It's racquet versus willow on our television screens for the next fortnight as Channel 7's cricket coverage goes head-to-head with the Australian Open tennis on 9. But the bad news for both stations is they will be relying heavily on an unreliable – or untried – talent pool to drag in the ratings.
The Australian Open has been robbed off star power in recent years, with crowd-puller Nick Kyrgios missing the last two tournaments and local hero Ash Barty retiring shortly after winning the women's title in 2022. Throw in the retirements of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, who won 43 grand slam singles titles between them, on top of Rafael Nadal's prolonged injury absence and it's easy to see why TV executives may be sweating a little.
Channel 9 recently paid around $450m to extend its rights to the Australian Open – and lead-up tournaments - until 2029. Channel 7 and pay-TV operator Foxtel will pay around $1.5 billion to secure cricket's broadcast rights until 2031. Now they need the performers to perform.
Seven enjoyed better-than-expected ratings figures after Pakistan surprised cricket fans with a fighting series loss on David Warner's farewell Test tour. But they face a nervous fortnight as the summer schedule throws up a two-Test series against the fading West Indies in Adelaide (Jan 17-21) and Brisbane (Jan 25-29).
There's hardly a recognisable name among the Windies squad and the one-time world superpower will be doing well to last more than three days in either Test against a rampant Australian side. Steve Smith's debut as opener is the only decent storyline.
Media analyst weighs in on tennis v cricket TV battle
Expert media analyst Steve Allen, from Pearman Media, said broadcasters tread a fine line between cheering for Australian success and hoping for an even contest. "The golden rule of sporting ratings success is Australians have to be competitive and in with a chance to win, to get those extra 10-15 per cent ratings boost," he told Yahoo Sport Australia.
"Conversely, if we face a walk-over with no substantial competition on the other side, the ratings will drop. Hence Pakistan recently having some fight, meant better ratings than would have been expected. As to the West Indies, they have a special place (in my view) with the Australian viewing public - fast, flamboyant, swashbuckling play. Exciting. This is what Test cricket needs. (Ratings) will depend completely on their standard of play and how competitive they are. We live in hope.
"We think this year, in particular, is a tennis transition year. Until the new generation of Australian tennis stars emerge, ratings will not hold, let alone grow. Plus, many of the most exciting international names and drawcards are toward the end of careers or have recently retired. The rivalry at the top is changing dramatically and fast."
Asked who he felt would be the happiest right now - 7 or 9 - Allen replied: "Seven with cricket. The Seven Network cricket contract has about twice the number of telecast hours and is spread over 3-4 months and something like 50-60 telecast days.
"This suits most marketers, rather than a 15-day (Australian Open) blitz. However, the 15-day blitz provides Nine with a launch platform for new programming season like no other. Historically when Seven had this, they owned the Q1 ratings lead. It was why (Channel 7 CEO) James Warburton was very critical of Seven’s previous management, losing out to Nine in the 2020-2024 (tennis) renewal." Nine will be praying Alex de Minaur goes on a giant-killing run to sustain interest into the second week of the tournament.
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