On the back of the largely unpopular Sunday night and Monday timeslot being shelved, the AFL’s move to further test Thursday night football in 2015 has seen it explode in popularity.
If we discount the traditional Thursday night opener between Richmond and Collingwood from the analysis, it can be deduced that games in the emerging marquee slot rate higher on TV than your typical Saturday or Sunday game while comparing well with the Friday night slot.
630,000 people on average watched the quartet of Thursday night games in June across 7 and 7 Mate. Meanwhile on Fox Footy, an average of 237,000 tuned in for the four games.
If you compare those figures to your typical AFL blockbuster over the weekend, it looks a more than favourable result. For example, the opener round Easter Monday clash between Hawthorn and Geelong had 600,000 people tune in on FTA and 270,000 on Foxtel.
The similar Friday night blockbuster has experienced a downturn this year but even the Collingwood and Carlton blockbuster in Round 5 rated 564,000 on FTA, lower than all four Thursday night games played in June and July.
So what does this mean for the timeslot in the future? Simply, expect a lot more of it.
With the $1.253 billion AFL TV deal expiring at the end of the 2016 season; it is no secret that the league is looking to expand on that.
As it currently stands, there are five games on Saturday and with the AFL looking for new ways to drive the price up, one of those slots looms as the one that could temporarily shift to Thursday.
Foxtel and 7 currently hold the rights but with a seemingly new and fresh marquee slot garnered further this year, the league could package eight or 10 Thursday night games to a specific network or even an online partner to drive up the value of the new TV rights deal.
It is all well and good to have a successful timeslot but the main reason why Thursday night football has captured the public this year is the fixturing. Both games in Adelaide have been near-sell outs and while the game at the SCG had a touch under 30,000 at the ground, it is still a more than respectable at a ground notoriously hard to get to on a weeknight.
With six to eight Thursday night games being mooted for 2016, it appears it will be a final year of trialling before the new broadcast deal is likely signed some time during the next season.
The successful formula has usually pitted an interstate side against a big Victorian side. The rationale behind it is sound; you get a non-Victorian state interested while having a large Melbourne-based side that captures the interests of fanatical supporters as well as the neutral simply tuning in for a good contest.
Thursday night games in Perth and Adelaide are now proven winners but the final piece in this puzzle remains cracking the market in Melbourne.
So what is the solution? Perhaps pitting a mid-range Victorian side with a powerhouse is it. A game between Collingwood and St.Kilda rated 554,000 on FTA earlier in 2015 with a reputable 45,197 through the gates. Schedule a similar contest on Thursday night in 2016 and beyond and it’s hard not to argue that both the TV and attendance figures wouldn’t grow.
Another underlying positive of the new slot is that it gives emerging clubs a new timeslot to pit to prospective sponsors and even new supporters. With football becoming more like a business every year, a new night timeslot allows for the non-traditional Victorian powerhouse to make up some ground on their rivals.
Thursday night football looms as the AFL’s key bargaining chip in the upcoming TV rights deal but they have got to be careful not to kill the golden goose. It is almost inevitable that they will have to branch out and schedule a game or two in Melbourne next year. If and when they do, it is imperative they take similar scheduling nuance that made the timeslot so successful this year.
While talkback and online feedback has seen many traditionalists bemoan the new footy slot, on face value it is has not broken even with comparable times during the weekend, but actually exceeded expectations. The Saturday afternoon may pull on the romantic heartstrings of the footy world, it simply does not rate as high as night games. If you discount the ANZAC Day anomaly, not one Saturday arvo game has featured in the top 20 highest rating games of the current season.
Putting it bluntly, it appeals to the new-generation of football games while also satisfying the bean counters who aim to sign a new broadcast deal never previously seen in Australian sport.
The June-July Thursday night experiment has passed with flying colours and looms as a key pawn in the upcoming years. Cracking the market in Melbourne on Thursday remains the final frontier for a once derided part of the football fixture. Find a healthy balance and then who knows where this new timeslot will take the game.