Blackout stunts growth

Keo, in his Business Day column, writes that rugby will never be the national sport while you need a decoder to watch it.

The South African Rugby Union’s marketing strategy in 2006 focuses on the passion of the supporter for the Springbok, with a television advertisement dedicated to the everyday Joe who supposedly supports the Boks. When the Boks play, says the advertisement, everything else stops.

The advertisement takes you into the township, onto a farm and into the average supporter’s home. It speaks to the Bok supporter. At least that is the illusion of the advertisement because it speaks to everyone but the Bok supporter.

The advertisement is a picture of black dominance within the support base, but statistically only 12 percent of blacks in South Africa support the Springboks. Why? Because of the mass market, only a minority has access to pay-per-view television.

And herein lay the farce of any South African Rugby Union initiative aimed at taking the game to the mass market. If 12 percent of black South Africans, who total in excess of 30 million, support the Springboks how will SARU ever achieve the short term goal of making one in every two black South Africans support rugby?

The intention of an enthusiastic SARU marketing team is genuine, but it is very naïve when countered by the reality that as long as rugby remains a pay-per-view sport in this country, the mass market will not support the Springboks and South African rugby players because they will rarely see them play.

It is not the presence of the odd black player in a test match that will turn black attention to the Springboks. It is regular exposure of the game on free-to-air television that will do the trick.

South African rugby has grappled with this one for some time. The government has bumbled along as clumsily. Rugby’s authorities have pleaded poverty in the face of regulated free-to-air coverage of rugby in this country. It would, the organization argues, suffocate the game financially and without cash there would be no development.

Ah, the little teaser at the end: development.

And then the challenge to the government: Give rugby a handsome annual allowance and the game can go free-to-air.

That’s all the government needed to hear to accept that the sport did indeed need exclusivity to attract the millions of dollars from broadcasters. The government did not want the annual invoice or the responsibility of having to generate the cash to keep rugby strong.

So the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) inquiry into Sports Broadcasting Rights, initiated in October 2002 with much conviction to find the solution for the everyday Joe, finally concluded in 2003 that rugby was a sport that was justified to sell its soul to the highest bidder.

Nothing wrong with that you may argue. The sport is a business, you may argue. And you won’t be far wrong.

But then rugby needs to front up to the fact that it has sold its soul and the black majority will never get to see what all the fuss is about.

In the ICASA discussion paper in 2003 rugby’s national governing body referred to the English Rugby Union and argued the latter had, by December 2002, received £25.4 million of the £40.2 allocated to them by the UK Lottery, which translated to R603million at the time.

The government, who donates less than R100 000 a year to rugby, had no counter.

Rugby, to show goodwill to the government, proposed self-regulation and took it upon itself to initiate this through the broadcasters and other investors in the game.

Once again this bold talk found favour with those initially opposed to Supersport’s dominance of rugby broadcasting and the naïve view was that Supersport, who broadcast all South African rugby on a pay-per-view basis, and the free-to-air SABC would find common ground thanks to an innovative rugby leadership.

Yeah right.

In the three years that have followed there has been no self regulation. Home test matches are broadcast on SABC on a delayed basis and that’s about the only rugby the mass market gets to see in a year on SABC.

But still the emotive messages of unity, development and taking the game to black South Africans dominates all South African rugby’s marketing campaigns. And every year the government’s portfolio committee misinterprets transformation within rugby as being the number of black Springboks playing test rugby.

Transformation has failed in South African rugby because every Saturday the majority of South Africans face a television blackout. The game is not free-to-air and because of that it will never be the sport of all South Africans.

And where the television ad is a lie is in the pretence that when the Boks play on Saturday everything stops. For the decoder-less majority of South Africans, the Springboks are as foreign as BBC’s travel channel.