Australia’s free-to-air networks are expected to battle it out for the rights to the FIFA Men’s World Cup in 2026 following the success of the women’s tournament.
FIFA executives in Australia for the blockbuster Women’s World Cup are set to brief the nation’s free-to-air networks this week, a media executive with knowledge of the process but not permitted to speak publicly said. An official process is expected to take place in the coming months.
SBS first gained the rights in 1990. The most recent two tournaments, in Russia and Qatar, were snagged by the broadcaster in 2011 for $20 million each, but it subsequently sublicensed its rights in 2018 to Optus Sport, which infamously botched the broadcast.
With Australians watching the Matildas this year in record numbers, the 2026 World Cup, to be held across Canada, Mexico and the US, is now set to attract bumper interest as Australia’s commercial networks realise the potential audience and advertiser interest in the sport.
Network Ten, which has invested $300 million into the sport in recent years, is planning to have a “good crack” at securing the rights, according to an internal source who asked not to be named, while the incumbent SBS is also keen to retain the rights.
Seven, which is the free-to-air broadcaster of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, has experienced unmatched success thanks to the Matildas, who qualified on Saturday for the semi-final. It bought the rights for 15 games for less than $5 million, as reported by this masthead last week.
Both Nine (the owner of this masthead) and Seven are expected to consider approaching FIFA for the 2026 cup.
Unlike the current tournament, games at the Men’s World Cup featuring Australia, and the final, are protected by federal anti-siphoning laws, meaning free-to-air networks have first refusal of buying the rights before any pay-TV or streaming operator.
If a free-to-air network buys the rights to the tournament, it is not obliged to air all of the games free. Nine owns streaming service Stan, while Ten’s parent company, Paramount, owns Paramount+, which could play a role in the broadcasting.
Due to the sensitive nature of the process, no broadcaster commented on the record. FIFA was also approached for comment.
The rights are expected to go for significantly more than $20 million this time, according to industry watchers. The increase in cost could pose a challenge for SBS, which could face increased scrutiny over spending as a publicly funded broadcaster.
However, sources close to the government-owned broadcaster not permitted to speak publicly believe its positive history in airing the competition, and its existing relationship with FIFA, position it as the best partner.
Colin Smith, a sports rights expert and managing director of Global Sports and Media, said the success of the Matildas meant the rights to the upcoming men’s tournament were a “must have” for television networks.
Smith said the tournament now fell into the top-tier category, which includes the AFL, NRL and the Australian Open. He expected “significant dollars” would be needed to secure the event.
Seven’s broadcasting of the free-to-air component of the women’s tournament has further fractured the broadcasting outlook for the sport in Australia.
Domestically, the A-League is broadcast by Network Ten and parent company Paramount (Paramount+) after a five-year deal was signed in 2021 worth $200 million. The company also landed a $100 million deal in 2021 to broadcast rights to all Socceroos and Matildas internationals, friendlies, Asian Cup qualifiers and World Cup qualifiers across three years.
The A-League investment is yet to pay off for Ten, however, with low viewership figures resulting in the weekly Saturday night game being demoted off the network’s main channel after just one season. Most games remain behind a paywall on Paramount+.
The numbers are so poor, according to Smith, that the A-League will “struggle to get a bid” when the process next comes around.
UEFA Champions League games air on Stan Sport, owned by Nine, while Optus Sport owns the rights to the English Premier League. The majority of the sport, including the domestic league, EPL and international matches, previously aired on Foxtel’s Fox Sports.
While interest in the Matildas is at an all-time high due to the team’s success and hosting of the competition, the 2026 tournament will be aired in a more favourable time zone to the past two men’s World Cups.
Taking place in three countries, it will be played in four different time zones. A 7pm kick-off in Los Angeles would air at midday in Australia’s eastern states, while a 7pm game in New York City would air at 9am.
The 2026 tournament will also include 48 teams for the first time, an increase from 32, with 104 games to be played as a result, as opposed to 64.
Source: Thanks smh.com