The wheels are turning on Nine and Fox Sports’ cycling coverage, but improvement is needed

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Earlier this week Cycling Australia confirmed details of its new broadcast deal with Channel Nine and Fox Sports for the Australian summer of cycling and beyond. In this article CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef considers Nine and Fox Sports’ coverage so far, speaking to Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green about the partnership and what the future might hold.

It took Cycling Australia longer than expected to announce that it had partnered with Channel Nine and Fox Sports for 2015 and 2016. So long, in fact, that the first event covered by the new contract, the Bay Crits, had already been screened for four nights on Nine and Fox Sports before Cycling Australia (CA) “announced” that it would.

So what took CA so long? CEO Nick Green told CyclingTips that it was a case of getting the finer details bedded down, but added that the delay “didn’t affect the coverage of the events and the coverage was terrific.”

In an article last week I argued that the partnership between Cycling Australia and Nine/Fox Sports is a positive step, suggesting that greater exposure via a commercial network (and, to a lesser extent, via a subscriber network) would help grow the sport. I stick by that argument, but would add that the coverage of the Bay Crits and Road Nationals has left plenty of room for improvement.

A highlights package was screened each night of the Bay Crits on Gem and Fox Sports (with a replay the following day). These packages were well produced, with commentary from Scott McGrory, Phil Liggett and Rochelle Gilmore, and they provided a great recap of what was four days of exciting racing. The only problem was that each highlights package was screened after midnight — not exactly prime-time viewing.

I asked CEO Nick Green whether the broadcast time was of concern to Cycling Australia, given the organisation’s goal of putting cycling “into the living rooms of millions more Australian homes”.

“The reality of what we deal with is a network that is very busy,” Green said. “Every event would love to have prime-time television but the reality is we’re not going to get that all of the time. But we will get that some of the time.”

Road Nationals

The Road Nationals are currently underway in and around Ballarat/Buninyong in Victoria, and Aussie cycling fans who were expecting live coverage might have been disappointed. Only the men’s road race on Sunday will be broadcast live — from 2pm to 4pm on Gem and Fox Sports 5.

Wednesday’s criterium races and Thursday’s time trials were bundled into separate one-hour highlights packages, both screened after midnight on Gem and Fox Sports as well. CyclingTips understands that the criterium highlights package on Gem attracted just 8,100 viewers on Wednesday night (technically Thursday morning) — hardly wide-reaching.

Gem and Fox Sports will screen a one-hour highlights package after midnight on Sunday morning, recapping the U23 men’s and elite women’s road races. At 1pm that afternoon, just before live coverage of the men’s road race, there will be a separate one-hour highlights package recapping the first three days of the Nationals.

Some fans will surely complain that a highlights package is being screened while live racing is underway at Buninyong (the men’s road race starts at 10.50am). And some will be even less impressed by the fact Gem is showing a 47-year-old movie and an episode of Getaway before the highlights package, both while the race is in progress.

Women’s cycling

Cycling Australia’s announcement of the broadcast deal also attracted criticism given a lack of live coverage of the women’s road race.

SBS’s veteran cycling presenter Mike Tomalaris told CyclingTips that there were discussions last year (when SBS screened the Road Nationals) to hold the women’s road race on the morning of the men’s road race, thereby reducing production costs and making it more feasible to screen the women’s race live. According to Tomalaris the proposal had the support of riders in the women’s peloton and Cycling Australia considered the proposal, but the idea never came to fruition.

CyclingTips understands that an additional $50,000 to $60,000 of funding would be necessary to screen the women’s race live.

But even though this year’s arrangement isn’t ideal for fans of women’s cycling, there are perhaps some positives to be drawn. For one, the women’s road race will feature in two different TV highlights packages within 24 hours of the race happening, something which didn’t happen during SBS’s coverage of the race in 2014. It’s not ideal, but perhaps it’s a small step in the right direction.

According to Nick Green, there are other positives when it comes to the coverage of women’s cycling in Australia as well.

“This [CA/Nine/Fox Sports deal] does actually provide significantly more coverage of women’s cycling [than] the partnerships we had previously [with SBS – ed.]

“The National Road Series is a good example where we’ve got two new events”, Green said. “Both of those are standalone women’s events, and they’re both events that are part of a significant UCI-sanctioned road races with Cadel’s [the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race] and the Tour Down Under.

“Both of those events for the first time are on the National Road Series and we’re going to cover those events as part of this new deal.”

Online coverage

According to the broadcast deal announcement, Cycling Australia will “integrate the highlights packages across its digital platform”. That is, it will have highlights of the races covered by the Nine/Fox Sports deal on its YouTube channel such as this 44-minute-long highlights video from the Nationals criterium races. This is the same package that went to air on Gem and Fox Sports.

Nine’s Wide World of Sports website and the Fox Sports website are yet to feature any video from the Bay Crits or Nationals and indeed neither site has a dedicated cycling section.

It’s a busy time of year for Nine in particular, with the cricket season in full swing, but cycling fans might reasonably argue that a lack of online support from Nine/Fox Sports shows a lack of investment in their new acquisitions.

I asked Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green whether we would see highlights videos and other online content on the Wide World of Sports and Fox Sports websites in future:

“They are some of the things we’re still fine-tuning with the networks,” Green said.

“Wide World of Sports have already committed to doing profile pieces on cyclists and teams and events throughout the year, so that’s additional coverage into an audience that the sport can’t otherwise have.”

A step forward?

Despite concerns that Nine and Fox Sports aren’t invested in covering cycling properly — given the poor time slots and a lack of online coverage — it’s worth considering Nine/Fox Sports’ coverage alongside that of SBS in 2014.

SBS didn’t do nightly highlights of the Bay Crits last year, instead wrapping them into a one-hour highlights package a week later. And as mentioned above, Nine/Fox Sports will provide more immediate highlights of the elite women’s road race at the Road Nationals than SBS did.

Nine/Fox Sports will also show highlights of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour in 2015, which SBS didn’t in 2014. It remains to be seen what Nine/Fox Sports’ coverage of the National Road Series will look like and whether that will be more comprehensive than SBS’ (leaving aside the fact two women’s races have been added to the calendar).

What now?

Cycling Australia’s deal with Nine and Fox Sports is for two years and, despite a shaky start, it seems fair to give all parties some time to find their feet. So will Nine and Fox Sports dedicate better time slots to the likes of the Nationals, Bay Crits and other races in future? And will more races be covered live rather than in highlights?

“They’ve already expressed interest at doing more live coverage and so there’s already a starting point where they’re seeing the opportunities around the sport and what it can deliver”, Nick Green told CyclingTips.

“This is a very exciting platform to start a really good relationship with Nine and Fox and I know both of those networks are open to continue to fine-tune the partnership over the next two years … either to put the events on at a better time-slots, give them better profiling …”

“It’s not just the time-slots the networks give us, particularly in 2015. It’s also the other cross-promotional support they’re going to give us which we get as part of the deal.”

Even at this early stage it’s clear Nick Green and Cycling Australia are excited about the potential shown by the new deal with Nine and Fox Sports. In order to deliver on that partnership’s potential, though, he and Cycling Australia will need to push for much more than after-midnight highlights packages on Nine and Fox Sports’ secondary channels.

Proving to cycling fans that those networks have the sport’s best interests at heart could prove be an even greater challenge.

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