/ 5 October 2018

SuperSport’s empire up for grabs

Eden Hazard of Chelsea celebrates after he scores a second goal during the Carabao Cup third-round match between Liverpool and Chelsea.
Eden Hazard of Chelsea celebrates after he scores a second goal during the Carabao Cup third-round match between Liverpool and Chelsea. (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

The blue flags that would usually flutter at the Keg & Filly in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, on game day were absent on the first Sunday of August. Chelsea were taking to the field to kick off the Community Shield and fears of missing the first whistle were soon replaced by an ugly realisation that the game would not be shown.

Latecomers grumbled when they were told, and promptly made a U-turn, leaving the pub largely empty.

It was not the pub’s fault. Super-Sport, for so long trusted to broadcast all English games of significance, did not run it.

The Premier League’s annual curtain-raiser is a glorified friendly and most of us quickly forgot about the transgression. Until last week.

The pub once again had to inform unhappy patrons that the showcase League Cup round 3 fixture between Liverpool and Chelsea was nowhere to be found on TV.

“It was very irritating,” says general manager Henk Pretorius. “I even took table bookings that morning from people who wanted to watch the game. It’s not good for business.”

Unfortunately for the pub and the hundreds of other sports bars in the country that broadcast football, the inconvenience does not stop there.

Asked whether SuperSport would show the Football Association Cup in the new year, the TV channel said it will not be doing so.

There’s irony in the “World of Champions” not broadcasting the oldest cup competition in the world. There’s also much significance. The Keg and its angry customers are a microcosm of the beginning of a very interesting time for sports broadcasting in South Africa.

Why now?

Like running water, for years we took for granted that all the games we care about would be delivered to our homes. Economic realities, unfortunately, spare no one when they squeeze down on us. 

Asked why these competitions have disappeared from our screens, senior communications manager for Supersport, Clinton van der Berg, said: “Adverse economic circumstances, such as foreign exchange fluctuations and increased competition in the sports rights market, have resulted in it becoming increasingly difficult to acquire expensive rights such as these.”

Van der Berg explained that broadcast rights are obtained from the FA Premier League itself in a public tender process. Being an international market, they’re acquired with US dollars. This becomes a problem because DStv subscription fees are collected in the inferior South African rand.

It’s a sequence that’s unable to complete itself naturally. Assets can’t be procured if their cost cannot be covered.

Without fear-mongering, this situation raises several questions about the future. The League Cup and the FACup are buses that simply didn’t show up one morning; how long is it until another one has problems and never arrives? It’s an unthinkable situation and SuperSport will surely do everything in its power to turn it around.

But what guarantees are there that financial troubles will not eventually claim the Premier League and the Champions League as casualties?

With global trends moving away from traditional satellite, channel-surfing TV, it’s likely our viewing experience in the coming years will be substantially different.

The future is a stream 

Keg general manager Pretorius is looking into running high-definition multimedia interface cabling to all the TV sets at the Keg. It’s an inconvenient solution but streaming off a computer seems to be the only option to show cup games. As to what source that stream will come from, he’s unsure.

Such has been the monopoly of DStv and SuperSport that it’s fair to say most South Africans don’t know where to turn to for alternative sources of live sport.

There are various options, but all with their own pitfalls. Fox Sports is listed as the elusive Carabao Cup’s South African broadcaster but currently resides on the StarSat platform —which, incidentally, also rides on its extended Bundesliga coverage. Given that it’s also a digital satellite television service, which is a dying medium, it’s hard to see it making its way more significantly into our collective consciousness.

Kwesé Sports, launched by Zimbabwean businessperson Strive Masiyiwa in 2015, has promised to offer a comprehensive sports package to all of Africa in the coming years. At present, however, English games are limited and the rights don’t compare with what SuperSport has traditionally been able to offer.

Illegal streaming is the common go-to for many. Even if you’re the neighbourhood goody two-shoes you’ve surely encountered them. The ones with countless pop-up ads that you must painstakingly close before you can see any action —which is horribly blurry in any case. This is not a viable, or moral, option for anyone.

Then there are legal streams that are illegal for us in South Africa. British and American services such as Sky Sports and, to a lesser extent, Amazon (which is looking into sinking its feet into the Premier Leagues market) offer subscriptions that in theory should satisfy any football-mad viewer.

There are many other lesser-known services that are also making a noise.

DAZN, for instance, has launched in a handful of countries but has an extremely varied offering that has turned heads worldwide.

All the above have been accessed by South Africans using small hacks —usually a VPN that tricks it into thinking you’re browsing from another country.

It was Netflix and its streaming ilk that challenged DStv’s pre-eminence in the first place and it’s hard to see sport’s main challenge not coming in the digital streaming form.

We don’t have the wonderful services that are on offer overseas, but if someone manages to sneak the appropriate rights into their back pocket, it’s hard to see them not dominating what is essentially an emerging market.

So, what are fans to do? Not watch their team? That’s not going to happen; the will — and the demand — is too powerful for an entrepreneur not to find a way.