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The day I bought the AFL TV rights

Ed Wyatt


Ed Wyatt

Written on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 10:18

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It was 1997. I sat around the small living room of my rented place in Venice Beach, California waiting for St Kilda and Adelaide to play in the Grand Final. I had invited an eclectic group of friends, mostly curious but clueless Americans and diehard expat Aussies, with a smattering of Brits thrown in for good measure.

The guests included Wayne Darwen, a chainsmoking tabloid journalist from Sydney and one of the most brilliant TV writers I've ever met. There was Christian Miles, now the voice of Chivas USA soccer team, and Simon Green my boss at Fox Sports World, who would later run Setanta Sports in the UK. And there was my wife Michelle, who at the time was just my girlfriend.

We all sat around drinking beer - I don't think it was Foster's - and a few indulged in some herbal refreshments. The game was scheduled for 9:30 pm on ESPN 2. It was my first Grand Final and I was pretty excited. I'd watched the AFL that season and thanks to my Aussie friends, had a pretty good grasp of the game.

Imagine our surprise when a baseball game - I think the San Diego Padres playing - went into extra innings and the crawl at the bottom of the screen indicated that the Grand Final would be delayed. Australia's greatest sporting event had been hijacked by a meaningless regular season baseball game.

The Crows added to our disappointment by kicking away to a 31-point win. As the beers continued to flow, Simon and Michelle devised a plan. They were so upset with the treatment ESPN 2 had given the game, that they vowed to acquire the AFL rights for our fledgling network.

Both of them were passionate about it. Simon knew that Fox Sports World needed programming, and Aussie Rules was a product that looked good on air and would give the young network credibility. Michelle grew up with the game and had more personal reasons for wanting the rights.

After a few phone calls and some lobbying (helped by the fact that ESPN was happy to dump it) we ended up with the rights to the AFL for season 1998. I don't recall the cost, but I'm pretty sure it was - believe it or not - just a five-figure sum.

Obviously, we didn't have much of a budget to play with, but we managed to do some really creative stuff. Michelle and I took a trip to Melbourne in March of 1998 and shot interviews with a number of players, including Wayne Carey, James Hird, Jason Dunstall and Shane Crawford. We produced a 30-minute piece called "The A to Z of Aussie Rules" that I hosted and we aired as an educational tool for Americans. And we ran live and delayed games all year long.

We vowed to make the Grand Final an event that year. We produced a Grand Final pregame show called, oddly enough "The Grand Final Pregame Show." I hosted, and we flew Gerard Healy out to co-host. The show went well, though I remember two things vividly: one, our idiotic programmer put about 20 breaks into the one hour show and two, Gerard kept making jokes about Bill Clinton and cigars.

After the show, we hightailed it to a bar called the Great Australian Bite in Redondo Beach, where a capacity crowd watched Adelaide thump North Melbourne. Gerard was besieged by expats wanting to talk footy, and we stirred the pot by telling people that he was in line to be the next coach of St Kilda.

The next year we carried the AFL again, but by the time the Grand Final rolled around, Michelle and I had moved to Melbourne. We watched the 1999 game from the MCG, truly a treat, and the first of eight in a row I'd attend.

Fox Sports World continued to hold the AFL rights until 2006; the network has now transformed itself into the Fox Soccer Channel and only airs the Les Murray version of football. Setanta Sports picked up the broadcasts for three years, until the AFL brass pressured ESPN hard and managed to get the game back on the so-called "Worldwide Leader."

This year's Grand Final will be carried live on ESPN Classic, one of the network's many channels. ESPN 2 - available in more homes - will join the feed sometime in the first quarter after a live MLS game finishes. And ESPN 3, a broadband based provider, will make it available for those not in the vicinity of a television.

It's a great result for the AFL, who deserve a lot of credit for making this happen.

"The current coverage on ESPN will get the Grand Final into more homes than ever before in the US," says Rob de Santos of the Australian Football Association of North America (AFANA), who have worked tirelessly to promote the game in the States.

The Grand Final coverage in the US will start at 8:30 pm on the West Coast and 11:30 pm on the East Coast. Aussies in the States can check AFANA's website (www.afana.com) for Grand Final parties in their area.

As for me, I'll be watching from my loungeroom in suburban Melbourne with Michelle and a two year-old son who thinks the Colliwobbles are a lower rent version of the Wiggles.
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