If any proof was needed to show that South African rugby is in crisis, the edgy incident in the SuperSport studios – which thrust Ashwin Willemse, Nick Mallett and Naas Botha to the forefront of the news – was it.
Willemse’s walkout set social media platforms ablaze and triggered conflicting emotions and comment from every spectrum of South Africa’s complex ethnic divide; completely overtaking far more pressing issues and putting in stark relief just one of the worrying aspects confronting rugby.
The extent of the racial polarisation revealed in reaction to Willemse’s dramatic parting monologue was largely uninformed, prejudiced and impulsive but nevertheless astonishing; probably taking the broadcaster and rugby administrators by surprise.
It is sad that such racial disharmony still exists 26 years after re-admission and it will have to be admitted and confronted, but it is by no means the only challenge facing a game that, in the times Willemse referred to, used to proclaim itself the country’s national sport.
Even before the studio set-to it was obvious that drastic measures were needed to restore the lustre of Brand Springbok but there was little indication that those in charge had a plan or were even ready to work on a better product.
The miserable record of the Springboks over the last couple of years, sagging sponsorship, empty seats and suites, the talent-draining overseas exodus, a complicated and unpopular Super Rugby tournament, the waning of the game in country districts and in clubs all pointed to an enterprise in trouble.
So perhaps it was quite apt that it was a falling-out in a SuperSport space that put rugby’s problems right in the middle of the big debate.
It is my contention that broadcasting overkill has been profoundly damaging to rugby.
It is true that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Ever since the landmark Newscorp deal in 1995 that confirmed rugby’s move to full professionalism, SuperSport and its New Zealand and Australian pay TV cohorts, have been in charge of the playlist.
While the contention that a winning Springbok side fixes all ills is germane, there is no doubt there is just too much rugby being played and televised; the latter being one of the big problems.
Pay TV stations are not in the business of broadcasting sports – they are in the business of selling subscriptions, advertising and pay-per-view content.
Their belief is that the more “product” they have in their bouquet the more likely they are to persuade viewers to part with what is already quite a hefty subscription – particularly in South Africa where rugby (channel 201) and cricket (202) are excluded from the cheaper packages.
For a rugby fan there is perhaps no better deal, but the upshot has been that said rugby fan no longer needs to go to the local stadium to be part of the atmosphere, to see the players close up or to be able to say “I was there.”
Much better to stay home, icy beers in the cooler, chops and boerie on the fire, back-to-back games to watch and no traffic and road blocks to take on.
It took a while for the pattern to change but it is now established – “I’d rather watch on telly” has become the norm and the reaction of unions to make tickets more and more expensive to try to make up for the losses at the gate have simply exacerbated the situation.
It is a trend that needs somehow to be reversed. SuperSport has over the years become SARU’s banker, contributing far and away the greatest share of the union’s income and effectively calling the shots.
However as the broadcasters have pushed for more matches – contributing for instance to the bloated and ungainly Super Rugby formats which no-one liked – they’ve subtly duped rugby bosses into offering more for less. Impressive numbers for purchasing rights are put up with each renewal of the contracts but the broadcasters now in fact pay less per game than they did at the outset.
It has gone too far. Empty stadiums lacking in atmosphere are destroying the product and rugby officials need to stiffen their backs and tell SuperSport: “Our game is dying, we have to find a way to draw the people back.”
One way is to explore the blackout device used with great success in other codes, such as American football or in Australian cricket where only the last session of a cricket Test is shown live in the city where the game is being played.
In other words, if the Stormers are playing the Bulls at Newlands and ticket sales don’t meet a minimum threshold, the game broadcast would be blacked out in Cape Town, or delayed.
It may be too late because SA Rugby is utterly reliant on SuperSport’s funding, but the conversations about whether the current model is the best need to be held. Should Super Rugby be pared down to 14 teams, when the competition was at its best? Should we re-introduce longer tours in the interests of developing the next level? Should country and club games not be added to the curtain-raiser programme at bigger stadiums?
What is good for SuperSport might not be best for the game.
Rugby has become insipid and soulless and shot through with financial and social complications. There are other issues which impact negatively on the Springboks, which I intend to touch on in future columns, but the worry is that SA Rugby seems mired in inaction.
Instead of grubbily pawning the Springboks, not to mention adding to the pressure on a new coach, to play a Test match in America for some extra income, would it not have been better to focus on beating England and carrying that momentum into the Rugby Championship?