After the disaster that was Optus’ streaming service during the World Cup in Russia, thank goodness for Lucy Zelic, Craig Foster and SBS.
In 1980, the Australian Government added a second publicly funded television station to run alongside its already popular and well established ABC.
SBS was born and the Special Broadcasting Service was a reaction to the broader demands of a growing multicultural and diverse population. With migrant communities seeking to stay connected to their homelands as a source of comfort and solace, the new station became the vehicle for international news, entertainment and sporting programs.
So-called ‘new Australians’ sought content far wider than that being offered on the three commercial networks and the rather British-centric, publicly funded Channel Two.
The game of football became one of the foundational pillars of SBS and to this very day plays a key role in attracting viewers.
1977 saw the inaugural season of the National Soccer League (NSL) in Australia after state based structures had dominated the decades prior. For international readers of this column it is important contextually, to understand the reluctance, pessimism and scepticism in Australia at the time, when it came to the round ball game.
Migrants had founded local clubs all over the country and sought to keep memories of their upbringing and culture alive; in a land where football was still a dirty word. Their attempts to share the beauty of the game with the local people were mostly unsuccessful, with allegiance to Australian Rules football and Rugby League holding sway.
Along with cricket in the summer months there was more than enough sport for the average aussie in the late seventies and early eighties and ‘wog ball’ was perceived to be from another world.
Thanks to public funding and a belief in broader programming designed to engage with more marginalised sections of the community, SBS was here to stay.
Highlights of European football matches were shown on Saturday afternoons and iconic programs such as On the Ball and The World Game, both hosted by the late Les Murray, became part of the staple diet of football fans in Australia.
Murray was a Hungarian migrant who embodied the passions of a true fan of world football, complete with the most wonderful linguistic mastery over players’ names from all around the globe.
As an Anglo-Saxon kid it opened up a whole new world to me; one beyond the Melbourne and Sydney Cricket Grounds.
Despite the eventual termination of the NSL in 2004 after some highs and some very low, lows. SBS remained at the coal-face throughout.
2005 saw the new, exciting and Hyundai sponsored A-League that threw away any resemblance to those early ethnically aligned clubs and saw teams connected to major cities across the country.
The new competition has had similar moments of glory and desperation yet once again, SBS has continued to play a role in telling the ongoing story.
The World Cup comes around every four years and SBS has been instrumental in bringing those images back to Australia ever since I can remember.
Murray and former Australian Captain Johnny Warren were the faces of the coverage and will probably never be surpassed as analysts.
Russia 2018, with all the fandangled, modern means by which to watch sport, should have been a boon for the average Australian football lover, who are far more commonly found than ever before.
Instead it proved to be a broadcasting disaster. With SBS on-selling a portion of the rights to communications powerhouse Optus (thanks to Federal Government budget cuts) fans probably had a right to feel their viewing experience of the Cup would be extensive and slick.
From Optus’ point of view, it provided an opportunity to further establish a foothold in the market in terms of football coverage in Australia. Only two years ago, it invested heavily to pinch the Premier League rights from Foxtel for a princely sum.
In the lead up to Russia, Optus promised a brilliant streaming service with endless menu options to cater for the every whim of football consumers.
All matches live, highlights packages and magazine shows to keep fans up to date all sounded like a good deal.
SBS would cover one match live per night with all matches streamed via the Optus Sport app or through their website via the ‘online player’.
With two years to prepare and get it right, a certain standard was expected.
In reality, Optus provided nothing more than an unreliable streaming service, plagued with buffering issues and drop outs. The net result was many Australian fans sitting up in the wee hours, unable to view the early matches without interruption or a complete loss of signal.
Streaming content on phones or devices and casting to televisions isn’t the Australian way. Nor is huddling around monitors, phones and tablets or purchasing a subscription to an Optus service when a perfectly good flat screen television, SBS signal and roof top aerial are at hand.
Fans contacted the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to see where they stood legally in terms of recouping money from their subscription payments. At the same time, a decision was made to permit SBS to broadcast all matches live until such a point as Optus could guarantee reliability.
That never happened and Lucy Zelic, Craig Foster and the production team took on the monumental task of covering all the remaining matches.
They did it with a class and grace, in spite of a red-neck inspired hate campaign against Zelic and her insistence on correct pronunciation of players’ names.
The ‘spiritual home of football’ delivered in spades. Culture, politics and history were discussed in an informed way and the broader meaning of the World Cup was articulated, particularly by Foster, exquisitely.
I guess, ‘all’s well that ends well’, yet the sins of Optus will take a long time to be forgiven.
An adequately funded Special Broadcasting Service that brings football to our screens reliably and free of charge, will definitely be on my wish list come Christmas time.