‘Wait until we use our cheque books’

SIMON BORCHARDT talks to Robert Gumede about investing in the Lions, transformation, and the players he’d like to bring to Joburg.

Why did you decide to invest in rugby?
I followed the Bulls’ Super 14 matches at Orlando Stadium while I was in France last year, and was amazed to see how white supporters were embraced by the black people of Soweto. The last time whites had been in the township they were in Casspirs and now they were drinking in shebeens! It invoked the spirit of Mandela and I decided it should not be a one-off.

Why the Lions?
If I was only concerned about the business side of things – in other words, making as much money as possible – I would have invested in a strong team like the Bulls, Western Province or Sharks. But as an entrepreneur, the Lions appealed to me because they are the sleeping giants of South African rugby. They haven’t won a major trophy since 1999 and lost all 13 of their matches in last year’s Super 14, but that didn’t matter to me. In fact, I approached the union [about an investment deal] after the Lions had lost 32-0 to WP in the Currie Cup.

Are you a rugby fan?
Yes. I was one of the few blacks who attended the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park, and I watched all of the Boks’ matches at the 2007 World Cup. My son, Simphiwe, played for the St John’s College 1st XV and he’s a big Lions fan who’s very knowledgeable about the game.

You and another local businessman, Ivor Ichikowitz, have a 49.9% stake in the Golden Lions Rugby Union. How much power does that give you?
It doesn’t matter whether you own 1% or 49.9% as long as you put things on the table that make business sense. The board will make decisions that benefit the business.

Should private investors be allowed to own more than 49.9% of a provincial rugby union?
I’m not going to answer that with a straight yes or no. What I will say is that until we have professional teams that are partly or wholly owned by businessmen, we will continue to lose players to European clubs.

Did you approach Ivor to get involved with the Lions?
No, he invited himself. When he heard about my vision for the union, he wanted to be a part of it. We were already childhood friends and business partners, so it made sense for us to get involved together with the Lions.

How much money have you two invested?
That’s confidential. But what I will say is  that we have only used our credit cards so  far. Wait until we start using our cheque books.

What role did you play in the MTN sponsorship deal [believed to be worth R20 million a year for three years]?
I spoke to MTN before I approached the Lions and sold them my vision. MTN understands sport and brand building, and is the perfect partner for the Lions.

What do you want to achieve with the Lions?
We want the team to start winning again, which will generate money that can be pumped into the amateur side of the game. We want to attract world-class players to the union while developing the young talent we have. I am a businessman and I want the Lions to be run as a business – a successful operation will help us to retain and attract players, black and white.

Will you be one of those owners who gets involved in team issues, like selection?
No, I won’t interfere with the rugby side of things. I am a businessman who has hundreds of managers running my businesses, and I support them. Why would I do things differently now? The Lions have one of the best coaches in the world [John Mitchell] and we have to entrust him with the responsibility of running the team according to the mandate we’ve given him. It’s up to the coach to identify the players he needs, and once we know who they are, we will go out and buy them. John understands that we want to transform the game without lowering standards, and that black players must be selected on merit.

You’ve spoken a lot about transformation recently. What do you hope to achieve?
People think of soccer as a black game, yet nine PSL [Premier Soccer League] clubs are owned by whites, the CEO of the PSL is white and most of the executive committee is white. The point I’m trying to make is that soccer has moved on and colour doesn’t matter anymore; it’s a game for blacks and whites. Rugby is still seen as a white game and I’d like to help change that. I want us to get young black kids who would normally only be interested in soccer, to be attracted to the beautiful game of rugby.

How do you plan to produce more homegrown players at the Lions?
We’ve hired [former Bulls junior coach] Nico Serfontein to run a proper business-managed Lions academy. We aim to develop rugby in black and white schools and ensure that players are not lost in the system. Soweto primary schools should be playing in schools leagues and we need to make that happen.

How important will Soweto Rugby Club be in terms of producing black players for the Lions?
Very important, but our mandate is to develop rugby in the entire Lions region. We also want to unearth talent in townships like Alexandra, Tembisa, KwaThema and Thokoza, and establish development rugby teams. But all 24 clubs in the Lions region are important to us.

Crowds for Lions matches have been dismal in recent years. How do you plan to get more bums on seats?
People support a winning team so winning matches will help, but there’s more to it than that. The days of a man leaving his family at 9am, going to the pub before the game, returning to the pub after the game, and then getting home in the early hours of the morning are over. Wives don’t let their husbands do that anymore. We want to attract families to Ellis Park by providing ‘sport-entertainment’. Fans will be entertained before and after matches, not just for 80 minutes. The Lions must become a lifestyle brand. We want our traditional white supporters to return and we want to attract new fans, especially blacks who have not supported the sport in the past.

Why do so few black Africans attend rugby matches in South Africa?
Saru and its provincial unions have never targeted black fans, they have just paid lip service. We need to go out to black communities and teach them the rules of the game. How can you watch a rugby match if you don’t know what’s going on? There also aren’t enough professional black rugby players in this country for black fans to look up to. Another problem is that season tickets have always been targeted at the traditional white supporter base, and that has to change.

Would you like to see the Lions move from Ellis Park to Soccer City?
If it makes business sense, why not? At the moment, fans aren’t coming to Ellis Park because of the perceived crime situation and the lack of parking. Fifa said Soccer City is the best stadium in the world. Whites would feel safer attending matches there, and it would appeal to the black market, especially in Soweto. But the decision to move will ultimately be based upon business principles and what’s in the best interests of the Lions’ stakeholders and supporters, not emotion.

Which rugby players would you most like to bring to Joburg?
Frans Steyn [who’s at Racing Métro], France’s Thierry Dusautoir – who was born in the Ivory Coast – and New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu and Richard Kahui.

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine.
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