Facing up to the Showdown’s national TV snub

A legend of Australian football says Port Adelaide and the Crows’ Showdown rivalry is the best in the game. So why does the AFL’s free-to-air telecaster ignore it? Michelangelo Rucci reports.

Adelaide's Rory Sloane faces off against Port's Sam Powell-Pepper in a 2019 Showdown. The club rivalry makes the Showdown the best derby in the AFL, says Malcolm Blight. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Adelaide's Rory Sloane faces off against Port's Sam Powell-Pepper in a 2019 Showdown. The club rivalry makes the Showdown the best derby in the AFL, says Malcolm Blight. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Crows chief executive Tim Silvers tried everything late last year to convince the Channel Seven executives that the Showdown should have national free-to-air television coverage, in the same way as the old Melbourne rivalries – in particular those of Collingwood, Carlton, Richmond and Essendon.

Silver even went to their Melbourne offices at the Docklands, next to AFL headquarters, to make his plea. The trip was not totally wasted. The AFL finally delivered on former chief executive Andrew Demetriou’s promise – as a reward for moving from Football Park to Adelaide Oval in 2014 – with a Friday night timeslot for the first Crows-Port Adelaide derby of the season … on April Fool’s Day.

But Seven would not budge, even with history suggesting the 51st derby would ignore the form lines, premiership rankings and vastly differing projections for the rebuilding Crows and supposedly premiership-contending Port Adelaide teams.

As Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley says, “You just know what Showdowns do. And you just think, how can they keep delivering and ending up in these epics?”

Since the first Showdown in 1997, seven of the 51 derbies have been decided by a goal or less – and each of the past two by four points. More than half of the Showdowns – 32 of 51 – have been won by four goals or less, 18 in Port Adelaide’s favour and 14 for the Crows.

Adelaide’s Ben Keays fights Port’s Travis Boak for possession at the August 2021 Showdown. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Regardless, the Seven executives made it known to Silvers they had no reason to “put all our eggs in one basket”. They could get the best of two games rather than one – even on Friday nights which, until this year, had just one game played in the so-called premier AFL timeslot.

In Adelaide, Seven was guaranteed top ratings by the AFL’s long-standing policy that all Crows and Power matches produced by pay-TV arm Fox Footy must be shown on free-to-air television in South Australia. In essence, Seven was piggy backing off Foxtel’s work.

Nationally, Seven was living off the ratings of the Melbourne-Essendon game that started an hour earlier at the MCG. Expat Victorians in Sydney and Brisbane were more likely to watch an old VFL rivalry rather than a new AFL duel in Adelaide, Seven argued.

It might have been interesting to have asked the Seven executives who rebuffed Silvers about their programming decision, after Crows recruit Jordan Dawson became the first player to kick the winning goal in a Showdown after the siren. By contrast, the Melbourne-Essendon game was decided by 29 points in Melbourne’s favour – and much earlier.

Silvers has no regret in leaving the Seven offices in Melbourne and persisting with Adelaide’s request for the first Friday night Showdown.

Some argue the Adelaide chief executive should have told AFL executive Travis Auld to hold off until Seven offered a national free-to-air telecast, with the all the significant marketing spoils and national exposure for the Crows’ corporate backers. After all, there was no gain at the gate, and there was not to be in April when fans were still reluctant to gather while the COVID threat remained real. The first Showdown of the year drew less than 40,000 (39,190). Generally, be it Friday night, Saturday afternoon or even Monday morning, Showdown tickets sell.

“Never,” says Silvers of the thought of canning the Friday night request once Seven refused to offer national free-to-air television coverage.

“My thoughts were, ‘Get it on Friday night. Let’s show everyone what we can do’.

“I definitely thought, just the feel of the CBD on a Friday night – let’s experience that and showcase that part of the Showdown. And it was great for the town.

“I am a ‘glass half full’ person,” adds Silvers. “I did position or propose to the AFL a Showdown on a Friday night. I’d been here (from Melbourne) for almost a year. I know the passion (among South Australians) is extraordinary for footy.

“We reached a compromise. We got Friday night from the AFL, but it was not on national free-to-air (television).

“I understand there is the challenge for a national broadcaster to show two teams from the one State in a smaller market (such as Adelaide when compared to Melbourne). But the Showdowns we have produced deserve (national free-to-air television coverage). This is an event.

“The show we put on holds us in good stead to try to achieve that outcome down the track. No doubt, no doubt.”

Photo: Michael Errey / InDaily

The trigger to Silvers’ play for national free-to-air television coverage of the Showdown could come in the new AFL television rights in which Fox Footy wants to hold exclusive rights to its matches.

Free-to-air networks Seven, Nine and Ten – all bidders in the new deal – would then have to seek first screening rights to the Showdown. If they fail, South Australian football fans will, for the first time have to pay to see the derby, either at the gate or by pay-TV or a streaming subscription.

Showdown LII on Saturday night, hosted by Port Adelaide, again will be off the national free-to-air television grid. Seven will again take the Fox Footy coverage for its Adelaide audiences, while outside of South Australia the free-to-air television program is the Essendon-Richmond match, a traditional VFL rivalry, from the MCG.

Essendon is well out of the finals race and in turmoil off the field. Richmond is safe as a top-eight finalist. It is hardly a blockbuster game with major consequences for next month’s finals.

Silvers and his Port Adelaide counterpart Matthew Richardson could offer a crystal ball vision of the Showdown again being decided on the last kick of the derby, and the Seven executives would not budge. They have no need while they can get two AFL games at the same time – one for the South Australian market; the other for the national ratings grid.

So what will it take for the Melbourne-based executives at Seven to see what the Melbourne-born Silvers has come to appreciate of the Showdown? That is the modern AFL rivalry that Australian Football Hall of Fame “Legend” Malcolm Blight, who has lived in Adelaide, Melbourne and Queensland, regards as the best derby in Australian football?

“It’s Showbiz,” says Blight. “Roll out that line again, ‘The greatest rivalry in Australia’. Well, it is. The Showdown always means something. There is never a dead rubber, well, hardly been a dead rubber. There is always something on the line.”

Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

On the field, there seems little other than pride – and delivering hope for 2023 – on the line. If Adelaide wins, the rebuild certainly will seem on track. If Port Adelaide wins, it will have honoured “Showdown specialist” Robbie Gray in his final AFL game and given more merit to confirming Hinkley’s contract to coach the team next season.

Off the field, there is another story. There always is with the South Australian derby. It is just a matter of who will fire the first verbal shot, a task taken up by Port Adelaide defence coach and premiership hero Chad Cornes who on Sunday declared his hatred for the Crows. Last year, it was Port Adelaide football boss Chris Davies suggesting the Crows carried “a whole heap of professional jealousy around what our club has been able to achieve over time”.

But even with these emotive pre-Showdown scripts that say so much of South Australia, its football and the “them v us” divide between Port Adelaide and the Crows, the executives at Seven prefer to stick with a Victorian match-up on the national free-to-air television schedule.

Saturday night is 11th-ranked Port Adelaide against 14th-placed Adelaide, with the Crows having chalked up three wins in a row. Port Adelaide’s 84-point smashing of Essendon on Sunday dented all hopes of Showdown LII deciding which of the South Australian rivals finished higher on the AFL ladder.

Regardless of the derby result, Port Adelaide will – by either having two wins more than the Crows or by superior percentage – hold that “honour” for the fifth consecutive year.

And even the Crows would be comfortable with such. Outranking Port Adelaide certainly would not have been in Adelaide’s interests in the trade plays to unfold during October. The Crows still can aim to beat Port Adelaide twice in the same season – for the first time since their grand final appearance in 2017 – and level the Showdown ledger at 26-26.

They can finish the season with the same win-loss count as Port Adelaide (9-13), all without damaging their cards for the critical AFL trade period in October and national draft in November.

Adelaide’s prime trade target is Gold Coast forward Izak Rankine, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 AFL national draft.

Adelaide already has outbid Gold Coast on Rankine’s contract by offering a five-year deal that pays an annual wage in the high $800,000 range. Gold Coast’s best offer to 22-year-old Rankine was $650,000.

Now the “come home” transfer needs to be settled by Adelaide putting draft picks and perhaps players such as contracted club champion Matt Crouch on the trade table.

If Gold Coast digs in, Adelaide can – as it did last year with Sydney midfielder Jordan Dawson, the Crows’ recruit of the season – threaten to “walk” Rankine to the pre-season draft. Gold Coast would get nothing in return, just as Port Adelaide did (and later regretted) with wingman Nick Stevens to Carlton after failing to reach a trade deal with Collingwood in 2003.

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Had Port Adelaide ranked lower than Adelaide, this powerful trade ploy would have been out of reach, and the Crows would have feared its neighbour calling Rankine’s name in the pre-season draft, regardless of his salary demands and his reluctance to return to Alberton where he was once enrolled in Port Adelaide’s “next generation academy”.

Gold Coast would have stood firm, demanding two first-round draft picks from the Crows for Rankine and limited Adelaide’s other trade plays that include chasing 2021 No. 1 draftee Jason Horne-Francis from North Melbourne.

Such a script has been noted at Port Adelaide. It is reminiscent of 2000, when Port Adelaide started the season with a disastrous 1-1-10 win-draw-record and coach Mark Williams went to the board to highlight the AFL national draft pool included two certain stars Nick Riewoldt and Justin Koschitzke, who ultimately became the first two picks in the draft and mainstays of the St Kilda line-up (that did not deliver a premiership).

Port Adelaide president Greg Boulton put a quick end to the thought of “tanking” – playing dead for draft picks – reminding all that he would not be the first club leader in 99 years to hold a wooden spoon at Alberton.

Port Adelaide won six of its last 10 games in 2000, including the season-finale Showdown at Football Park by 47 points. It went to the draft with pick No. 12 and called local boy Shaun Burgoyne, a member of Port Adelaide’s breakthrough 2004 AFL premiership line-up.

Off field, there is the “showdown” brewing on Port Adelaide’s traditional black-and-white jumper, the so-called “prison bars” guernsey designed (against the Port Adelaide members’ wishes) in 1901.

Port Adelaide wants the jumper – that soon could be lost to the SANFL with the growing prospect of a national reserves competition – to be reserved exclusively for the Showdown as a “heritage” guernsey.

Today, Port Adelaide is negotiating with Collingwood, as demanded in the 2019 agreement between the clubs that allowed Port Adelaide to wear the “bars” in the 2020 Showdown at Adelaide Oval in recognition of the club’s 150th anniversary. The second part of the AFL-brokered deal declares Port Adelaide and Collingwood will seek a final resolution to one of the longest-running arguments in football.

Collingwood’s Tyler Brown in a prison bars guernsey against Port Adelaide. Photo: AAP/Rob Prezioso

Talks with Collingwood were progressing well until a fortnight ago when Port Adelaide president David Koch agitated new Collingwood president Jeff Browne by publicly revealing their private chats during a volatile session on Adelaide radio.

“Two weeks ago,” said Koch, “the Collingwood president Jeff Browne rang me out of the blue and said, ‘Kochie mate, we’re taking your request really seriously, we understand how important it is to your members.

“(He added) ‘I’ve been canvassing opinions in Melbourne and South Australia and I’m putting it to my board. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I’m quietly confident we could have good news for you’.

“I’m fuming because we have done the right thing, just quietly gone about it, and I can’t help feel that good nature has been played.”

Tomorrow, Port Adelaide will have to deal with Adelaide on the right to wear the black-and-white guernsey in all Showdowns, just as Greater Western Sydney dons its charcoal jumper in all Battle of the Bridge derbies with Sydney in Australia’s richest marketing capital.

Adelaide says it will not tolerate Port Adelaide wearing black-and-white in the Crows’ home derbies, even though the AFL – through chief executive Gillon McLachlan – already has sanctioned such on May 14, 2007.

Despite no protest nor pushback towards Brisbane, Sydney and Hawthorn for wearing heritage jumpers in Crows home matches at Adelaide Oval for the past two years, Adelaide is adamant it will not allow Port Adelaide to wear the black-and-white bars at Showdowns listed as home games for the Crows.

Crows senior coach Matthew Nicks would seem to be well understanding of Port Adelaide’s position after spending eight seasons at Alberton, six as an assistant coach to Ken Hinkley. But at the weekend, after guiding Adelaide to its third consecutive win with a home victory against last-placed North Melbourne, Nicks became most amused with the long-running jumper debate when asked if he cared what Port Adelaide wore in the derby.

“I prefer not to comment on that one,” Nicks said in his first answer – with a smile.

Pressed further for his thoughts, Nicks added: “No, none. Don’t bother me … as long as they are not wearing yellow, red and blue I am okay.”

But Nick’s club administration and fans are not comfortable with Port Adelaide’s preferred wardrobe, giving the impression the Crows will do as Collingwood has done for 32 years – dictate what an opposition club can wear. McLachlan can leave this issue to his successor in October.

A rivalry built off the field in 1990 with the Adelaide Football Club hastily formed by the SANFL to block Port Adelaide’s move to the expanding national league continues to have just as much – if not more – spice in the build-up to each Showdown, just as it does in the two-hour match at Adelaide Oval.

For the first time since 2004, the home-and-away season will end with the Showdown. There have been three previous season-closing Showdowns in 2000, 2003 and 2004, all won by Port Adelaide.

The SA-based AFL clubs once campaigned for these season-ending derbies to avoid being on the road in the last home-and-away round, as Adelaide always seemed to find with long-haul trips to Perth to play West Coast. Then the clubs pushed back, saying the pre-game hype and match-day drama of the Showdown was too consuming on the eve of AFL finals.

There will be six months to recover from this Showdown and a month before the derby moves into the national women’s league, with Port Adelaide measuring itself against the premiership defending Crows at Adelaide Oval in a Friday night Showdown on September 30.

And that AFLW derby has its own ready-made script, with Erin Phillips and her lieutenant Angela Foley facing their former Crows team-mates as rivals for the first time.

Showdown LII begins at Adelaide Oval at 7pm with a live telecast on free-to-air television only in South Australia.

For now, this will not change regardless of all the off-field issues that consume the derby rivals – and amuse non-South Australians – during the build-up to the Showdown. The so-called “side shows” have, however, left the Crows and Port Adelaide still avoiding the promise made in 2012 by then Crows chairman Rob Chapman and Koch to award retrospective Showdown Medals to the best players from the first six derbies.

Port Adelaide defender Darren Mead, the best-afield in Showdown I, often jokes: “I’ll get the medal … posthumously.”

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