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Seven Network keen on Saturday NRL matches returning to free to air TV

Saturday a target: Kurt Gidley scores during Saturday’s NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Gold Coast Titans at Hunter Stadium.Saturday rugby league matches could return to free-to-air television for the first time in two decades under a bold proposal from the Seven Network.

Seven is one of the many parties currently in discussions with the NRL about the next broadcast deal and is determined not to walk away from the negotiating table empty-handed.

Fairfax Media has been told the two products of particular interest are the Thursday night and Saturday timeslots. The league is considering spreading its regular-season fixtures across five nights a week, effectively ending the practice of showing two Friday night games on free-to-air – one streamed live into Sydney live and the other Brisbane.

Only a handful of competition games are currently shown on Thursday nights, but Seven wants to take them from Nine when the timeslot is permanently up for grabs.

Seven’s other key objective is to break Fox Sports’ Saturday stranglehold. Fox currently screens three matches back to back, usually starting with a 3pm fixture. The coverage is a strong rater for Fox and the games are bookended by pre- and post-game shows. Fox’s Saturday monopoly means the only way fans can witness the action is to subscribe or to head to the footy.

But Seven’s entry into the mix raises hopes that the great Saturday tradition of watching the footy on free to air could be revived. The practice was commonplace before the Super League war, with the ABC regularly broadcasting its “match of the day” on Saturdays. The only anomaly were Storm games, which were beamed live into Melbourne on free-to-air in 2002.

The current free-to-air rights holder, the Nine Network, also made its first modern-era foray into club football on Saturday afternoons before pay TV operators dominated the landscape. Finals games aside, 1996 marked the last time Nine regularly showed Saturday football.

The NRL’s decision to go to market early, well before the current rights expire at the end of 2017, has had the desired effect of raising competitive tension over the product. The governing body is considering splitting up its broadcast assets, which could result in, for instance, the State of Origin series being sold separately to the NRL competition proper.

Seven declined an opportunity to comment on the developments.

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