Grand Final week: Seven’s Lewis Martin on navigating 2020 with the AFL

AFL

• Bruce McAvaney’s heir – BT, JB, Luke or Hamish? Seven’s cricket wish

We are half-way through a massive week for Seven West Media. The broadcaster carried both AFL Preliminary Finals last weekend to huge audiences along with coverage of The Everest and the Caulfield Cup. On Sunday night it carried the Brownlow Medal virtual count.

This weekend of course is the AFL Saturday night Grand Final from the Gabba in addition to the Cox Plate preceding it in the afternoon.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Seven’s head of network sport and Melbourne managing director Lewis Martin told Mediaweek as he took a breath between meetings.

The company also had the successful launch of SAS Australia on Monday and on Wednesday is holding its Upfronts.

“And don’t forget The Front Bar finale,” Martin reminded us about one of Seven’s important winter franchises.

A week like this is why we are in television. It’s no good employing helicopter pilots who are afraid of heights.”

Despite the hectic schedule, there was a sense of relief in Martin’s voice that the AFL and Seven had been able to get to Grand Final week. For a while it seemed they might not have much football to cover at all.

Martin recalled one of the year’s significant days. “Sunday March 22 I had a memorable call with [AFL CEO] Gil McLachlan. He rang me to explain we were going to have to hold the season. I had to speak to the commentators and production team while we were on air with the news.

“March 23 it was a terrible day. There was so much uncertainty and we had to let so many people go.” When the season resumed in June Seven recalled as many of the staff as possible.

Martin and his AFL executive producer Gary O’Keeffe oversee the network’s football portfolio and make sure the games get on air – something that was more challenging than normal this year. “Gary has been in the cockpit with me the whole way,” said Martin. “He and I decided to ignore all the external noise and assumed there would be a season. We then got cracking building a range of scenarios. We worked very closely with the AFL. During adversity our relationships with the AFL and the clubs, and our advertisers, has become so much stronger.

“There were many things we looked at and tried that never made it to air. That meant by the time we got to air we had a plan that worked.”

The season fixture took a bit of time. “There would normally be three or four exchanges of the fixture before it was agreed on. This year the AFL’s Marcus King and Travis Auld did 101 versions of the fixture with us.

“Gary O’Keeffe and I did in excess of 30 to 40 broadcast scenarios when normally we would do one.

“The AFL did well over 200 Covid plans.”

Abbey Holmes

Two people Martin made special mention of were Seven’s Tony Bogovic and Abbey Holmes. “Tony is a senior cameraman and was sent into quarantine in Brisbane. When we realised we didn’t have any directors to do the Darwin games we spoke to Tony and asked if he would go away for four weeks for me. He’s now been away for three months. He and quite a few others.

“Tony celebrated his wife’s 50th over a Zoom call and also his son’s 15th over a Zoom call. He was the director on our AFL Dreamtime weekend coverage and it was spectacular.”

Holmes is a former AFLW star and Australian Survivor contestant who had been working for Seven on its coverage this year. Martin noted how she volunteered to go into quarantine. “An absolute rising star,” said Martin, noting she had subsequently worked in Darwin, Alice Springs, Brisbane and Adelaide this year.

Martin reeled off a list of people who had all done great work above and beyond the call, including Bruce McAvaney and his colleagues. The production company covering the sport for Seven dug deep too. “At NEP, Soames Treffry and Jeff Coleman were with us every step of the way through the failures and the successes. A number of times we’d get within 24 hours of a broadcast and have to change the plan dramatically.”

With state borders closing and games moved or postponed, Martin noted at times it became like a reality show. “It felt at times like they were changing the rules on us to make it interesting!”

One of the changes that impressed TV viewers this year was the seven-day-a-week period with games on every night, when 33 games (shared between Seven and Fox Footy) were squeezed into 20 days. Martin noted that Thursday night football finally had become a staple, as had The Front Bar which has become a must-watch for many.

Bruce McAvaney and Seven’s heir apparent

Seven’s leading sports caller spoke last weekend about how Martin has an annual call with him to talk about going again in the following year. So is Bruce McAvaney good to go for 2021? “He is…McAvaney is in great shape,” Martin told us. “This weekend he is like a kid in a candy store. We have set up a room for him at the Gabba to call the Cox Plate, and then he’ll move into the commentary position for the 2020 Grand Final. He and Brian Taylor have worked so closely together this season, albeit from different states.”

There has been speculation this year about Seven’s commentators jostling to take over as chief caller when McAvaney eventually steps down. Would be it be Taylor, Hamish McLachlan, Luke Darcy or maybe James Brayshaw? With McAvaney still calling it’s a decision Seven doesn’t need to make yet.

Martin said they all get on very well. “I know some people would love me to say otherwise, but I have got to tell you nothing beats when we are all in the same room together. There is no melodrama. There is a lot of humour, a lot of respect for Bruce and possibly the funniest bloke in the room is B. McAvaney. I value my relationship with them all greatly. I have asked a lot from all of them this year and they have all responded.

Seven still the home for cricket

As to Seven’s dispute with Cricket Australia and speculation it wants out of the sport, Martin said: “We love our cricket and we are hoping there will be a sustainable outcome for the sport.”

When asked if he thought people would be watching cricket on Seven this summer, Martin said: “They should be watching cricket on Seven over summer. Seven is the home of cricket. We love cricket, but we are looking for a sustainable outcome in these dynamic times.”

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