A-League aims to KEEPUP with rival codes in $30 million digital push
After years of feeling threatened by football’s more popular overseas competitions and struggling with its identity in the local sports landscape, the A-League is changing tack.
The Australian Professional Leagues, which owns the A-League men’s, women’s and youth competitions, last week launched KEEPUP, a digital app and website that it hopes will convert the 8 million football fans in Australia into advocates for Australia’s domestic tournaments. It is the centrepiece of the APL’s ambitious plans to grow the A-League, having secured legal and operational independence from the sport’s governing body, Football Australia, at the start of the year.
KEEPUP is financially risky move – the league says a staggering $30 million has been invested in its creation. But if successful, it could be transformational for a sport which has struggled for years to build a strong local fan base in comparison with bigger, richer codes like the AFL and NRL.
“This is a conversion play,” A-Leagues chief commercial officer Ant Hearne said. “There’s over 8 million people who identify as football fans in Australia. Our challenge is that only about half of them put up their hand and say they’re interested in A-Leagues and only about 1.5 million of them are avid fans.
“In the past we’ve seen the global games as a bit of a threat to us because we don’t control the EPL, we don’t control Bundesliga. We’ve said that if they’re fans of that, then they’re not fans of us. We got caught into this hole where we didn’t give a strong enough identity to A-Leagues. And when you leave a gap, people fill it. In our case, they’re filling it with the incomparable – the European leagues.”
The KEEPUP website and app will provide breaking news, expert columns, in-depth features and analysis, not just on the A-League but also the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and UEFA’s club competitions. The aim is to encourage Australian fans of those leagues to also begin following the men’s and women’s editions of the A-League.
It’s also an e-commerce platform, allowing people to buy tickets to games, jerseys from their favourite teams or club memberships. The KEEPUP team, which will grow to 50 across editorial, production and social media, is led by Richard Bayliss, Optus’ former director of sport.
A-Leagues managing director Danny Townsend said that Bayliss would ensure the hub kept editorial independence.
“Day one of the launch we had two A-League CEOs complaining about criticism on our platform. This is all about being authentic and you can’t have a propaganda site,” he says. “Football fans are extremely discerning and the minute they see something that is not authentic ... they’ll call that out.”
The A-Leagues is not the first sport to take ownership of its content – the AFL and NRL have also invested a significant amount of money on creating digital hubs. But that investment has come with challenges. NRL’s chief digital officer, Alexi Baker, decided last month its digital hub would no longer employ journalists to cover breaking news, with the view that its hub was competing against its broadcast partners.
For Townsend, the platform is key in driving long-term revenue for the game.
“I look at what the other sports are doing and they’re very much wed, fortunately, to TV deals that mean, they don’t need to do what we’re doing. We’re in a situation where we’ve got an enormous base, we’ve got the youngest fan base of any sport in the country who are all digital natives. We’re going to get into the direct-to-consumer business and that will preserve the long-term revenues and build the football economy.”
The deal guarantees one A-League men’s match each week, on Saturday nights, will be broadcast live on Ten’s main channel for the duration of the agreement, preceded by a magazine-style discussion show. It’s the kind of coverage only dreamed of in the league’s 16-year history. The other five A-League games each round are behind a paywall on Paramount+, while one A-League women’s match each week, on Sunday afternoons, is shown on Ten’s secondary channel, 10Bold. It was a deal that allowed the A-League to rebuild after a concerning decline in TV ratings, crowds and general interest over the past few years.
Ten also bought a minority stake in the A-Leagues, which means that it has a financial benefit from any growth in audience. And while media industry executives have privately said they believed Ten paid too much, Townsend said that ViacomCBS’ funding was crucial to the development of the hub.
“What Channel 10 and ViacomCBS bought into was our strategy,” Townsend said. “The ViacomCBS deal was a really critical one for us on many levels financially, but equally the reach it delivers us. But importantly, the owners have continued to invest and put their money where their mouth is.
“The sports media and commercial landscape is changing and the days of sports just serving up content on television, taking a big cheque and playing sport are over. It’s changing in a way that requires sports to take the initiative and connect with their fans. We’ve got to become an entertainment business because at the end of the day, if we’re going to grow revenues of the sport, we need to engage our fans more effectively.”
Fans that sign up to KEEPUP are receiving a four-week trial to Paramount+. But there are also plans to integrate the content into Ten and Paramount+. Only time will tell whether it was worth the investment. But for now, Hearne and Townsend are putting everything behind this arm, in the hope that it will build audiences.
“We’ve been invisible in society for a few years,” Hearne said. “We want to make ourselves very visible and very relevant... not just into sporting culture but culture in Australia.”
I'm surprised we didn't hear more about this - those are huge moves. The world is your oyster if you can produce the content yourself and sell it, and it means you can do whatever you like with tv rights domestically as soon as you believe a subscription model will earn more than a traditional tv rights model.
I would imagine the longterm goal is to be producing games themselves, having their own subscription service, and selling 1-2 games a week to FTA.
Not sure about the name Keep Up. They needed to think of something that immediately made you think "football" or "socceroos" (as the preeminent brand).