English Premier League broadcaster Optus is warning the federal government against any regulation that would restrict its future ability to buy the rights to major sporting codes, in a clear sign of its intention to further build out its sports offering.
The federal government is reviewing the effectiveness of its anti-siphoning scheme, which aims to keep significant sporting and cultural events – such as the AFL grand final, Australian Open and Commonwealth Games – freely available to the public by giving free-to-air networks first dibs in broadcast negotiations.
However, Optus believes the laws, first introduced in the 1990s when pay TV operator Foxtel was formed, are anti-competitive, preventing innovation and hurting audiences.
“Optus considers the policy objective, that nationally important and culturally significant events be delivered free to Australians, remains appropriate,” it said in its submission. “But we consider the existing regulation, focussing on restricting the acquisition of events, may not be a best practice regulatory mechanism for achieving that objective.”
“It can stifle innovation in content delivery, stop sports bodies from achieving fair market value for content rights and contains no obligations to stop acquired sports being buried on commercial broadcasters’ secondary digital channel.”
Optus, through its platform Optus Sport, is the broadcast partner of the EPL and other football tournaments including La Liga and the J League. It is also the major broadcaster for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, but was forced to on-sell the free-to-air rights to a provider, Seven, due to anti-siphoning rules.
The telco said that the significant take-up in streaming services, ease of access through smart televisions and devices, and the ability to cancel a subscription easily, were all reasons why the existing anti-siphoning laws should not apply to newer platforms.
“Ultimately, Optus considers that streaming services should not be precluded from acquiring rights… but, if the concern is that viewers should be able to access nationally important and culturally significant events live and free, then the regulatory framework could be amended to focus on such outcomes for viewers.”
“That is, instead of restricting acquisition of rights, the regulatory framework could instead focus on delivery and require listed events be provided live and free.”
Optus’ submission proposes the rules should require a streaming service that acquires the rights to an event on the anti-siphoning list to give viewers access without the need to register login details. It says items on the anti-siphoning list should also have appropriate prominence on its interface, making them easy to be found.
The current list includes the Olympic Games, all AFL games, all NRL games and all Australian Open matches. It was slimmed down in 2017, but sporting bodies want more events removed from the list. Optus said niche and overseas-based league competitions should not be added to the list, as they are not nationally important or culturally significant.
Optus’ views are similar to the major sports including the AFL, NRL, cricket and tennis, and rival streaming company Foxtel, which owns Kayo Sports, that believe the laws should be eased to enhance competition for rights and allow for more investment in grassroots programs and women’s games. If they are successful, the revised scheme could ultimately require the public to pay for key NRL and AFL matches, for example.
Its submission contradicts the free-to-air television networks, which argue the laws should apply to streaming platforms. Industry body Free TV, which represents Nine Entertainment Co (the owner of this masthead), Seven West Media and Network 10, which want sporting codes to sell the traditional TV and streaming rights together and is against any watering down of the list of sports and events covered. They argue Australians do not have strong enough internet connections to stream sports.
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