It has been an unusual but successful pre-season for what has traditionally been Foxtel’s #1 sports channel for most of the football season.
This year again saw what are basically 27 practice matches between the AFL teams, with no finals or Grand Final, in a competition branded the JLT Community Series.
A big difference this year was the launch of the AFL Women’s competition. There were 28 games in total with Fox Footy producing coverage of 20 of those games and Seven looking after the other eight – Fox Footy simulcast seven of those. Seven has the exclusive coverage of the AFLW Grand Final this week.
Asked what it had meant to Fox Footy, the channel’s general manager Michael Neill told Mediaweek everyone was excited by the enthusiasm and the joy it has delivered footy fans at this time of the year. “I have daughters and they are watching it and loving it. It reaches a different market and it is a different way to look at the game.
“We have been using a lot of female commentators with Kelli Underwood and Neroli Meadows leading the coverage. It has given us the opportunity to try a few different things.”
As to coverage of the AFL season that started on Thursday, Neill said there will only be minor tweaks to the 2017 coverage.
“We have a new show called The Greatest, which is a 20-To-1 style program with a couple of comedians hosting – Tegan Higginbotham and Matt Tilley.
“We are also repackaging some of the 200 episodes of Mike Sheahan’s Open Mike and having theme nights.
“We also have a number of new sets with state-of-the-art technology.”
New signings this year include Matthew Pavlich working on Perth-based games, the return of Paul Roos now his coaching career is over, and Nick Dal Santo is new.”
Neill has been with Fox Sports for close to 19 years after working in sport at Nine prior to that. His roles at Fox Sports have included Rugby League executive producer and head of production and development before he joined Fox Footy in 2012. Later he rose to his current role as GM of the Melbourne-based station.
The team that worked on the launch of Fox League have had Neill in Sydney giving his insights as to what he has learnt about a dedicated channel for one sport. “Building a single sport channel is different to a multisport channel. We learnt a lot of things the hard way when we built Fox Footy five years ago. I am originally from Sydney so I know a bit about Rugby League and I was happy to help out however I could.”
Asked about how he thought Fox League looked after just three weeks on air, Neill said: “It looks terrific. One of the things about a single sport channel, and we do it pretty well with Fox Footy, is giving it an identity. Once you turn it on you should know you are watching that channel. We try to be consistent with our music, graphics, look and feel. Fox League has managed to do the same thing with a strong identity graphically, the music, the sets, the talent…they have done a great job with everything.”
As to the question about who might end up with the biggest audiences, Neill laughed and said: “There will be friendly rivalry between us. I have known the guys running Fox League for a long time, but a little competitive tension never hurt anyone. We are lucky that we have had five years’ head start and we have a dedicated group of supporters and fans. We have a number of established franchises with a lot of people viewing them.
“Fox League is building some new franchises as well as moving some existing ones to the new channel. It might take a little while to get running but the early signs are very encouraging.”
Fox League is having success with entertainment programs after its Thursday and Friday games. Neill said that is something they will be watching carefully. “You might see a slightly different Fox Footy post-game show from us on Saturday night. We will give it a different feel and give it a bit more opinion.”
As to catering for audiences consuming television in different ways, Neill points to a program like Open Mike where they have extra content they can package up and distribute on different platforms. “We have also been experimenting with other digital-only content exclusives to see how they go.”
On the last weekend before the season started, Neill admitted many of the team were in the South Melbourne studio testing the systems to make sure everything is ready this week. “I told the team that it is a long year ahead and we are live every day from now until early October. I told them to go and see their family and start making promises about taking them on holiday in October and November!
“We have a passionate and hardworking team that put the channel together and we are all champing at the bit waiting for the footy to start.”