Lucy Zelic's open letter to football fans

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On the eve of the Premier League season, Lucy Zelic shares a heartfelt message with Australian football fans.

I’ve heard some truly fantastic football quotes over the years but none have resonated with me more than the legendary Bill Shankly’s iconic offering.

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

It made me wonder what could be more important than life or death but then I realised that Shankly’s unwavering passion for Liverpool FC was a love story that spoke to many of us in a way that Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson could not.

When you develop a deep affection for the beautiful game, you become a member of an elite fraternity where you, and your fellow constituents, come to understand the world and humanity differently.

Stadiums aren’t just colossal structures made out of metal, stone and turf; they are places of worship where the fans congregate to honour 22 men or women, in the same way the ancient Greeks idolised primordial deities.

If your friends support opposing teams, they become your foes and through competing nations, we are able to learn about cultures, political complexities and historical values courtesy of chants and players taking a stand.

It’s truly a sport like no other and since 1930, the globe has become football’s playground with the FIFA World Cup staged across 17 countries and record breaking audiences tuning in to watch both the men’s 2018 and women’s 2019 editions of the tournament.

The Premier League alone is the most watched sports league in the world, carried by over 80 broadcasters in 212 territories with a potential television audience of 4.7 billion people.

According to the United Nations recent estimates, the world’s current population is 7.7 billion people which means half the planet could be debating whether Harry bloody Maguire is worth £80 million.

For over three decades, SBS has had the privilege of contributing to conversations like these and sharing its Shankly-like devotion to football with viewers.

From the beginning, SBS stood at the coalface of Australian football; grafting, challenging, changing and investing in the game at a time when the appetite for football was virtually non-existent.

Buried deep in the trenches, with their mission planted firmly in their hearts and minds were the great Les Murray and Johnny Warren.

If you ever needed proof that soulmates existed, these two provided it and their kinship through jogo bonito left a legacy that has withstood the test of time and mortality.

From World Cups to endless UEFA Champions League campaigns, FA Cup finals, Euros, the National Soccer League era, FIFA Confederations Cups, the Premier League, UEFA Europa League and Supercoppas Italiana just to name a few - the feast has been plentiful over the years.

However, as the interest in the game grew, so too did the fierce competition to secure football rights. In the end, it came as no real surprise that both the Champions League and the Premier League were sold off to the highest bidder despite our advances.

As exclusive rights holders, Optus are under no obligations to partner-up with a free-to-air broadcaster, so when we secured the rights to the Premier League for three seasons back in 2016, there was jubilation all-around - or so we thought.

We were accused of “selling our souls” at the expense of the World Cup and in many ways, the fans were right because for decades that coverage has always been the heart and soul of our organisation.

But striking this deal also meant that one game a week of the Premier League was available on free-to-air for the first time in over 12 years and it truthfully felt like a win for the Australian public.

Myself, Craig and the entire team loved working on it beyond measure but unfortunately, our partnership with Optus has come to end and I think it’s important for you, dear football fan, to know that we tried to keep the Premier League on the air.

I also believe we owe it to our audiences to explain why we have lost so much of our LIVE football content and that it hurts all of us, just as much as it does you.

At every negotiation, SBS has arrived pledging what it can due to its legislative limitations around commercialisation but always offering what most others can’t - free access for fans, coupled with our long-standing, reputable service to the game.

The reality is, the competitive broadcasting market has no place for sentiment and ultimately, it’s why we have arrived at this point which is dripping with irony.

No longer is the game for “Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters” - it’s been embraced by everyone and its popularity at the grassroots level ensures that it will only continue to grow for generations to come which is exactly what Les and Johnny would have wanted.

Growing up, I was taught about the beauty of this magnificent sport through my family and people like Les, Johnny and Craig, so to be in a position where we are without a season of football for the first time in many, many years is gut-wrenching.

But it’s not over yet, far from it.

We here at SBS are used to fighting for the game and although it may not involve life or death, “I can assure you, it’s much, much more important than that."