Is Duke the new TV frontier for the A-League in New Zealand?


A significant change in the New Zealand media landscape could launch the A-League on to free to air television in a second country and help secure the Wellington Phoenix a key metric in extending their recently announced new licence.

With four years guaranteed and two further three-year ‘bolt-ons’ should the club reach agreed targets with Football Federation Australia the addition of the ‘Duke’ channel, from March 20, on free to air network Television New Zealand could see the long-awaited potential of a new television deal of significance, in terms of reach and financial reward.

Duke, which network executives have said will have a ‘male-skewed’ focus, is set to have 25% sport content featuring a suite of competitions including the NFL, NBA, AFL, World Rally Championship and one of the tennis majors – Wimbledon. (For readers in Australia Duke is essentially One HD Channel which the Ten Network operates – or at least what the network hoped it would be before it was filled with Operation Repo and replays of Family Feud.)

Speaking on Newstalk ZB recently TVNZ Director of Content Jeff Latch noted that whilst pay TV in New Zealand has a broad cut-through with 60% of the population paying for Sky TV only half of those pay for the sports package. So, as a rough approximation that is just under 1.5 million potential viewers for games. When you take away kids (who aren’t counted in ratings until they reach their teens) the starting point to capture a viewer is very low and free-to-air coverage would greatly enhance this.

The figures mirror Australia’s pay tv viewership (which, despite recent innovations, saw subscriptions go up in late 2015) with about 30% of people having access to pay tv, and therefore (most) A-League games.

Should the Phoenix owners the Welnix group (who it was reported will take a role in TV negotiations) are able to convince TVNZ of the value of a local product this could be the fillip to expand coverage of the A-League in New Zealand.

A major barriers to this deal include production costs. All of the major sporting product Duke has acquired come from overseas ready to air with no need to send a truck, staff and equipment around the country to Christchurch, Wellington or the north shore of Auckland.

This is where a negotiation with Sky Sport may come into play. With a few options.

-Deal stays as is, all games on Sky Sport.

-Slight variation, all games on Sky Sport plus Phoenix game is simulcast on Duke. In TV land scheduling is king so the ability to do this with various kick-off times may be tough. However due to current commercial arrangements Sky have, which we will get to, this is unlikely.

-All games go to Duke with the network acquiring the New Zealand rights.

Under the second option Sky Sport could absorb the production costs and on-sell the game to Duke or, if the third option occurred they would need to invest in this equipment which is perhaps were other help could come in.

It’s worth noting at this point Sky utilise Prime, their free to air off-shot, to broadcast Super Rugby on a weekly basis. Prime has free to air Saturday night matches appear upon their conclusion at around 9:30pm on Prime and this is possibly a deal which could be mirrored in the A-League. How much extra value a delayed sporting game has in the current media landscape is questionable but it’s an option which should have been in play for FFA and Welnix even before Duke came along. Having Duke in the market might not mean they will end up with the A-League but it may mean Sky/Prime look at a similar relationship as to which they have with SANZAR via Super Rugby. If something like that eventuated, even with just the Phoenix match weekly live on Prime, this would be a win for the Phoenix and the A-League.

In the recently completed domestic football competition in New Zealand, the ASB Premiership, Sky Sport came on board with coverage. However the national federation, New Zealand Football, supported the broadcast financially. Perhaps they could support part of a similar arrangement with Duke which also looped in more ASB Premiership coverage double-headers. Although given the recent issues between the national federation and New Zealand’s only professional football franchise this option may not be a high priority for the ‘Nix ownership group.

The timing of the deals could also be of significance. Duke has launched with a bang given it’s high-rating overseas content includes the NFL and the NBA, the network may not have much set aside for a new deal, or if it does it could be targeting a doozy…

Given live All Blacks tests are not on free-to-air in New Zealand could Duke be after All Blacks tests down the track?

Even if Duke were after rugby union, and it was costly, the A-League still offers something their current acquisitions don’t in the form of summer-time prime-time sport which is also a domestic competition. This would tap into the tribalism and local aspect of sport which is surely a key driver of getting viewers loyal to Duke. Even new fans of the NFL and NBA would take time to adopt a team but in the Phoenix, even if the person isn’t in Wellington, they have a team that is ‘their side.’

TVNZ through Duke have already shown an appetite for football with Bundesliga and EPL amongst their football offerings. They will not be taking blanket coverage of these leagues with one game a week live but it is perhaps a mirror into their potential expanded football coverage which is at family-friendly times.

Negotiated effectively a deal with Duke, or Sky TV/Prime, could leave the A-League with a much broader reach in New Zealand. Coupled with an improved effort on the field in the next season this could also help boost crowds which will in turn grow memberships – both of which are key metrics come 2020/21.

Since Netflix have said they don’t intend on going after sports rights unless they own the leagues in question it’s time to push the broadcasting chips to the middle of the table on this new venture.

About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.

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