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AFL rekindles US ties with ESPN, enjoys domestic ratings boost

Australian rules football league the AFL has returned to the screens of ESPN in the United States, with the sports broadcaster agreeing a deal to cover the remainder of its 2020 season.

ESPN will provide one live match per week on a linear television channel and one through streaming service ESPN3.

A total of 32 games across 16 weeks are to be shown, with the action having commenced with Geelong Cats’ victory over Hawthorn Hawks on Friday.

The IMG agency distributes the international broadcast rights to the AFL, from 2020 to 2022, and can sell rights to up to all nine fixtures per match week.

ESPN, which launched in September 1979, aired AFL action in its first year as it was unable to secure rights to US major leagues in its formative years.

The AFL grew a cult-like following with ESPN continuing its coverage through to 1985. ESPN2 also aired the AFL in 1996-97 and 2010-11.

The ESPN deal has been agreed after the AFL marked its return to action on Thursday by revising and extending its rights contract with commercial broadcaster Seven, while amending its deal with pay-television operator Foxtel.

The deal with Seven was announced ahead of the Collingwood v Richmond clash, 81 days after the 2020 Premiership season was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Seven agreed a deal which revises the current contract for the remainder of the 2020 season, and the 2021 and 2022 campaigns, as well as adding a two-year extension taking in 2023 and 2024.

Seven is set to receive a 19-per-cent saving and a net benefit of A$87m (€52.6m/$59.3m) over the remainder of the current deal through to the end of 2022, before the extended contract commences.

Foxtel will save almost A$30m per year under the amended existing deal (from 2020 to 2022), according to Australian reports, but has not extended its contract.

Domestic ratings boost

The AFL’s return to action delivered a significant uplift in viewing figures, with almost 5.8 million viewers tuning in for the second round of 2020 Premiership action.

The figures from audience measurement research firm OzTAM compare to the average of 3.97 million viewers that the 2019 season generated per regular season round.

The round two ratings were dominated by Thursday and Friday evening’s prime-time encounters. Collingwood and Richmond’s draw drew a national audience of 1.64 million across free-to-air and subscription channels, while Geelong’s comprehensive victory over Hawthorn pulled in 1.28m viewers.

Matches were broadcast live on free-to-air television into most or all five major metropolitan markets in Australia.