it comes to the races they’ve recently acquired the rights to.

Much of the criticism surrounds the fact that with a move to a commercial broadcaster comes the opportunity for more ads during race coverage.

According to the Australian Commercial Television Code of Practice commercial networks are allowed to show a maximum of 13 minutes of advertising per hour*** between 6pm and midnight and 15 minutes per hour at other times. This is in contrast with SBS which, according to its Code of Practice, can broadcast a maximum of just five minutes of commercials per hour. (There is a proposal in place to double this to 10 minutes but this is yet to pass Parliament.)

For cycling fans, concerns about a greater volume of ads per hour (on Nine or Seven vs SBS) are amplified by a perceived lack of experience at the commercial networks when it comes to covering bike racing. Ad breaks are seen as annoying; even more so when they fall at a crucial time in a race, such as while a breakaway is being established or, more frustratingly, as the final stages of a race are playing out.

Channel Nine’s Tour Down Under coverage has also received criticism in the past for a lack of distance-to-go data on screen — a vital piece of information for the cycling fan.

But while these concerns are certainly valid, they’re arguably a case of short-term pain in the name of long-term growth for the sport.

Growing the audience

Despite the considerable international success Australian cyclists have had around the world, cycling is still very much a niche sport in Australia. SBS, for all its great cycling coverage, only has limited mainstream reach. What Channel Nine and Channel Seven have the potential to do, as popular mainstream broadcasters, is attract a greater audience and help grow the profile of cycling in Australia.

This happened in 2012 when Channel Nine broadcast the Santos Tour Down Under for the first time. After a sluggish start, and despite frustrating viewers by showing highlights late at night, Nine went on to blow SBS’s ratings out of the water during live coverage of the race’s weekend stages.

And it’s this weekend, sports-loving audience that Nine will be hoping to tap into with the live broadcast of the men’s Nationals road race on January 11, and that Seven will be hoping to attract with the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on February 1.

For Seven, the timing of Cadel’s Race is particularly noteworthy. The race broadcast will fall directly before the network’s coverage of the men’s final at the Australian Open. Seven will be hoping that many viewers switch on early and catch the end of the bike race before settling in for an evening in front of the tennis. It’s a great result for Channel Seven and for sports fans.

Why bigger is better

So why is getting more people watching bike races a good thing? In seems reasonable to argue that the more bike racing people see, the more likely they are to be inspired by the feats they see and take up riding (and maybe even racing) themselves. Just as young Australians often get into Aussie Rules football or cricket by watching their favourite players on TV then wanting to emulate them, so young Australians will hopefully be inspired to take up cycling when they watch bike racing on TV.

The apparent effect of Cadel Evans’ 2011 Tour de France victory on cycling participation is a case in point.

And it is well established that the more people we have cycling, the better off we are as a society. Cycling facilitates health benefits, economic benefits, environmental benefits, safety benefits and more.

Sure, these are all long-term prospects, but the process has to start somewhere. And there are more immediate benefits from a commercial perspective as well.

Cycling Australia, which has been suffering financially in recent years, is looking for ways to sure up its future. By partnering with commercial networks, Cycling Australia will enjoy greater leverage when it comes to selling advertising linked to its events. Advertisers have the opportunity to be seen in front of a greater audience than ever before, and Cycling Australia has the chance to capitalise on those opportunities.

The fact that both Nine and Seven have put their hand up to cover cycling events is also promising. Sure, it could be argued that Seven is just capitalising on the “Cadel Factor” and might just see Cadel’s Race as a great lead-in to the tennis, but having Australia’s two biggest broadcasters bidding for bike races can only be a good thing. We can only hope that competition between the two networks drive both Seven and Nine to improve and increase their offerings to cycling fans in the years to come.

As the landscape of Australian cycling’s TV coverage changes in 2015 there will doubtless be those that complain about how Nine and Seven are ruining cycling. But before you join that chorus, take a moment to look at the bigger picture.

Sure SBS has done a commendable job of covering the Australian summer of cycling in recent years, but times are changing and having the big commercial networks involved is almost certainly a step in the right direction.

*UPDATE: The Australian TV Guide shows that the Nine Network will broadcast highlights of the Bay Crits on Gem at midnight or later after each race, with a repeat screening on Gem the following afternoon. As of January 1 there has been no official announcement by Nine or Cycling Australia about coverage of the Bay Crits.

**Mike Tomalaris told CyclingTips that SBS will again broadcast Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege live in 2015, albeit without a studio presence for Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold. The network’s Tour de France coverage is also safe until 2023, even with budget cuts at the network.

***These limits are averages, so more advertising can be scheduled for any given hour, to a maximum of 15 minutes between 6pm and midnight (and 16 minutes at other times).

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