International Rugby, Opinions

Rugby needs to sell itself better

Gavin Rich writes

It went largely unreported but Supersport’s was possibly the best news to come out of South African rugby so far this year. The SABC were planning to ditch rugby coverage on the radio this year because of the financial challenges the organisation faces. They claimed they could not afford to pay the money for the rights, which are held by Supersport.

There is nothing more frustrating than when a big game is on when you’re driving and you can’t get radio coverage but it is the millions who don’t have access to DSTV or a laptop with which they can follow’s excellent online live coverage of a game, and who rely exclusively on radio in the absence of free to air television coverage, who I am more concerned about.

Many of those millions would make up rugby’s new market if they enjoyed more exposure to the sport, so it was troubling to hear that the SABC was pulling the plug on radio coverage.

So full marks to both Supersport, for agreeing to waive the rights, and to SA Rugby for recognising how important it was to broker a deal. That the national body recognises the need to have the game spread to as wide an audience as possible, and also recognises the challenges of keeping the sport in the public eye at a time when it no longer has the automatic draw it once had, is a plus in its favour.

I am not sure that all the provincial unions or franchises completely understand the adjustments they need to make to their thinking if they hope to retain a large and captive audience for rugby in the years to come.
A few decades ago rugby didn’t need to do much to sell itself. I can remember being incensed the year before I went into rugby writing at being too late to get a ticket for a big Currie Cup match between Natal and Northern Transvaal. It wasn’t even a final, yet it was sold out within a few hours of tickets going on sale.

A year later there was a similar sell-out for a game between Natal and Transvaal. I had several mates who drove down from Johannesburg for that match. I was in newspapers by then and the Natal Mercury gave it blanket coverage in the build-up. I remember feeling like I had written the whole newspaper.
The thing was though that there wasn’t the wide choice of rival sporting events that people have now, courtesy chiefly but not only because of the reach of satellite TV. I have a brother who has always been a big Sharks supporter but in recent years when he pops around for a braai he talks more about Manchester United.

Last October those of us who attended the Currie Cup final were confronted with a half empty Kings Park. Saturation rugby, saturation sports coverage full stop, and new sports capturing the imagination all play a role. This last Monday morning it was interesting to note the number of English daily newspapers that led their sports pages with reports on the big triathlon event in Cape Town.

The point is that rugby is not the automatic sell it once was and union’s have to be more awake to the need to engage the media across all spectrums if they want to attract the widest possible market.
There should be more of an effort made to build relationships with the media and when it comes to employing staff that work with the media, it needs to be made clear to those people that their job is not to act as media prevention officers. That may have worked in the days when rugby dominated media coverage automatically, but not in this age when media people can just say “Oh well, if they don’t want to talk to us stuff rugby then, we will just fill that space with something else”.

I’ve always maintained that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but perhaps that is wrong. No publicity is definitely bad publicity. If lifesaving is managing to make a concerted effort to get more media coverage, and succeeding, then so should rugby.

In the days of yore referred to earlier, I used to be able to phone the then Natal coach Ian McIntosh and chew the cud with him on a Sunday. We’d get the opportunity to speak to the players both on and off the record immediately after the game at the post-match cocktail party. So readers got an opinion that both informed by a journalist’s own view of the game as well as those of others. It helped sell the sport.
These days access is so limited and what the players are allowed to say is so controlled that the media product suffers, and so by implication does the sport. I’m not suggesting that a coach has to give up his entire Sunday to speak to the media, but there was a time until relatively recently where someone like Sharks coach John Plumtree would be open to being called by the senior writers in his region. I always knew I could call him at any time, and so did Mike Greenaway. It was the same when Gary Gold was coaching the Durban team and although I never did call him, Jake White offered the same access.

If I had a word of advice for unions like the Sharks it would be to place less emphasis on placing pillars of media control in place and more stress on building relationships that will facilitate a proper flow of information that will facilitate the media spread the sport needs. Phone calls at inopportune times might seem bothersome to coaches and officials but believe me it is not bothersome as the day that phone line goes dead and no-one bothers with you.

Read more from Gavin Rich on SuperSport and Business Day

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