In-House AFL Website Blows The Final Siren For Old Media
By Bernard LaganSeptember 28, 2012
When AFL Media launched in January, it was denounced as “Pravda”, the puppet mouthpiece of the football state. So far, it’s proved them wrong — and Aussie Rules fans are hitting the site in such high numbers that every day is like Grand Final day.
We can't tell you in advance who is going to win the AFL Grand Final between Hawthorn and the Sydney Swans in Melbourne on September 29, but we do know a clear media winner: that would be the AFL and its spectacularly successful football website, AFL Media.
If you wanted a first-hand look at the speed at which an Internet startup can demolish old monopolies, loyalties and business models, then the carnage that the AFL's in-house football site has wrought upon the Herald Sun and The Age newspapers in Victoria is a good place to start.
And it's an in-house model for new media that doesn't have to be confined to football, basketball or car racing; expect the National Rugby League and perhaps the Australian Rugby Union to follow the AFL in setting up their own news sites. The Commonwealth Bank has hired at least 10 journalists to start its own financial news site.
The detractors were many and loud when Matthew Pinkney, a highly regarded journalist at News Ltd's Herald Sun in Melbourne left his job in charge of the newspaper's website (just before the site went behind a paywall) to go to head up content at the AFL.
Inspired by the huge success of US Major League Baseball's in-house site, the AFL put a $5 million investment into AFL Media. The results thus far have been remarkable; the AFL Media site gets 400- 500,000 unique page views per day and 1.3 million people have downloaded its free apps so far — well beyond the 95,000 that even Pinkney believed they'd get this year. What's more, 40,000 people have elected to pay $50 a year for a premium app that streams live matches. The site now employs around 40 journalists producing multimedia content and is hosted via Telstra's Bigpond. Telstra agreed to pay the AFL $30 million a year for online streaming rights to AFL games.
The AFL has muscled into a deeply troubled industry, and produced a robust business model within the space of months.
The upshot is that the AFL Media site has rapidly outgunned its competitor sites at The Age and The Herald Sun for traffic and is well on the way to shooting down detractors who believed the site would be a mouthpiece for the AFL.
Even long-term newspapermen have been surprised that AFL Media has run stories that haven't served the AFL well. "I will give Matthew Pinkney that," says Bruce Guthrie, a former editor of The Age and the Herald Sun. "Sometimes they do cover issues and you think, 'Oh I am surprised to see it there'," says Guthrie. "But you know, I am a realist and I know that if there was something really, really damaging [to the AFL], then it's probably not going to break at AFLMedia.com."
Adds Guthrie: "If I was editor of The Age newspaper, I'd be saying — and I think The Age is doing this increasingly — if you want independent coverage of footy, you've got to come to The Age because, you know, we don't have any deals with the AFL and we cover it fearlessly. So I think AFL Media is a threat, but the flip side of it is that it's an opportunity as well."
Pinkney, though, is riding high. "We're killing Fairfax [The Age] and The Herald Sun. We are easily the biggest sports website in Australia by a factor of many." And he maintains that the AFL site is independent, and counters that under his editorship, AFL Media has run stories unhelpful to the AFL. "Some of the stuff we've run, the AFL has absolutely hated," says Pinkney.
One such story was published on the AFL Media site in August after James Dampney, an AFL Media reporter watched Israel Folau, the star recruit for the AFL's newest team, Greater Western Sydney, play against Melbourne. Folau is massively important to the AFL's struggle to break the grip that rugby league has long held in Sydney's west; he was a rugby league star who played for the Kangaroos against New Zealand and represented Australia in the rugby league World Cup in 2008. And in 2010, in a coup for the AFL efforts in Sydney's west, he dumped league to play AFL for the new Sydney team.
But Dampney was unimpressed, describing Folau as a sulker who trudged from one end of the ground to the other, making zero impact on the game. He shouldn't wait for his contract to expire in 2014 to go back to rugby league, Dampney concluded. "It would appear to be an almighty waste of his sublime athletic talents and it now seems he would be best served cutting his losses and returning to a game that made him a superstar."
The story, says Pinkney, excoriated Folau; "For us to be saying that he should just give up and go back to rugby league was a really significant story to write."
Pinkney also says the site didn't do itself a lot of favours with the AFL's hierarchy by running a series of stories which canvassed AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou's salary and bonuses.
In Guthrie's view, however, the AFL news site opens the door for clever media management by the AFL: "If they can get some stories out first, then maybe you limit the damage [to the AFL]."
None of this is to say that the AFL Media has — yet — eclipsed the quality of the football coverage in The Age or the Herald Sun. On September 19, The Age's football writer Jake Niall won the most prestigious award in football journalism, the Alf Brown trophy as the most outstanding media performer of the year. He also won the award for most outstanding columnist and for best deadline report. And The Age's celebrated chief football writer, Caroline Wilson, (who won the Alf Brown Trophy the year before) walked away with football's most outstanding feature-writing award. The Herald Sun scooped the football photography awards.
But for the AFL Media, which was initially dubbed Pravda by its competitors at The Age and the Herald Sun, the credibility gap is narrowing.
"They've stopped saying that [Pravda] now," says Pinkney. "I think even they can see that the evidence suggests otherwise. But they still use that with advertisers and external clients. They talk about [the notion that], you can't trust the AFL to give the real story.
"So I am just battling to change that. I think over this year we've got about 65 per cent of the way. We will convince people that we are an absolutely reputable, independent news site."
So far Guthrie remains unconvinced: "I go to the AFL site knowing that it's probably not going to tell me stuff that is going to damage the AFL brand."
Meanwhile, unhappily for the Herald Sun, AFL Media's expansion occurred as the newspaper began to put its formidable football coverage behind a paywall. It's a move which will have sent away readers in droves, and so far News Ltd has been coy about releasing the numbers on how many have taken up paid subscriptions.
Fairfax — publisher of The Age — has announced plans to go behind a paywall early next year, which would only extend the reach of AFL Media's free content. And AFL Media has big expansions plans for 2013.
"There is a lot of growth to come next year because we are creating new sites and they will just that much better in terms of portability and for mobiles," says Pickney. "We also understand much better now what works and what doesn't work."
For media owners, football is as tough off the field as on.