FIFA LEAGUES/CUPS

Australia enters the unknown with new era of World Cup coverage | Jonathan Howcroft | Football

The mellifluous ooh sound Les Murray fashioned when forming the word football is the source of vivid Proustian memories throughout Australia. It transports the world game’s true believers to weekend afternoons watching Murray and Johnny Warren putting the world to rights. For tourists to planet soccer it’s the soundtrack to the World Cup, those quadrennial winters when Murray invited himself into the nation’s front rooms to steward the uninitiated through festivals of futbol.

For the first time since Mexico 1986 Murray will not be headlining Australia’s World Cup broadcast. He died last year aged 71, three years after announcing on-air that Brazil 2014 would be his last tournament in front of the camera. He leaves behind enormous shoes to fill.

The task of maintaining Murray’s World Cup legacy falls not only to his successors at SBS, but Optus Sport, the pay-TV provider that is attempting to pivot from telco to Australia’s home of live football.

For Russia 2018 Optus Sport have sub-licensed the World Cup rights from SBS. In a deal that satisfies anti-siphoning regulations, every minute of Russia 2018 will be available to Optus Sport customers while a hand-picked 25 matches plus highlights remain on free-to-air. Those matches include all Australian group games, two quarter-finals, both semis and the final.

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In other words, it’s still possible to engage with the World Cup without putting your hand in your pocket, but if you want the total immersive experience it’s going to cost a little extra: $14.99 per month to be precise, unless you’re an Optus customer with access through a complementary service, like a postpaid mobile or broadband connection. All the content will be streamed online, accessible via an app or found on TV through interfaces like Chromecast and Apple TV.

It is a step into the future, and one not welcomed universally. Australian consumers are accustomed to major sport being accessible for free and without the technological risks associated with streaming services – such as the ones experienced by Optus Sport during the early days of its coverage of the English Premier League. It will take time to establish consumer trust, but executive producer Richard Bayliss is confident it is a mission his team can accomplish.

“The technology is now is light years ahead of where it was a year or two ago,” Bayliss tells Guardian Australia. “And there are scores of people whose job it is to make sure everything goes off without a hitch and having seen how hard they’ve been working in the lead-up to the World Cup I don’t think people should be concerned at all.”

It remains to be seen if Optus Sport can pull it off. Credibility is on the line with the World Cup representing the highest profile test to date of the nascent platform, and they can expect the slightest malfunction to be pounced on by disgruntled subscribers with any errors magnified by rival media agencies.

The on-air production sounds ambitious with Bayliss, Mel McLachlan and Jules Breach anchoring a live broadcast stretching for 11.5 hours through the Australian night. Around the matches there will be supplementary content delivered from the Red Square studio, all with a focus on capturing the real-time experience and responding to unfolding events. For their sake, let’s hope there’s plenty to talk about.

Les Murray



The World Cup in Russia will have an unfamiliar feel without Les Murray on Australian screens. Photograph: SBS

Over at SBS Lucy Zelic has inherited the hot seat from Murray and she will anchor the one live free-to-air match as well as the daily wrap show that will go out at 5.30pm AEST. “It will be a very poignant moment when we first go on air without Les,” explains Stuart Randall, executive producer for sport at SBS. “But we’re going to ensure we honour his memory throughout the tournament and we’re going to do a couple of little things to ensure he has a presence throughout our coverage.”

For fans alternating between offerings, SBS’s package contains one notable advantage – live commentary from Martin Tyler, arguably the most respected English language football commentator. Otherwise the talent on display across productions will feature the usual assortment of former players and coaches, doubtless engaging in varying levels of air-filling analysis and “banter” to which we have become accustomed. SBS has opted not to invest in any supporting entertainment content this year, which means no Jimeoin’s Full Brazilian or Santo Sam & Ed’s World Cup Fever.

“Football is about many things,” Murray intoned during his final piece to camera at Brazil 2014. “But most of all it is about joy, a medium by which our lives can become more fun, something which makes us smile through our toils. The World Cup, more than the football, is about having a good time, about having a party, and as parties go, this has been the grandest of them all.”

The next party begins with the opening ceremony from Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday 14 June. Australia’s first encounter is against France two days later. Sleep can wait until August.


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