It was a chance meeting in the corridors of SBS in 1980 that started all this. It was Peter Skelton who spotted me and as he did, he said: “Les, am I glad to see you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m a part time Hungarian subtitler,” I replied. “And why are you so glad to see me?”
Peter, who was a production consultant at the fledgling broadcaster, knew me from his previous time at the Ten Network, where he had hired me as a football commentator on the National Soccer League, known then as the Philips Soccer League.
That experience was short-lived. After two seasons, Ten abandoned its commitment to football. It just didn’t rate high enough.
“As you know, SBS will be investing heavily into soccer,” said Skelton. “We have our first live broadcast in two days’ time and I need you to commentate. I wanted to import a commentator from England and had tried all of them; Brian Moore, John Motson, Martin Tyler, Hugh Johns. They all knocked me back. I really need you.”
Of course, I said yes. So on that day, two days after SBS was launched as a TV network, Johnny Warren and I teamed up for the first time as commentators and I’ve been here at SBS ever since.
With the recent announcement that I will be stepping down from full-time SBS duties at the end of this year, it might be timely to recount the story of those 34 years, or at least my executive producer online seems to think so.
What was critical in this story was my feeling, from right at the beginning, that at SBS, both football and I, as a football lover, were in good hands, for this was no Channel Ten. This was a broadcaster that passionately and steadfastly believed in football as a pillar of its content strategy and long-term vision. Not for SBS was the shallow tenet that ratings are everything and that if it doesn’t rate, kill it.
None of the network top brass, including Skelton, all the producers and the content buyers, professed to know about football and relied on me for advice. So I was in a very influential position from the start, deciding on what games to bring in and advising the network on what football events to cover and how to cover them. I was not just a commentator and presenter but, effectively an executive producer almost from day one.
I was, and remain, a staunch believer in SBS, its multicultural charter and what it was put here to do. SBS was and is for ALL Australians so I believed, for example, that the football we brought in from abroad did not just have to please the communities but, much more, it should impact on Australian society as a whole. For example, we didn’t show Serie A games to please the Italians but rather to showcase what was then the best league in the world at the time to all Australians.
The most powerful vehicle in all this was a weekly program we invented called World Soccer (yes, the word ‘soccer’ was fashionable even at SBS in the early years). Sure, we covered the NSL and the Socceroos, but it was this one-hour show at 5:30pm each Saturday afternoon that most influenced Australians in finding an affection for football, especially among the young.
The program ran for 22 years, showing off the world’s best footballers, its biggest stars, who in turn became role models for our kids.
Because a whole generation of Australians grew up with this program, not everyone today will know what an arid terrain football on Australian television was before SBS arrived. A one-hour highlights show on the English First Division, screened late on Monday nights, was the only regular diet of football. If that was today, you would never see Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Iniesta or any of the many other wonders playing outside England.
World Soccer was hard work, at least for me. For the first 16 of its 22 years, I produced, scripted, voiced and presented it. But I enjoyed every one of the 1100 or so episodes I did, for I knew it was turning hearts to football.
But building football audiences took time, a lot of time. When we first began we had audiences in the single number thousands. We hit what we felt was a breakthrough with the Australia v Scotland World Cup qualifier in 1985 when we reached 100,000. But acquiring the FIFA World Cup rights in 1990 brought a crash through all barriers.
This happened after a young producer, Dominic Galati, and I cornered the SBS managing director, Brian Johns, in the lift and pleaded with him to buy the World Cup rights. The ABC, then holding the first option on the rights, refused to pay FIFA’s asking price and there was a real possibility Australians would not see the World Cup at all unless he agreed. Brian, bless him, agreed.
With Italia 90, SBS reached two million viewers. That grew to five million for USA 94, nine million for France 98 and 14.8 million for Korea-Japan 2002 (shared with the Nine Network). Without question the World Cup was the biggest weapon in building audiences for SBS and for returning a dividend on its long and patient investment in football. But it was a double whammy. It also served to bring home to Australians the reality that football was the world’s most important sport and the World Cup the most important event in sport. And that meant not a commercial but a social dividend, the delivery of which was and is at the core of the SBS charter.
This long journey of mine with SBS has not been a job but a mission, as it was for my late friend and soul mate, Johnny Warren. Not I, nor SBS, nor football could have completed this journey without him. I do miss him and am pained that he’s not here to drink a toast with me as we embark on our eighth broadcast of the World Cup. As an honorary Brazilian, he would have just loved this.
But the mission should not be wrongly defined. The mission was not to simply build or promote football, but rather to enrich Australia through the medium of football. To bring our country to being a true citizen of the world and converse with it in the only true universal language.
There are, of course, now many other media outlets in Australia on which football can be viewed and enjoyed. Australian audiences are now as well fed on football as any in the world. But this too is down to SBS and the monster, if you like, that it has created.
1985 – SBS reaches a ratings share of 5 per cent with Australia v Scotland World Cup qualifier.
1989 – SBS gains exclusive rights to three editions of the FIFA World Cup.
1990 – SBS broadcasts the World Cup exclusively for the first time, Johnny Warren and I anchoring it from Rome.
1993 – New heights in ratings are reached as SBS acts as host broadcaster for the FIFA World Youth Championship.
1993 – Ratings records are broken again with the Australia v Argentina World Cup qualifier.
1997 – Four million tune in to watch Australia blow its World Cup chance against Iran. Johnny sheds a tear on air. SBS wins a Logie for its coverage.
1998 – SBS has its most ambitious World Cup coverage yet, beaming in all 64 games out of its Paris studios, with two teams of presenters, five unilateral commentators and four reporting teams in the field.
2002 - The World Cup achieves an audience reach of 14.8 million viewers, almost three quarters of the country’s population, with the Nine Network covering 16 games and SBS covering the remaining 48. Craig Foster joins the SBS presenting team.
2005 – Australia has a cathartic experience as the Socceroos overcome Uruguay in a dramatic penalty shootout to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years. SBS is there to cover it all.
2006 – SBS covers an heroic performance by the Socceroos as they beat Japan and draw with Croatia to make it into the last 16 of the World Cup in Germany. SBS wins another Logie for its coverage.
It has all been a phenomenal, epic and enjoyable journey for me with many more trilling stops along the way which I don’t have the space to recount here. I have been lucky, of course, and whatever it is that I did for football has been reciprocated by what football did for me. This I cannot ignore nor forget.
Most of all, as the end of the journey nears, I must pay gratitude to the viewers, the true believers who stood by football, SBS, and me, and shared the journey with me as members of my family.