/ 2 June 2004

Evergreen & Gold

The fact that South African sports teams have performed like dogs being whipped by Australian cheerleaders for the last two years has meant very little to the bottom line of the sports publishing sector. The sector’s success is evidently not tethered to our performance on the field. If that were the case Mark Blachowitz, head of Touchline Media, would be churning out the final issue of SA Sports Illustrated on an old Xerox photocopier and stapling it together for its last 200 die-hard subscribers. But that is not the case.

Sales, readership and advertising spend in this sector seem to be very resilient in the face of massive failures on the part of our sports teams. Fans, like me, keep the industry ticking over; being the perfect consumer mix of radical, unflinching fanaticism and eternal optimism. When it comes to my sports team, and I have several, I’ll buy whatever intelligence is out there to try and help me understand why we play as badly as we do, and at the same time I am forever searching, nay, praying for that elusive silver lining when we turn it around and start winning. Sports media is the peddler of such silver linings.

Add to that sports’ quasi-religious significance to the new South African psyche – ever since the World Cup Rugby win in ’95 and the African Nations Cup soccer victory of ’96, South African sport has been venerated as the be-all-and-end-all of our process of nation-building. If only our sports teams had kept winning, racial discrimination would have been swept away with the tide of jubilation, euphoria and celebration. People, united behind the teams, would join hands and skip across tribal, economic, ideological and prejudicial divides like ballerinas across puddles. Sport is such a power in South Africa.

Alas, our teams started losing and, worse yet, cheating. But regardless of the demoralising effect on the populace, it would seem that’s just more grist for the mill of the sports print industry. SA Sports Illustrated (SASI) editor Steve Smith disagrees. “I think negative sports results have affected SASI, to a degree. You can track our results over months when the Boks or the Proteas have been walloped. It has an impact on sales figures.”

Take for example SASI’s 100 000 slump in readership in 2002. “The drop in 2002 is not surprising, it was the World Cup Cricket.” Aargh, a painful memory resurfaces, the scars have not yet healed. No wonder the numbers dropped, but that was a spectacular national failure, never have 11 men done so little for so many. Yet other sporting disasters such as our recent African Nation’s Cup campaign, the Rugby World Cup and Kamp Staaldraad have largely left the sports print sector undisturbed, while providing a steady supply of content, topics to dissect, administrators to grill, experts to consult. Unfortunately, consistently being walloped, in the long run, is going to drive people away from sport. Steve Smith sees this as a particular challenge.

“As the editor and a sports fan, I want to see our teams and individuals do well. SASI can play an important role in rehabilitating South African sport, and it is going to have to be a tough love kind of deal. It’s going to mean being critical and giving players and administrators a voice that they didn’t have before, in a responsible way.”

SA Sports Illustrated is the flagship of the Touchline Media sports stable, a storming success with a monthly circulation of 41 104 (ABC Jul-Dec 2003) and a readership of 630 000 (Amps 2003b). Moreover SASI has totalled a whopping R19,17 million in advertising revenue in the last year (AIS/Adex: Jan03-Jan04). It has managed to achieve this with a genuinely rainbow-hued readership consisting of 213 000 black readers, 261 000 white readers and 156 000 Indian and Coloured readers, falling mainly in the LSM 6-10 category (Amps 2003b). SASI’s example of integrated media representation serves to prove the role sport plays in South African nation-building.

Touchline Media is the biggest fish in the South African sports publishing pond, also publishing niche sports titles such as Runners World, Golf Digest and Kick Off. Beyond that, it has a 51% share in Atoll Media, which publishes youth sport and lifestyle mags Zig Zag, Blunt and Saltwater Girl, none of which has an ABC of less than 17 000 (ABC Jul-Dec 2003).

But despite the SASI example of integrated readership, and like many instances in the South African economy, adspend in sports magazines mirrors President Thabo Mbeki’s oft-repeated denunciation of South Africa as a country blighted with two economies. Sports publications with awesome sales and readership figures such as Kick Off and Soccer Laduma don’t achieve anything close to the equivalent adspend their huge audiences should dictate, this based on the old chestnut that black audiences have no ‘real’ buying power.

Kick Off reaches 1,83 million readers (Amps 2003b), and leads the soccer magazine sector with advertising revenue of R13,07 milion (AIS/Adex: Jan03-Jan04). Soccer Laduma on the other hand only attracts advertising to the tune of R4,54 million but outweighs Kick Off with a readership of 2,1 million, which is simply astonishing considering that the bulk of their readership falls between LSM 4-6, and are thus very active in the economy.

“Media planners are starting to wake up to the fact that soccer is huge in South Africa. In the black youth and young adult market, soccer is the number one sport and interest,” says Peter Du Toit, Soccer Laduma‘s creator. “If a brand is wanting to get to the black youth of South Africa then Soccer Laduma is the best medium. We are delighted that media planners are starting to see the light and that the return on their investment is already showing.”

But it is not just media planners who are, euphemistically, starting to see the light (what took them so long?). Johnnic Publishing has also just stepped onto the football field with the launch of Soccer Life backed by British football magazine Four Four Two. It is clear here that Johnnic are aiming for the high-brow football fanatic with a mixture of local relevance and quality syndicated international football content. A brief look at their sample launch issue indicates that the magazine is appealing to a wide variety of advertisers, specifically lifestyle brands aka the big spenders, such as cars, clothing and grooming products, who seem to be lining up to get a slice of what is perceived to be a large, affluent, mainly black, soccer-loving public.

Golf magazines do very nicely by necessity of the type of audience they attract. Execs intent on ironing the kinks out of their swing make for a great target audience and magazines like Compleat Golfer and Golf Digest gorge themselves on ad revenue every month. With a paltry circulation of 19 382 (ABC Jul-Dec 2003), and a readership of only 114 000, Golf Digest hits the big time with advertising worth R12,23 million (AIS/Adex: Jan03-Jan04). It is no surprise then that the largest group of readers, for both Golf Digest and Compleat Golfer, fall into LSM 10. The cherry on top is that Ernie Els has been the one South African sportsman who has not suffered from a loss of form.

The rest of the sports print sector is made up of niche magazines like Zig Zag, Runners World, Boxing World and Bicycling, most of which have their circulation pinned just under 20 000 and are relatively successful businesses. Sports magazines, across the board, lean towards attracting broader lifestyle advertising spend to increase their profitability. Zig Zag is a good example of a small magazine punching above its weight by attracting a wide spread of youth lifestyle-orientated advertising.

“Surfing is an aspirational sport that exerts a strong influence on youth lifestyle and fashion trends,” explains publisher Craig Sims. “That’s why Zig Zag is credited as being such a powerful communicator to the youth market; because its voice is heard far beyond its niche.” In fact Zig Zag is currently the biggest-selling male youth magazine in the country – according to its current ABC of 17 953. But this title realises the power of its niche and are dedicated to serving the audience rather than simply spamming it and raking in the Titos. “We are selective about the messages we carry and are staunchly protective about our editorial voice,” says Sims.

Finally, to newspapers, where sports coverage accounts for a huge slice of committed sales and readership. Sport in newspapers generally functions as the light flipside to the dark shock-horror cover stories that occupy the front pages, but in many ways it provides a much steadier audience and a safer, more predictable environment for advertisers. The Sowetan‘s Soccer Beat supplement attracts a whopping 2,82 million readers, while Rapport’s sport supplement cashes in with 1,26 million. The Sunday Tribune, Daily News and Independent on Saturday sports supplements add up to 857 000 readers (all figures: Amps 2003b).

In terms of content, newspapers provide the hard data, fixtures, scores and the close range, after match post-mortems, necessarily due to their short lead times. Magazines pick apart the general trends, developing storylines, player profiles and should function to create icons out of our sports stars. However the role between the two in South Africa is often confused, and the two mediums often cannibalise the same content.

From afar it would seem that sports publishing in South Africa is remarkably like shooting fish in a barrel, given the average South African’s national zeal for sport. The striking feature is its resilience to the pathetic performance of our teams and administrators of late. The sector will remain incredibly profitable so long as the public have a stake in the success of our teams, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.