Why AFL.com.au is so poor

Kudos to the Age for daring to report on the speech given by Justin Shaffer, senior vice-president new media for Major League Baseball, last week which referenced the AFL’s exclusive $60 million online content deal with Telstra. This is a topic which needs more background to understand exactly why the AFL has shortchanged online fans for so long.

In the Age story, there were not actually a lot of quotes from Shaffer which were directly critical of the AFL. Perhaps reporter Michael Gleeson had to work hard to make it sound like Shaffer was tipping a bucket on the league and its online policies, but nevertheless a bucket is well deserved. While things have settled down since Jeff Kennett gave a spray last year amid constant downtimes and widespread fan discontent, the recovery has been back to a level that can be described as barely competent.

First, let us examine the price Telstra pays. $12 million per year is way over the odds for afl.com.au, even if its traffic dominates the local sports sector during the winter. I would find it very difficult to believe that Telstra could make a profit from that kind of outlay, given that their advertiser base have to all be approved by the AFL as not being in conflict with their existing sponsors, not to mention the high cost of running the site as well. Many of the slots are filled with Telstra house ads in any case. I think it can be safely assumed that Telstra is paying that exorbitant fee as a defensive measure to protect their interests in other areas. In particular, they are trying to prop up their Bigpond ISP business, by offering AFL content as exclusive to their members, and also offering free high-bandwidth content such as video as unmetered traffic, a very important point for Australian users who get slugged at every point by Telstra for bandwidth usage.

Where does this leave the site itself? As a cost centre, that’s what. Far from investing in in-house content, Telstra outsources content production to third parties like Media Giants and buys in AAP stories. This situation produces weird outcomes like this story, where the official mouthpiece of the AFL reports on newspaper reports of rumours about the AFL, without getting any comment from the AFL itself. On the technical side, Telstra also outsources the web site development, which was the cause of the problems last year when their partner couldn’t handle the insanely tight deadlines brought on by the late-finishing negotiation of the rights deal.

Telstra also have a religious fervour about being a Microsoft shop, and are also heavily into Flash development, leading to ludicrous lack of support for underlying Internet standards in favour of proprietary technologies. Much of the rich content on afl.com.au doesn’t even work in browsers that aren’t the latest Internet Explorer, especially video. Until recently, the entire front page was rendered as a Flash object, which as any web developer worth their salt will tell you is a moronic move that completely destroys usability, not to mention shutting out search engines from reading your links. Two years after its relaunch, the site continues to be slow, suffering intermittent outages and regularly annoying users with technical glitches, especially during live events. Even when the front page does load up it is a shemozzle to look at, making poor use of the extensive photo library that the AFL has exclusive rights over, and burying many of the links that fans want to see.

The AFL is not deaf or blind, they can see what is going on. So why do they continue to keep letting Telstra run their online presence? Money talks, obviously. $5 million a year in the previous deal going up to $12 million in the present deal shuts up a lot of complaints. Essentially, the AFL has decided that it is more important to use that extra $7 million per annum to send to NSW and the Gold Coast to pay for equipment for kids to play Auskick for free, than it is to build up their online brand to something approaching respectability. Who knows, that might even be the right decision.

Meanwhile, the AFL allows sites like mine to flourish because they haven’t done things the MLB way. Hey wait a minute, why am I criticising?! Viva Telstra! 😉

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