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No sporting chance

South Africa’s newly licensed pay-TV operators are going to find themselves playing catch-up in the sporting arena, because MultiChoice has all but taken them out of the game.

Sport equals big money and with three pay-TV broadcasters set to enter the market, the stakes are going to get much higher. Most pay-TV players or analysts will tell you that the two drivers of subscription broadcasting are movies and sport, which means the new entrants’ sports offerings are going to be crucial to their success or failure.

But MultiChoice, which has had a 13-year monopoly, realised this too and has been plugging all the gaps that would allow e.sat, On Digital Media and Telkom Media to challenge the stranglehold held by its SuperSport channels. It has recently concluded a five-year deal for the rights to the Premier Soccer League, valued at R1,6-billion, a masterstroke for any broadcaster looking to go after the emerging black middle class.

The middle-income market is seen as the future of subscription broadcasting in South Africa and all three new entrants that were granted licences by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa recently admitted that this is the market they would be targeting.

SuperSport also has a stranglehold on South Africa’s two other main sporting codes — rugby and cricket. With the Tri-Nations, Six Nations, Super 14, Curry Cup and Vodacom Cup rights taken care of, SuperSport has left the new entrants with club rugby and university rugby in which to dabble. Similarly in cricket, where SuperSport has the rights to the Standard Bank Cup one-day tournament and the SuperSport Series four-day tournament, there is little room to move. Add to that rights for the next two Olympics and all does not bode well for the new entrants. But there are a few opportunities still out there.

One opportunity that has reared its head of late is the multimillion-dollar breakaway Indian Cricket League (ICL), a rebel league that is set to launch in November, which has thus far attracted big-name players such as former Test captains Brian Lara of the West Indies and Inzamam-ul-Haq of Pakistan. The league is being spearheaded by legendary Indian all-rounder Kapil Dev and plans to hold Twenty20 tournaments over the next three years between city teams made up of 44 Indian first-class cricketers and a handful of international stars. So far the ICL has signed up Pakistanis Mohammad Yousuf, Abdul Razzaq and Imran Farhat as well as South Africans Lance Klusener, Andrew Hall and Nicky Boje.

Another opportunity could be in South African schoolboy rugby, which receives limited coverage by SuperSport. Currently First National Bank, in partnership with Spur and Momentum, sponsors 40 schoolboy rugby clashes between South Africa’s prominent rugby-playing schools. But only four of these FNB Classic Clashes are broadcast live on SuperSport, along with a weekly wrap-up show. If one of the new broadcasters were to offer FNB a better broadcasting deal, it could surely build a viable rugby offering.

Another rugby target could be the Vodacom Cup, which competes for airtime on SuperSport with the Super 14 and Six Nations. With SuperSport unable to do the tournament justice, some industry insiders suggest that a sub-licensing deal with SuperSport could work for one of the new entrants.

Boxing, swimming and athletics would also be potential additions to a new entrant’s sporting offerings. But Athletics South Africa’s general manager, Linda Ferns, told the Mail & Guardian that it had recently concluded a five-year contract with the SABC and that the new entrants would have to organise a sub-licensing deal with the public broadcaster if they wanted to show athletics or road running before 2012.

As for boxing, Boxing SA director of operations Loyiso Mtya said that the SABC and SuperSport currently negotiate with individual boxing promoters. He said the SABC deals with a number of promoters who pitch title fights to the public broadcaster at about R135 000 a pop. SuperSport, on the other hand, negotiates with just three boxing promoters and often tries to secure world title fights, which can cost much more and often require a number of big sponsors too. It is clear that there are opportunities in boxing, but only time will tell whether the new entrants can take on the incumbent in this sporting code.

Swimming South Africa’s general manager of corporate services, Mary Jane van Oerle, said it has a weekly magazine show on SABC and a bi-weekly magazine show on SuperSport, but Swimming SA has to cover the production costs for these. “Our production costs are huge, but we want our sport on TV,” said Van Oerle. It is clear that Swimming SA would be a willing partner if one of the new entrants decided to invest in covering the sport.

Sporting codes where opportunities lie for new entrants who are prepared to invest in building up new sports platforms are eight-ball pool and poker. In the United Kingdom, broadcasters have had huge success in turning eight-ball and darts from sports played in bars into huge sporting events and there are also massive opportunities in South Africa.

Cobus Nel of Pool SA told the M&G that currently it has to pay the SABC to have any of its major tournaments broadcast. An eight-ball offering that covers Pool SA’s five annual tournaments, the South African team’s participation in the world championships and international pool could build a loyal following and raise the profile of the sport in the country.

Poker, too, has had a meteoric rise in broadcasting in the past five years and most international sports broadcasters carry top poker tournaments. Once again, a poker offering that combined local tournaments with some of the best international championships could be well received. Opportunities may be slim, but the new entrant that thinks on its feet can eke out an existence in South African sports broadcasting, slowly building its empire until it is ready to take on SuperSport for the staples of South African sport.

This piece was originally written for the Mail & Guardian