/ 23 May 2005

A Captive Audience

Sport has long been described as a civilised version of war. A replacement, a placebo to the liberals. Foreplay to the neocons. But if you’ve ever been stuck in a dark alley between the boozed up Merseyside faithful and Bayern Munich’s finest, you’ll know that the comparison is not so far removed. Just like nationalism, people take their sports very seriously. And although we should know better, sports teams have become an extension of national hubris. We hang all this fervent jingoistic crud on them. Just imagine the pressure on those poor, well-coordinated suckers from India and Pakistan who have to go and play a game of cricket while their respective leaders sit back and consider nuclear warfare as a way of clinching the test series. Try and explain “the love of the game” to the quivering bed-ridden wreck who used to be a juiced up muscle freak pumping nandrolene instead of blood “for the glory of Mother Russia” at the 1988 Olympics, just a year before the Berlin Wall fell. And what of South Africa’s zeal for bad causes? Sport is no longer about winning, nor playing the game; we hang the albatrosses of “nation-building” and “transformation” around their necks and then send them out to compete against people chosen for their talent and skill. Then we despise and ridicule them when they lose.

Even though his holiness the Dalai Lama has declared that human beings have evolved beyond the concept of war to resolve disputes, George Bush hasn’t. And what of the rest of us beer-swilling sports fans? If we lost war, could sport be next? Would we have anything to do on the weekend if we evolved beyond our need for war (I mean sport)? Of course not. Sport is the great cog that keeps the rest of our urban lives ticking along in harmony. We slave those long hours during the week for the simple pleasure of reclining in front of the TV for half the weekend watching, nay supporting, everything from the Super 12 to Formula One, the SA cricket tour to the West Indies to UEFA, FA and PSL soccer action. Without sport would we drink beer? Would we feel whole? Probably, but not as much.

Unfortunately, after the long day on the couch, the fan is the biggest loser. We’re up against the toughest odds. Sometimes our teams win, mostly they lose. We never make any money, we only spend it. The players get rich, frolic with other hard bodies, eventually become TV commentators, and rest on their laurels like retired gladiators. So the broadcaster has pinned his hopes on “sport” as a societal phenomenon – crack for the masses – and the advertiser knows we’ll be back, same place, same time next week, charged with the same misguided optimism, fueled by lager and occupying the same space in front of the tele. We’re a bankable captive audience.

“Sport has to be a healthy pre-occupation. What are the other options?” asks Heinrich Enslin, CEO of SuperSport International. Over the last five years DStv/M-Net’s SuperSport channels attracted advertising spend close to the tune of R400-million, according to Nielsen Media Research. A healthy pre-occupation indeed—and that figure doesn’t include sponsorship, which is reported to be in the region of R2-billion a year across all sports types and media channels. Of course a lot of this moola goes to offset the cost of securing the television rights, as Enslin explains.

“There have been numerous media reports about the cost of these rights and they remain extremely expensive. Television rights costs have increased dramatically over the last decade. This money goes directly to the various sports federations who sell these rights. It is their lifeblood and on average some 70% of their total income.”

And what sector of the population is SuperSport’s lifeblood? It has long been documented that M-Net and DStv’s subscriber base is predominantly upper LSM, and hugely tilted towards the previously advantaged white minority.

“Pay TV all over the world, by its nature, is a product that appeals to the middle and upper income consumer base,” explains Enslin. “Sport has greater support and interest from males in all racial groups across the workforce. [But] as the macro-economic conditions in South Africa change, we are finding that our take up of new subscribers from the black emerging market is increasing at a very positive rate.

“You will be surprised. BMI statistics show that cricket, as an example, enjoys support across all the demographic groups in South Africa. The spread is very often between black and white, although this is not always reflected in the attendance at stadiums.”

That may be, but as far as old school dogmas and sport/race categorisation goes, there is still much more international than local football on SuperSport. Does SABC1 have the monopoly on local soccer, or does local soccer simply not attract enough advertising support and audience ratings for SuperSport?

“Broadcasting regulations restrict us from securing Bafana Bafana matches played in South Africa,” Enslin states emphatically. “We have however showed numerous of their matches, such as the Africa Cup of Nations. On local soccer, we are in essence the exclusive midweek broadcaster.”

Linda Gibson, SABC’s national sales and sponsorship manager for sport broadcasting, is equally emphatic. “We own local soccer,” she says. “[And] we have the rights to the World Cup 2006 in Germany—”

So how much did those broadcast rights cost?

“They cost a lot of money,” Gibson says.

A figure that Gibson does make available is that sports broadcasts on SABC channels pulled in around R137-million in advertising from April ’04 to January ’05, according to independently commissioned research. On sponsorship, she says: “The bulk we bring in is definitely on soccer, but the Comrades Marathon and the Argus Cycle Tour are more profitable for us [in terms of margins] because the soccer rights are hugely expensive—however, it certainly drives audiences so that is a return on investment because of the advertising we are able to sell.”

As for Enslin’s dedicated soccer channel SuperSport 3, it’s still not as profitable in terms of adspend as SuperSport 1 and SuperSport 2. Together the latter two brought in over R110-million in ad revenue last year, while SuperSport 3 splashed around in the kiddies pool with under R17,5-million (AIS/AdEx Jan-Dec 04).

“We do not differentiate between the various channels as to profitability. It is more an identity and packaging issue,” says Enslin. “Soccer remains the ‘world game’, and as such there is an abundance of extremely high quality matches available. We will be broadcasting in excess of 700 live games this year and the logical approach is to package a dedicated soccer channel.”

On the audience ratings (ARs), despite being a pay channel SuperSport still manages to pull a crowd on certain broadcasts, like last year’s Tri-Nations rugby final between South Africa and Australia, which scored a massive combined AR between M-Net and SuperSport 1 of 25.9 (translating into around 820,000 bums on couches). But that’s nothing close to the 2-million odd viewers who regularly tune in to watch a derby match between the almighty Bucs (Orlando Pirates) and their yellow-bellied archrivals, Kaiser Chiefs, on SABC1. SABC3’s recent high performer was the South Africa vs. England one-day cricket series, pulling in ARs between 7 and 8.

South Africa’s only independent free-to-air broadcaster, e.tv, pulled in just under R110-million in advertising revenue from April 2004 to Jan 2005 on sports broadcasts, according to independent research. Most tellingly, WWE Smackdown achieves some of the highest overall audience ratings and ad revenue, while UEFA Champions League doesn’t even crack the top 10 most popular shows on the channel. But is it spurious to call WWE Smackdown a sport? What does Udo Carelse, YFM sports jock and presenter of e.tv’s “That Sports Show”, think?

“Oh hell no. It’s the coming together of muscle-bound stuntmen, who act out a cleverly conceived storyline that keeps people who love unchallenging entertainment, entertained. WWE is simply entertainment. The main protagonists are athletically shaped but they are not athletes.”

And if it’s not wrestling or live broadcasts, our sports broadcasters seem to fill the time with endless programmes that twist the knife and pick the scabs of our recent sporting failures. Are panel discussions the arse end of sport broadcasting?

“Maybe I’m being too demanding,” offers recently retired sports columnist Tom Eaton, “but I think we have a serious dearth of broadcasting talent. Frankly, SuperSport is the tool of the devil. John Robbie apart, their rugby commentators are dreadful, and even he isn’t that good. Naas knows his stuff, but always seems to be wanting to be somewhere else, and I reckon a classy broadcaster can never let the folks at home see that he’s secretly resenting his job or colleagues. Hugh Bladen enjoys sheltered employment.”

Carelse, not one to hold his tongue, jumps into the breach to defend post-mortem sports shows, regardless of their abysmal audience ratings and limited ability to attract advertising. He argues they fulfill a fundamental need.

“When Brian Baloyi drops the ball 10 times without an advancing striker putting pressure on him, or when Graeme Smith bowls Nicky Boje for another 10 overs after the new ball is due, we all observe it and we all store questions in our minds about it. Then when Sundowns and the Proteas lose, we start factoring in that perhaps it’s because of what we observed during the live action. So before Brian and Graeme take to the field next week again, we as fans must be satisfied that our observations have either been proved correct or disproved as complete and utter nonsense. You see, all fans believe they own the teams they support. So a sporting world without panel discussions would be like a country without a free press.”

Carelse may be onto something here. If sport mirrors war, and war is just simplified politics, then sports discussion shows do function like the free press in a democracy. And there are loads of unanswered questions.

“Why is Moeneeb Josephs on the receiving end of a team doctor’s negligence?” asks Carelse. “Why must Bafana Bafana have a black coach for the national team when it’s okay for us to crawl up the behind of an Englishman, so that he can come and ‘save’ the PSL for the umpteenth time? Why can we simply not settle for expertise wherever it is found? What really is the ‘South African’ style of football? When will Sam Ramsammy retire? Why must Banyana Banyana dress for ‘success’ before they actually achieve it?”

But whatever the answers, the primal response most fans have to sport ensures that the biggest corporate players will continue to line up outside the broadcasters’ doors to get a piece of the pie.

“As long as we’re achieving high audiences, the sponsors are happy to pay the prices,” says the SABC’s Gibson. And so they split up our screen with mid-action messages and slap logos all over the fields, players and stadiums, knowing that in between our screaming and drinking some of their brands will infiltrate the sports fan’s addled consciousness. And that’s how it works, mainly.