It’s been a year since I left SBS Sport (or, more correctly, at least how SBS would like to tell it, didn’t have my contract renewed) after four happy years with the network.
During that time I became SBS’s most read online columnist and at one point was writing almost daily: first as “Half-Time Orange” (HTO) for The World Game website and second as “The Finktank”.
As is well known, I had a spectacular falling out with management over the political content and outspoken nature of my HTO column and made the decision of telling my story to ABC-TV’s current-affairs program 7.30.
Less known, if not at all, was the fact SBS actually wanted the option of re-hiring me if their new roster of columnists didn’t attract the same audience figures without me on board.
As one senior producer wrote to me in an email: “[We don’t] want to close the door on re-hiring you under a different guise, if that’s an option you’re happy to think about… we recognise the risk in terms of traffic to the website and… if it has an adverse effect we might very well bring you back on board after a few months without HTO.”
Essentially I told them to jam it: “The writing is going to suffer… go ahead. Get a bunch of ex-players. Pay a bunch of hack ghostwriters to produce a load of turgid crap. You get what you pay for.”
So I hope that clears up for some of the haters out there (and there are quite a few of you, even still, a year since I wrote my last HTO) that my relationship with SBS wasn’t terminated with immediate effect when my contract wasn’t renewed.
But it was after that email and my 7.30 appearance.
I wasn’t going to do write “soft” columns and avoid writing what I really thought about FIFA, the Australian World Cup bid, Peter Hargitay, Kevin Muscat and other controversial figures in football. An opinion writer is supposed to have an opinion. Not be a mouthpiece for vested interests. And I was owed a lot more from SBS after 500 columns than to be brought back in a few months if my absence had an “adverse effect” on their bottom line.
Anecdotally I have heard through friends and associates the TWG site has not quite been the same since; I don’t visit it anymore. To some the disappearance of HTO was a cause for celebration. To others, it left a gaping hole. And though I still write about football politics for ESPN STAR Sports in Asia (a brave network that offered me a new contract after seeing the 7.30 story) I don’t miss writing about the Australian football scene at all.
There was a time when I was hugely optimistic about the local game. I lived and breathed football for years. Indeed I went ahead and wrote a book, 15 Days in June, about what I saw as its bright future, believing it was a wonderful vehicle for meaningful engagement with Asia and that we would be seeing a clear national character represented in the way we played our football.
Neither, regrettably, has come to pass. All we have in Football Federation Australia is another failed administration. Its predecessor, Soccer Australia, was a basket case. But so is FFA. The difference now is people don’t criticise Frank Lowy because his name is not Tony Labbozzetta. Double standards. Hypocrisy. Call it whatever you like. I’ve ceased worrying about it. As have so many other “true believers” whose passion for the game has been replaced by weariness and disappointment.
Professionally, though, leaving SBS and walking away from writing daily about Australian football has been a godsend to me. I’ve seen my name appear half a dozen times in the Wall Street Journal, something that never happened when I was writing HTO. I’ve got a memoir coming out this September, which took me the better part of six months to write. I’m happier than I’ve ever been and, while considerably poorer, am considerably more fulfilled.
One of the themes in my new book Laid Bare is the importance of taking a risk, of saying “fuck it” and having a go. Risk in marriage. Risk in relationships. Risk in your professional life. And I think it’s something not enough people do and I’m hoping my words in Laid Bare make readers think about the choices they’ve made and whether there might be better ways of living your life rather than merely existing.
Parting ways with SBS was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I didn’t see it at the time, of course. Just like I didn’t see what lay ahead when my wife walked out on me in 2007.
But it’s all worked out for the best. As long as you have your integrity, you’ll always be rich.