COMPETING FOR TOP DOLLAR
The business of sport
WSC paved the way for players to have more say about their pay
In 1977, Arthur Ashe, the American tennis great, sat in the stands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) watching the Centenary test.
Contested between Australia and England, the test attracted 80,000 fans to the MCG and Ashe remarked casually to a cricketer sitting alongside him that with such a healthy crowd he must be earning well. "Aw, no mate," came the reply. "We’ll probably rake in a couple of hundred Aussie dollars."
The Centenary tests (there was a second in England) celebrated 100 years of cricket between the two established rivals, an occasion for ties and jackets, canapés and champagne. The accent was on tradition, the genteel observance of social and sporting verities, mainly in the long room but in other areas too.
Such pieties included not appealing if you didn’t think the batsman was out and walking when the umpire raised the demon digit. Those in the middle were expected to be grateful for their meal vouchers, free blazers and indulgences at the members’ bar.
They were not well-paid.
The scene was ripe for revolution, and the revolutionary brought his briefcase. His name was Kerry Packer, a quick-witted brawler of a man who hadn’t done well at school — dyslexia, said some — and serendipitously inherited a media and publishing business from his dad, Sir Frank.
Representing Channel 9, an Australian television station, Packer had recently bid for the right to televise Australia’s home tests. The Australian Cricket Board (ACB) refused, preferring to honour their long-standing commercial arrangement with the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) instead, despite the fact that Packer’s offer was far better.
Packer was miffed. A straight-talking toughie, he held no candle for establishment toffs. The players were vulnerable — he knew this — he would simply offer them more money and start a rival league to up the local content demands on his television station.
He recruited SA-born England captain Tony Greig to spread the word. After the Centenary test, Greig flew to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where he met with Clive Lloyd, the skipper of the West Indies. In his briefcase Greig carried a 45-minute video from Ian Chappell urging Lloyd and stellar players like Viv Richards and Andy Roberts to throw in their lot with Packer. They, too, were poorly paid and their grievance was dormant, like gunpowder. All they needed was a flame.
The West Indies had won the inaugural World Cup at Lord’s two years previously but this had done little to improve their wages. Packer was offering them A$90,000 for three years’ work. His competition was to be called World Series Cricket (WSC). They were morons if they refused.
The scene was ripe for revolution, and the revolutionary brought his briefcase. His name was Kerry Packer
Greig was as vulnerable as the players he recruited. Though England captain, his days were numbered. A belligerent all-rounder called Ian Botham was breathing down his neck and when Packer offered him a job for life after his stint as a recruiting agent, he didn’t think twice. He was called a traitor by the English cricket establishment but later in 1977 WSC officially began. It changed the face of cricket and sport in general forever.
The small claims first. Before Packer’s three-way fusion of sport, entertainment and television, there was little or no night-time cricket, no coloured clothing or helmets and no white balls (the original Packer balls were, in fact, yellow). There was precious little sponsorship outside of the mandatory car and cigarette manufacturers (McDonald’s was a WSC sponsor) and few songs or jingles promoting the sport, like the WSC theme song, C’mon Aussie, C’mon, containing the gloriously cheesy opening lines. "Lillee’s pounding down like a machine/Pascoe’s making divots in the green."
It was in the realm of television production, however, that WSC cricket radically transformed the game. Packer realised that cameras needed to be more dynamic if his cricket jamboree was to appeal to Channel 9 television audiences. There needed to be more of them than usual and, in order to exaggerate the "gladiatorial" aspects of the competition between the Australian, West Indian and Rest of the World stars, they couldn’t only be mounted behind the bowler’s arm, providing a single view. Cameras had to clothe the ground.
Television commentators like Richie Benaud (an early WSC adviser) were expected to be boosterish, and to aggressively punt the spectacle, often played on Aussie Rules football fields or racetracks and featuring "drop-in" pitches, another unheralded WSC innovation.
Packer’s foregrounding of television as a driver of both attendances and revenues is a thoroughly modern phenomenon and, in almost all respects, we live in a post-Packer age. Because of his comparative generosity, suddenly well-paid players began to flex their muscle in negotiations with boards and employers. Agents became a feature of the landscape; appearance money became part of the debate. So, too, did discussions over image rights and intellectual capital.
According to Forbes’s recently published list of the world’s highest paid celebrities, there are two sportsmen (Ronaldo and LeBron James) in the top 10 and another five (Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Kevin Durant, Andrew Luck and Rory McIlroy) in the top 30. Such wealth is due to a confluence of many things, some technological, some legal, but had Ashe’s conversation not made such an impact 40 years ago, Packer wouldn’t have been able to cut a swathe through the shibboleths of a complacent sport.
Though no South Africans find themselves on the Forbes list, the local paddock contains some rising stars, notably athletes like Wayde van Niekerk and swimmer Chad le Clos. Generally, though, it’s a small pond, with the possible exception of some European and Japan-based rugby players and SA’s high-profile IPL cricketers like AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Chris Morris and David Miller.
The forerunner of these savvy stars with their agents, legal firms and advisers (De Villiers’ adviser and the author of his book was Edward Griffiths) was none other than Lucas Radebe. Strange to say, but Radebe was the less attractive half of a local pair sold to Leeds United in 1994, only coming along for the adventure because his mate, Phil Masinga, insisted he do so.
It transpired that Lucas became more successful than Phil, and has remained so because he was prudent and invested his money well. "Lucas is the only SA sportsman of that era who has any money left," says media lawyer and member of Radebe’s advisory board, David Becker. "Shaun Bartlett has some property but Lucas invested well, and it’s good that he did because otherwise his family would have spent it all."
According to Becker, Roy Keane was one of the first to take advantage of not simply an agent but an advisory board, consisting of lawyers, financial advisers and businessmen. David Beckham was similarly smart and Radebe cottoned on to the idea while he was in England. "I’m a big fan of the advisory board concept because I believe the agent model is fundamentally flawed," says Becker. "You are asking him to cover too much ground. With a board you suddenly have three or four sets of experienced eyes. They function as a corporate or a company and meet every quarter and take minutes and offer sound business advice."
The post-career legacy
With golfers like Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, as well as former cricketer Graeme Smith on his books, Becker believes the advisory board structure is particularly valuable in the immediate post-career period. "The post-career legacy is traditionally a difficult time because the player isn’t doing what he’s been doing throughout his professional career. He needs good, sound advice, and just as long as the board honour their commitments, the concept works well.
"Look, we’ve had our learnings. It’s important for the board to communicate and honour the board’s meetings," Becker continues. "And you’ve got to realise that the game is changing. You’ve got unparalleled tax scrutiny now. Image rights are a big issue. We’re trying to unpack some of those for Chad [le Clos] at the moment, though he doesn’t have the advisory board structure — he just has the agent."
Le Clos tends to swim in and out of public interest, unlike, say, Van Niekerk, who is established in the public mind after his feats in Rio last year. "He’s undoubtedly riding the crest of a wave at the moment," says independent sponsorship specialist, James Monteith. "Sponsors — like German telecommunications giant T-Systems — picked him up early, but now he’s exhausted the local market despite the deals he has with Audi, Defy and the smaller deals he has with adidas and Oakley."
According to Monteith, Van Niekerk earns anything between US$1.5m and $2m a year, making him one of the highest local earners — but there’s a caveat. Unlike, say, rugby players or cricketers, he’s not centrally contracted, so he has to keep on running, raking in the appearance fees and prize money while he can.
The figures are impressive: $10,000 in the Diamond League for a win plus the same again for appearance money and what are called ‘time bonuses’ in the industry. "On a good day at a Diamond League event you could take home $25,000 but the trouble is you have to keep on winning," says Monteith, an important point because it’s a fickle game.
It’s a fickle game in other respects, too. The boxer Floyd Mayweather was on the Forbes list last year but didn’t make the cut in 2017 because there was no fight against Manny Pacquiao, which meant no hefty payday thanks to the profits of a fight broadcast on pay-per-view. Though their earnings aren’t on a similar scale, local stars are vulnerable to a stagnant sponsorship and television landscape. The Boks are winning again, which is good news, but the cricketers aren’t, prompting much mirth (and anger) on social media when they bombed out of the Champions’ Trophy.
Monteith also points out that Van Niekerk and Le Clos are, in a sense, anomalies, in that they’re individuals rather than teams or franchises. Unlike teams, individuals are traditionally high-risk, in the sense that if a drunken member of a rugby franchise drives into a tree late at night, the franchise isn’t threatened. "There’s a reticence in the local market to sponsor an individual," says Monteith. "The potential is what brand risk the individual can do. The first people to scuttle away from Oscar [Pistorius] were sponsors like Nike. You remember the memes: ‘He just did it’. That’s the problem in a nutshell."