Shooting for the thrills

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could have parachuted into Etihad Stadium for the kick-off and the A-League could still not have wished for a better start. If the return of Harry Kewell last season proved something of a false dawn, the recruitment of veteran Juventus star Alessandro del Piero by Sydney FC has given the competition real momentum.

Importantly, the crowd of more than 42,000 for the season-opening derby between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart added substance to the pre-season hype. Now, as has been the case in the past, it is up to the administrators, and the broadcasters, to capitalise on this feel-good factor.

Perhaps more so than the game's spruikers would have you believe. As ever, there is an odd disparity between the seemingly strong interest in Australian soccer and the commercial reality. On the surface, there is vast junior participation and an emerging league strong enough to attract a few glamorous imports. In the books, there is a sea of red ink with even the most prosperous - or least expensive - A-League club losing millions of dollars. Losses that even an anticipated $175 million media rights deal, beginning next season, will only partly cover.

Which means, sooner rather than later, the A-League has to get its finances in order. This, Football Federation Australia has pledged, is the season when that process begins. In that context, the role of Fox Sports is pivotal. As the A-League's shop front, it has to get the balance between promoting a product for which it has paid a decent price, yet at the same time provide a coverage that is credible and, where necessary, critical.

To its great credit, over eight years Fox Sports have done a great job in presenting the A-League as a fresh and exciting competition. The old home of soccer, SBS - which is expected to cover one game next season under the new deal - was worthy and exhaustive. But there was also a sense that if you didn't know your libero from Liberace, you weren't quite welcome. Big credit to Mark Bosnich, the eccentric goalkeeper-turned-media pundit who might have been the first soccer analyst in Australia to laugh about something other than the mispronunciation of the name of the Grasshopper Zurich's third string full-back. Fox Sports has made the A-League, at the very least, inclusive.

At the same time, however, the salesmanship has been too overt. There has been a feeling Fox Sports was not just broadcasting the A-League, but selling it. Commentary was peppered with phrases such as ''You won't see better than that anywhere in the world'' and ''Well, try telling me the A-League isn't a world-class competition''. Which, naturally, made you think it wasn't.

This season? A solid start with a few changes in the line-up. Most significantly, a greater emphasis on analysis around the weekend coverage, which comes - unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed it - at the expense of the midweek Fox Sports FC. The round ball gab-fests start on Friday with the imaginatively titled Kick Off, hosted by the eternally earnest Andy Harper and Melanie McLaughlin, a knowledgeable presenter who recently suffered the misfortune of being described as a ''Fox Sports glamour'' - the sort of patronising, credibility-diminishing title seldom attached to male presenters.

Matchday Saturday is the - you guessed it - Saturday panel show, with Adam Peacock, Mark Bosnich and Mark Rudan. The first edition also included Victory coach Ange Postecoglou, who is not only the best domestic coach in the nation, but also the best television analyst. Pity he can't do both jobs simultaneously. Although, given the ubiquity of TV microphones, don't rule it out.

The weekend ends with Sunday Shootout, where Bosnich and Peacock take what we are told is a ''lighthearted'' look at the weekend's games. The first program was excellent, even if the comedic B-League segment was, well, slightly B-Leaguered. Give it time.

But, inevitably, it will be the games that matter. Hopefully, with the standard steadily improving, Fox Sports will be allowed it to speak for itself and viewers will no longer be browbeaten into believing that a drab 0-0 draw between Perth Glory and Central Coast Mariners puts the Barcelona-Real Madrid El Clasico in the shade.

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