The SABC office in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The SABC office in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Pay Channel Sky TV in New Zealand had for years controlled rugby broadcasting in that country. But when RWC 2019 rights went out for tender Sky NZ lost out to a new streaming service called Spark New Zealand.

It is a straight battle for the rights to a sporting event New Zealanders hold sacrosanct. A 21st-century tech company with little track record beat the might of Sky TV to show one of the biggest global sporting events in the world.

It led to an outcry in New Zealand‚ mostly from Sky subscribers‚ who, much like their SuperSport counterparts in SA‚ had pay-TV only so they could watch rugby.

What did not happen was Sky TV implying it was unfair.

“It depends how you look at it really. We would love to have it [RWC 2019]. It’s really good content. But Spark paid a ton of money for it‚” Sky TV director of sport Richard Last said in January.

“We always try to make sure that we’re going to invest money in the best way we can. It’s like buying a house. If somebody turns up and they want to pay a lot more than most people think what you should pay ... And that just happens. It’s disappointing for us but it’s not the end of the world.”

That was a company not willing to pay more than it could afford for a product.

Contrast that approach to the SABC‚ which continues to ask for government funding after a succession of appalling audits. If the SABC were a private company it would have been out of business years ago. In March‚ SABC executives asked the government for R6.8bn to stay afloat.

Already hundreds of jobs have been cut and shows cancelled‚ so it is no surprise the SABC did not bid for the rights to RWC. It simply could not afford to‚ which is not only unfortunate for the majority of people in SA but is also a reflection of the sorry state of the national broadcaster.

Of course‚ in a country such as SA there is a bigger picture. Bringing RWC to a wider audience through TV and even radio‚ whose rights are held by sports management company IMG‚ is necessary. Whether the SABC negotiated with IMG about RWC radio rights is not clear.

Sadly, what is obvious is that upwards of 5-million listeners to Springbok rugby games on the Xhosa-language Umhlobo Wenene FM are going to lose out on hearing about the Boks’ exploits in Japan.

Not because of SuperSport or IMG. But because the SABC is broke.

In terms of TV‚ SuperSport was willing to reach a deal to allow some games to be broadcast free to air, but even those terms could not be agreed. And the only losers are the public.

Could SuperSport do more to accommodate the public in the national interest? Maybe. But given the amount of money it has ploughed into acquiring the RWC rights‚ in addition to the costs of expert panellists‚ pre-tournament content, and marketing and promotion‚ maybe it is the SABC that should be doing more.

As sure as the All Blacks scoring a try just before halftime‚ the SABC waited until hours before Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2019 kicked off to announce it would not be broadcasting any games.

The timing of the SABC’s statement on Monday is important because it was done to create maximum negativity towards pay channel SuperSport.

The implication in the statement was that “we, the SABC‚ have done everything we can but the subscription service is holding a gun to our heads”. In other words: “They won’t give us something for free‚ or close to it‚ which they paid millions for. How unreasonable!”

The SABC employed the same tactic days before the Africa Cup of Nations earlier in 2019. And we’ve seen this approach repeated in previous years as well.

World Rugby‚ the sport’s governing body‚ holds the rights to RWC and essentially puts them out to tender. Broadcasters from across the world bid to broadcast, with the pie sliced into regions or countries.

The RWC is World Rugby’s biggest single cash cow and the TV rights sold to broadcast the flagship tournament are the bulk of the organisation’s income. It is a fair process — a classic supply versus demand scenario and the rights go to those willing to pay the most.

SuperSport was among the broadcasters willing to stump up the necessary cash‚ which ran into tens of millions of rand for a six-week event. The SABC was not.

If a rival had outbid SuperSport for the rights to show the tournament in SA‚ then SuperSport would have had to up its offer or miss out. Though it is an unlikely scenario given SuperSport’s stranglehold on sports broadcasting in SA and large parts of the rest of Africa‚ it is not impossible.