Privatising sport: an elixir?
Rugby, cricket and soccer are all run by the Keystone Cops. What’s the answer?
You might not have noticed — what with the ANC and the economy melting down — but SA sport is facing a crisis no less acute than the one splintering SA’s ruling party.
Arguably, the imbroglio in SA sport is more complicated to solve. On the one hand, falling attendances and vanishing television audiences mirror a widespread global malaise; on the other, some of the problems are uniquely ours.
In a nutshell, our sport is trapped in the dark ages. Amateur administrators play gatekeeper roles in rugby, cricket and football, and this tenuous environment is complicated by unions and federations still being trapped in a pre-professional age.
Consider the simultaneous meltdown in both Western Province rugby and cricket. In both cases, complacent boards and amateur administrators have made a mockery of one of the finest talent and gene pools in the country.
Like most messes, this one was entirely avoidable.
As far as the architecture of consumption in international sport is concerned, the picture is correspondingly bleak.
In a privatised environment, who looks after transformation? There are now more black rugby supporters than white ones, so there’s an imperative to transform
In 2016 the Indian Premier League (IPL) suffered the second-worst viewing figures since the tournament’s inception in 2008; in the eight years since 2008, Formula 1 viewing figures around the world have been cut by a third, and, in the US, television viewership of sports is equally chastening. "NFL ratings fall off a cliff," cried The Atlantic magazine recently, adding that "[cable] television is in structural decline" and that there was a "fragmentation [of the sport] across days, screens and platforms".
Locally, it’s a similar tale, with TV audiences down by 30% for Super Rugby.
The administration of rugby seems haphazard, with a staggering 600 players thought to be contracted across Super Rugby and the Currie Cup. It’s so poorly managed, in fact, that one insider said: "The Bulls are going to have to close their doors in 12 months’ time if this continues — and they’re by no means the worst-run franchise."
He continues: "It costs the Golden Lions roughly R1m to open Ellis Park, irrespective of the quality of the game, if you take cleaning staff, security and concessions into account. Then you’re getting 4,000 diehards in for a Currie Cup game. It makes no economic sense.
"And our stadiums are old, they’re big, fat old ladies. When you have less time to be entertained, you’re looking to be entertained more meaningfully."
Many insiders know this to be true — even if they don’t say so publicly. What isn’t old news, however, is the potential remedy.
Increasingly, the word "privatisation" is being touted as a way to fix loss-making entities in SA’s big three sports.
The pro-privatisation lobby cites the example of the English Premier League (EPL) as the prototype of a system that works. Bagfuls of cash for broadcast rights are now streaming in, and spin-off revenue streams (merchandising, for example) are soaring.
Of course, the EPL doesn’t offer a precise comparison to SA sport. English football is a cultural export, loved across the world.
Locally, there is no comparable jewel in our crown. Moreover, we suffer from a host of symptoms attributable to a traumatic past — such as the need for redress through development and transformation. If private entities owned teams and franchises, it isn’t entirely clear these issues would be addressed.
James Monteith, former BMI Sport marketing director and independent sponsorship specialist, is worried about a world where private entities own teams. "My concern about a privatised environment is: who takes care of development and transformation?" he asks.
"There are now more black rugby supporters than white ones, so presumably there’s a commercial imperative to transform. Still, I’d like to see the Bulls going into Soshanguve and the Lions playing more at Soccer City."
While not glossing over some of the issues facing sport, Monteith cautions against oversimplification. Some franchises and unions already have private shareholders, for example, like SuperSport. So the ownership model is already mixed.
Monteith does see a competitive advantage in private ownership, when it comes to monetising property and land. If stadiums were owned privately, for example, the owners would bring the expertise to convert that property for mixed-use.
"The Blue Bulls rugby union bought the stadium for R1 in 1992," he says.
"But the stadium itself hosts too little sport, even with 10 matches a season from [Mamelodi] Sundowns. There’s no surrounding shopping precinct, no conferencing. Yes, they’ve recently sold land occupied by tennis courts for re-development but private ownership might be able to make more attractive commercial use of what they have."
Elsewhere, the privatisation debate is alive and kicking. SA has completed its T20 domestic cricket season — and the perceptive will have noticed that this season’s competition took place without a sponsor. This is partly because the former sponsor, Ram Slam, wanted first option on the sponsorship rights for a bigger and better tournament next season, something Cricket SA (CSA) were reluctant to offer.
The idea for a competition in 2017/2018, one loosely mirrored on the Aussies’ "Big Bash", is for there to be eight rather than the current six franchises. Details aren’t final, but CSA envisages that some of the franchises will be privately owned — possibly by offshore investors.
The success of such an event will, of course, be contingent on the appearance of local and international T20 stars, for it is they — not the dancing girls and bells and whistles — who will draw punters through the turnstiles.
While CSA are to be applauded for their vision, one wonders if they aren’t perhaps moving too slowly as they chase the Holy Grail of T20 cricket at their usual leisurely pace.
Yet, if the IPL is losing its mojo in a place as obsessed about cricket as India, one wonders whether an improved domestic T20 tournament is the way to go — even if it is bankrolled by private owners.
But consider this: perhaps the nature and quality of ownership has very little to do with falling attendances and viewership figures.
An article by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker in 2014 bemoaned the current generation of American baseballers’ lack of personality, in particular, that of Mike Trout, a once-in-a-generation talent. "His Q rating is about on par with that of Jim, the guy in South Jersey whose burgers Trout’s mother sometimes mails, frozen, to her superhuman son in Anaheim, to keep him rooted in the tastes and comforts of home," wrote McGrath. "The pride of Millville: a chubby-cheeked mama’s boy with a haircut certified by the Marine Corps. He strides among us like a colossus, anonymous."
This is the rub. We listen with mild amazement to Kagiso Rabada, cricket’s Trout, say after receiving his Man of the Match award after a test against Australia that he’d be happy to play in the second test in Launceston "if he is chosen".
Humility is fine in small doses, but absurd humility just makes one itchy. Perhaps we are simply entering the twilight age of sporting automatons, talents with skills to take our breath away, but no words to enlighten us as to how they do the remarkable things that they so amiably and thoughtlessly do.