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Is Australia copping a bad F1 TV deal?

Last night Formula One confirmed what had long been rumoured by pundits and sought after by fans: live online streaming is coming to the sport this season.

For between $US8 and $US12 ($A10 and $A15) per month ‘pro’ subscribers to F1 TV, as it will be called, will have access to live coverage of every Formula One session and the sessions of F1’s support categories as well as live timing, archive footage and extensive highlights. A lower tier subscription at a cheaper price will feature the same less the live coverage.

It’s terrific news ahead of what is expected to be a particularly competitive season — so long as you live in an eligible territory, of course.

Deciphering where F1 TV will be launched this season requires some amount of guesswork, however. Formula One says “nearly two dozen markets” will have access, and Germany, France, the United States, Mexico, Belgium, Austria and Hungary are specifically named.

“Much of Latin America” will also have access which, according F1 commercial chief Sean Bratches, means “Latin America other than Brazil”. The sport’s current broadcast deal in Latin America comprises 19 countries including Mexico, which would take the total to 25, more than the not-quite 24 number provided.

In short, it’s not clear.

What you’ve probably already guessed, however, is that Australia, unnamed and certainly not part of Latin America, is unlikely to make the cut.

It’s an especially underwhelming realisation ahead of the first season Australian coverage will be locked almost exclusively behind the Foxtel paywall. Only the Australian Grand Prix, as per anti-siphoning requirements, is obliged to be broadcast on Network Ten, which will otherwise make do with race highlights throughout the season.

The countries set to miss out are those in which pre-existing broadcast agreements would prevent Formula One from competing with its own television partners. The United Kingdom is one particularly high-profile example, with British viewers seemingly locked out of the F1 TV service until the expiry of Sky Sports F1’s impending 2019–24 exclusive broadcast deal.

“With the media rights agreements we had this year, previously none of them would have permitted us to do that,” Bratches told Autosport.

“But we have managed to come to terms in many of the territories, and we think we have done so in a win-win way.”

Australians have a right to feel aggrieved that Down Under hasn’t made the cut, however.

Fox Sports Australia’s broadcast deal, which expires at the end of 2022, was agreed on only last September, albeit somewhat hurriedly considering Ten falling into administration, as this column noted at the time. Just days later the United States broadcast rights changed hands from NBC to ESPN, with NBC noting that, “In this case we chose not to enter into a new agreement in which the rights holder itself competes with us and our distribution partners”.

In other words over-the-top (OTT) coverage was on the table for the United States bidders, as it would have or at least should have been when Australia’s deal was struck. Either it wasn’t, which begs why that would be the case, or the idea was point-blank refused by the incumbent broadcaster.

Fox Sports turned down the opportunity to comment, saying that it doesn’t discuss negotiations or the contents of its contracts.

Regardless of the reason, it’s a frustrating omission, particularly given Formula One has shifted many of its start times by more than an hour later into the evening. Australia is by no means a key market and would therefore have hardly figured in the decision-making for a move primarily targeted to benefit American audiences, but the effect of moving most European race start times to beyond 11pm, putting their finishing times close to 1am on a Monday morning for east-coast viewers, will be dire for local audiences.

It is in overseas markets like Australia that OTT coverage can have the greatest benefits. Whether because of time zone dislocation, barriers to access, paucity of content or a combination of all three, sports already adept at providing OTT services ensure they cater to those fans in overseas or non-traditional territories who would otherwise become disenfranchised and, ultimately, detached from the sport altogether.

Australia is ripe for OTT coverage. Aside from our rapidly growing online streaming service uptake rates, we have a sizeable core of fans willing to engage in Formula One, but they may not prove so enthusiastic that they will pay Foxtel’s exorbitant monthly fees for a set fare of coverage at increasingly unsociable hours.

Offer a customisable on-demand model at a competitive price, however, and Australian F1 audiences may yet have a chance to thrive in what ought to be the optimistic dawn of a new Formula One era.

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