Say no to Supersport

Dan Retief

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?

- Dan Retief

Let's chat

  • Vic Harris

    well written and sooo true

  • boyo

    Are numbers up on TV? I don’t know but to me rugby as a whole is not in a good place and I largely blame the referees and the rule book which each year seem to have a far greater say on the outcome of matches.

    • Greg Shark

      multichoice has complained to the ‘regulator’ that ‘free to air’ Netflix and Amazon have taken away 100,000 premium subscribers. That’s right 100,000 subscribers from the ONLY package that airs rugby matches! So the answer must be – numbers are down on TV!

    • Mark Kruger

      You are very right, rules are complicated, match officials are biased and RSA has quotas

    • Sharky

      Yup! I’d love to watch a match between two top international or club sides that is played using pre-1995 laws. Let the scrums set themselves and let the game flow.

  • Maxwell

    The rule book and the biased refs, blatant obstruction by dummy runners of attacking team. Every game same play, same style, same defense. No forward battles and no back-line battles. No sidesteps, no tactical grabber kicks, no up and under kick and chase. The game is slower. Compare late 90s to early 2000 games with modern games. NO specialists in their positions.No family day because of expensive tickets ,foods and drinks. The product is missing some main ingredients. Nobody will buy KFC without the Colonel’s recipe. There your have it.

    • Joseph Dodge

      Totally agree. Rugby once defined my life but now, apart from supporting the local school team, I couldn’t care less any more.

  • Willie

    The problems within SA Rugby on ALL levels, are that we are still caught up in a vicious circle where race dictates the game, the selection processes and eventual bad results. They say that a fish start rotting from its head, and I have to agree with that analogy. SARU are made up of a bunch of BEE empowered senior fat cats whom at their best is clearly incompetent and inexperienced business people. They do not have the experience, business acumen or foresight to put rugby first, and politics second. Dan Retief correctly point out that the decision by the SARU powers to be, to prostitute our game out to the likes of “pay per view” channels, is not good, but that fact is just one of a multitude of continuing bad decisions the SARU brains trust (and yes the punt is intended) have made. It remain to me an astounding fact that after all these years, the powers to be don’t understand or for that matter refuses to accept the fact that;

    I – You don’t run a professional organisation or company with inexperienced & incompetent people, not knowing how to manage or think out of the box. You appoint a team of top notch people, regardless of their color, ethnicity or sexual orientation to come do a professional job to grow a healthy company. We the SA public are the “shareholders: in this company, and deserve our company to be run effectively and profitable.
    II – Your national team and their success brings ALL South Africans together, especially when our teams perform and get the winning results. It blows my mind that the concept of “winning is not everything” is a motto adopted by anyone in sport, never mind our short sighted SARU officials! It is and should be our number one objective to get positive results. How you conduct yourself after giving your all and loosing against a better team, well that is is where the crux of good sportsmen ship lies, earning respect from all your opposition.
    III – Thirdly, winning puts the Springboks and ultimately SA on the proverbial world map. I lived for ten years in the USA, and while there every American sports lover knew of the Springboks and the All Black rugby teams. So by the way, the USA then already had the most active playing rugby club members in the world, just so you know. If you talk rugby to the Yanks today, Springbok rugby is almost becoming a joke, and guess what, typical American arrogance, relates to South Africans now becoming a joke in their eyes.

    No no Mr. Retief, TV rights are not our problem. If we start by electing real professional & experienced business people to manage SARU as a company, and get rid of the “quota” system, picking players on merit, not based on the number of people of color that HAS to be in the Springbok (or for that matter any rugby side) team, then we will start seeing good old contesting coming back to the playing field, (not just good results), and in return motivate our spectators to come back to the stadiums to experience rugby as it was meant to be played, first hand.

    Let’s not blame DSTV, let’s fix the issues of entitlement, reverse discrimination and quota systems, as it is as damaging to our rugby as it is to our players, young and old. Go pick the absolute best 23 player for every team irrespective of their color, on ALL levels of the game. Focus on motivating youngsters to get into the game by offering them free skills courses at school level, and inform them that Rugby can now become an optional career to them. No one will want to play or make rugby a career, if they know they have a 50/ 50 chance of selection, no matter how good they are. Stop this nonsense and start acting like professionals, and give politics a middle finger for once please!! Its killing our sports, reputation as a competing nation and ultimately our pride to be called South Africans.

    • Riaan

      I fully agree with you. The essence of a well constructed sports body lies in its top structure. That not being the case at the moment is breaking down the the spiritual side of our sport, leading to all this frustrating and negative issues.

    • Herman Schroder

      My compliments to you for a spot on summation of the current woes in not only rugby but as it affects daily life in the rest of our country. Yes ‘Cry the Beloved Country’. I have just posted my take on SS just below this post. Cheers.

  • Herman Schroder

    I watch every single SR game in full each weekend and quite frankly if it wasn’t for the excitement generated by my Superbru picks in the closing stages of each match I probably wouldn’t bother for all the reasons mentioned by Dan Retief in his article. Imagine also if the Lions had not done so well in 2016 / 17 how embarrassing that would have been for SA rugby. The other Franchises have taken forever to try and adjust to the modern game and if one looks at the current log nothing much has changed. Some progress made by the Bulls and Sharks but still far too many inconsistent performances week by week to indicate real progress..

    SS in any case is useless. I was eventually blocked by them because I became too controversial when I spent the last four years pointing out to them the collateral damage their sanitised version of their so called ‘news’ had become because SS had to protect the Bok brand at all costs. In my opinion the Bok brand had since November 2014 become the laughing stock of the world thanks largely to their ‘blinkered’ approach and a refusal to address the real issues in SARU and their political masters. Heyneke Meyer’s last two years and poor Alistair Coetzee’s abysmal two years saw to that and the poor SS ‘journalists’, some of whom had years of experience being real journalists, had to unfortunately ”toe the party line” regrettably to the detriment of the once proud Bok jersey.

    SS seem to be cutting corners as well. Cash problems ??. The comments section to their articles have been shelved and the news coverage is rather limited and appears to be lagging current events as well. Methinks the SS ship is fast approaching an iceberg and the band is getting ready to strike up.

    Comments sections can be found on Stuff in NZ, Rugbypass in the UK and All Out Rugby right here. They provide good healthy debate that SS seems to frown upon. I wonder why ?.

  • Gary hendrickse

    I haven’t been to Newlands for years. Easier to watch on TV or with friends and some beers and a fire. If the game gets boring – as it often does, there are only a few teams, mostly NZ teams which really entertain – you can do get up and do something else, or just sit around the fire and chat. Frankly, last year was the first time I fell asleep – this, while the Boks were playing!

  • Pierre

    Die grootste probleem lê by DSTV en DSTV se geld. Oor die jare is DSTV toegelaat om die sogenaamde monopolie oor rugby te kry. DSTV besluit wat en waar en deur wie. My gevoel is dat dit ook een van die redes is vir die uitsterf van klub rugby. Spanne veral provinsiale spanne is ondersteun van die werkplek tot by die kerk bazaar en n man moes n trou datum mooi kies. DSTV het daai dinge venietig. Spanne speel nie meer met n passie om hul ondersteuners te behou nie. Hulle speel net. As daar mense by die stadion is word hulle betaal en as daar nie mense is nie word hulle ook betaal want hulle speel vir DSTV se geld. Breek die monopolie en bring die spel terug in rugby waar n man en n span moet uithaal en beste gee om beloon te word. Waar n span se inkomste ook van hul ondersteuners afhanklik is en waar DSTV se geld net n bydrae is en alles nie. Dan sal ruby weer regkom en nie voor dit nie. Tydens die 2010 sokker het ek radio geluister en n persoon het die verskil tussen sokker en ruby baie mooi opgesom ” socker is a game played by gentlemen and run by hooligans and rugby is n game played by hooligans and run by gentlemen”. As ons na vandag se SA rugby kyk is daar geen verskil meer nie, ons kan rugby met n “S” begin spel – so kies self hoe jy dit wil spel – Sokker of Supersport

  • Johan

    Ek was een van die grootste ondersteuners. Later besef die opwinding van die spel is weg.
    Die kwotas maak die afgewater want hoe wen jy oorsee se spanne? Hoe wen ‘n Springbokspan as hy klaar op die agtervoet is? Ek se soos almal dat die beste span gekies word.
    DSTV het ek lankal laat gaan. So ek kan nie rugby kyk nie. En om na ‘n kroeg toe te ry is nie vir my nie.
    SABC stel nie belang in rugby nie. Polities pas dit nie in hulle raamwerk nie.
    So as die stadions nie bekostigbaar raak nie gaan minder en minder rugby kyk. En daai tradisie raak verlore.

  • Jan L

    Race, race race, I am so tired of it. There is no dispute, we are now more devided as ever since the early 1990’s. I recall a Damara friend in Namibia making the point in the middle 1980’s that we should take the law book and scratch out the words “black” and “white” and leave things to run its own evolution. Recently the actor Morgan Freeman, told a journalist who asked him in a tv interview how to stop racism, “Stop talking about it”. Forced integration (read affirmative action, BEE, transformation or whatever the buzz words are) i just as detrimental as forced segregation for harmony. Back to rugby, I agree with most of the statements of the contributors on this article by Dan. The rules of the game: This is getting downright silly, these rules, soon we will need a computor to ref the games. I just read on one of the other forums that they are going to test some new tackling laws during the U20 WC where player have to tackle with bent knees as who-knows-what. I am not insensitive to players welfare, but this, the scrum laws and ruck laws, is just getting completely out of hand. A “trap scrum”, apart from the face or the head of an opponent, is not so dangerous and why can we not scrum like we did before they start tempering with the scrum laws, now it is reset, reset, reset and penalties galore. TV rights and so forth: At least, put Curry Cup games on SABC channels, we want more people to play and support the game, but not so many of those who cannot afford DSTV are exposed to it.

  • Barend

    Dan has really got this conversation going. I also agree with most what was said, especially Willie, but then, all of you. As a rugby coach for the last 25 years with my own son’s playing rugby- Super rugby,
    I have a few extra point to make:
    Schoolboy rugby is well and alive. See the number of participants, parents and spectators at all the games in the week and weekends. This is from Bulletjie (mini rugby ) to the big clashes of the big schools. Why does this not transfer to senior rugby any more?
    1) Schoolboys get contracts, therefore if you are not contracted after school, you are dead in the water for future honours, even if you are a late grower/developer or not chosen by your school coach in the right position because his team demands it.
    2) Political intervention starts in u/13 teams, with quotas enforced and growing more discriminatory as time goes by. Where in your life can it be said that not one white player is good enough to make the starting lineup in the back line of the SA u/20 team, like we have seen last year and this year.
    DO NOT TELL ME THERE ARE NO WHITE PLAYERS GOOD ENOUGH TO MAKE THE BACK-LINE LINE UP. IT IS A DISGRACE.
    3) How does a u/19 player, 6 months (Embrose Papier) out of school make the Springbok team in a influential position like scrumhalf if he is not black/coloured?
    4) As mentioned, a good businessman will keep his current loyal clients and try to break into new markets. Not SA rugby. They first chased away the loyal Afrikaans speaking supporters/fraternity with accusations of racism etc and now it looks like this has happened to the liberal English white people as well. Now the stadiums are empty!!!
    5) I know of some black players in the top Super franchises who earn 15 times more per year than their white counterparts,playing next to each other every Saturday, doing exactly the same job. How is that sustainable and ethical?
    6) Who wants to go to a stadium where unsolicited car guards harass you for kilometres from the stadium and demand that you pay them R 50 or R 100 upfront to look after tour car? Likewise, why do you want to go to a stadium where there are no or hot alcoholic drinks and substandard food for sale?
    7)Why do we white people not see the colour of Nieu Zeeland players, but know when these players are chosen for their respective teams they, are up to standard and can be taken notice of.

    I am afraid that the SA after school rugby situation has been stolen by politicians,opportunists and money grabbers.
    It will not be fixed very soon.

    • Herman Schroder

      Barend, Ek stem saam ou maat. Groete.

  • hopeful

    I lost interest the day a side was picked on politics and race….what was once my passion has now become my biggest argument and aggravation.

    I watch the French and European tournaments because they don’t have any political agendas or directives….it’s simple play to win and choose the best…

    I am however a deeply patriotic citizen and for my sins I can’t help but watch the Bulls and Boks….the aforementioned showing great signs of revival…but…the reality is that every step of the way there is political grandstanding, interference, contradiction, annoyance and worst of all meddling….

    Ex players of colour cry foul, ministers make judgement without facts, non-supporters that have never watched a game comment based on racial issues….when did rugby become the platform for political agendas?

    Why are the stands empty?…..because people are fed up!!!

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