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TV sport will be the death of live support

One might not automatically assume that televised British football constitutes a threat to the shaky edifice of live South African sport, but the experts think otherwise. Kelvin Watt of Repucom, the market research company that provides data to both SA Rugby and Cricket SA, thinks the situation has become terminal.

“Stadium attendances are in crisis,” he said. “You cannot be in sport if you don’t attract a live audience. The television audience is an important component, but the guy who goes to the game is the true fan.”

Watt’s research tells him that there are several important factors for shrinking crowds, ranging from ease of access and stadium location to a teams’ performance (Bulls’ fans, for instance, are notoriously fickle). But he believes a strong contributing factor is DStv Compact, offering viewers football on SuperSport 3 and SuperSport 4 for R295 a month.

“Undoubtedly, the biggest threat to live sport in this country in cricket, rugby and soccer is British football,” he says. “It’s got to a situation where you could give tickets away and the guys still wouldn’t come.”

This means, in effect, that last weekend’s grubby 0-0 draw in the FA Cup third round between Bolton and Liverpool contributed to the slow suffocation of live local sport. The cumulative price of an afternoon or an evening out is also, fears Watt, turning punters away. “At Soccer City you are being asked R25 for a beer, then there’s parking and something to eat, as well as the price of your ticket,” he says. “You are looking at R250 for the entire experience. For your average Joe that’s a lot of money.”

There are exceptions. Soweto derbies are well attended and the Wanderers was almost full for the recent “pink” one-day international against the Windies in honour of breast cancer awareness. Home Tests against the All Blacks are sold out and Currie Cup finals remain a staple in the nation’s annual sporting fare.

Too much sport
This said, there is too much sport and not enough distinction between competitions and products.

A case in point would be the current domestic football season. Because of the African Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea, the Premier Soccer League (PSL) is in recess. When the league resumes, action will shuttle between the league itself and the Nedbank Cup.

In an already disrupted season, this will not only add to spectator confusion but such jagged rhythms are also a poor idea for the league, which relies on the continuity of building drama. The tail that is television increasingly wags the dog of live sport.

As it is, Kaizer Chiefs are already 15 points clear of their nearest rivals, Mamelodi Sundowns and Bidvest Wits, who occupy places two and three respectively. An essential component of live sport is understanding the broader sweep of background events against which a particular match is being played.

Live support is not only tribal and religious, it’s also a way of plugging into a narrative both as an individual and a community, something that is difficult to do as a lonesome couch potato.

Looking at the same problem from a slightly different angle, several federations are known to be anxious about the future of their stadiums, which require constant upkeep, particularly at the coast. Cricket will, in all likelihood, rationalise its system so that marginal venues – like East London’s Buffalo Park – tend to host fewer international matches.

Spreading the profits
Indeed, last week’s ODI against Dinesh Ramdin’s group of contented underachievers could be East London’s last for years. Discussions are on the table about concentrating all international cricket in four or five stadiums and spreading the profits to all, the best way, reckon the authorities, of keeping everyone afloat.

When it comes to a broader discussion of stadiums, the national landscape is oversupplied with venues in relation to dwindling demand. Several World Cup stadiums – notably Green Point and Moses Mabhida – seem to be limping along, and another World Cup venue, Ellis Park, is scandalously underutilised. Next door, Johannesburg Stadium, not so long ago the city’s flagship athletics and football venue, stands empty and neglected.

So what’s to be done? Recent research has shown that Bulls fans only understand one language and that’s the language of winning. Elsewhere it would appear to be more complicated.

In Watt’s view, SuperSport is the best sport-dedicated station in the world but this hasn’t led – as it’s done in other parts of the world – to a virtuous, mutually-reinforcing cycle in which good sport on television has resulted in growing live figures, a situation SuperSport dispute.

Brandon Foot, their acting chief executive, said: “Match attendances have, for a considerable period of time, been a concern to the PSL, even prior to SuperSport entering the broadcasting deal. Among others, economics has always been a consideration, plus the employment situation of traditional fans, which makes it difficult to attend matches. Contrary to the claim, anecdotal evidence suggests TV drives interest.”

However one calls it, the problem of falling attendances remains. Television, after all, has a vested interest in healthy crowds, if only because a lack of fans tends to suggest unpalatable things about the worth of their product.

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