SA is a forsaken market, so get used to it

Have you ever wondered why we don’t have European giants showing up on our shores? Sure, we had Barcelona pop by last year, but that less-than-24-hour visit was more the magnetic appeal of Patrice Motsepe’s bank account than the Catalan’s commitment to its South African fans.

You have to go back almost eight years for the last of those memorable pre-season Vodacom series featuring Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. And who could forget Mbulelo Mabizela earning his ill-fated move to the latter almost a decade earlier?

Local players no longer have those opportunities.

Most Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga clubs now opt almost exclusively for the United States and Asia for their summer trips. United Arab Emirates and Australia occasionally get a look-in.

Those markets are ripe for plucking. They have populations that are relatively new to this football thing; still unsure of whose shirt they should splash their bonus on. South Africa is decisively less undecided.

“Right now, we’re not present in South Africa,” Valencia president Anil Murthy said when asked how he intends to impose a greater presence in the country. “I see that our social media has some South African followers. It’s difficult to enter a market where football fans in a country have a tradition of following certain clubs. There are a handful of clubs in Europe that have a huge following across the world.

“Within the next five years, if we can maintain our level in the European Championship, there’ll be greater interest across the world and including South Africa.”

Valencia, bankrolled by their new owner, Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, have spent the past two years repairing their relationship with fans and fostering new ones around the world. Training academies are sprouting up in the US and the club’s presence is expanding exponentially across China.

But nothing in South Africa. One could argue it’s a compliment that we’re so stuck in our ways.

Despite these games by big-name European clubs taking place in stadiums thousands of kilometres away from South Africa, an inalienable love has grown in this country and been passed down through the generations. It sounds romantic to a football purist.

Does it come with a cost? Have loyalties to Arsenal and Liverpool cost us the amusement, not to mention investment, of watching a new power try to woo our audience?

There are other factors that make the South African market less appealing. Significantly, we could never match the spending power or mirror the volume of support from some emerging football lovers in other countries, such as China.

“The other day we played against Espanyol at home,” Murthy says. “They had one of the best players from China playing here — Wu Lei. There was 50-million viewers in China. Twenty-million on mobile phone itself.”

That’s essentially South Africa’s entire population tuning in to watch a mid-season, mid-table clash. Lei signed in January and his shirt has reportedly already seen record sales at the club.

South Africa does not have that consumer power. Unfortunately, that could mean we should get used to being an afterthought in the global scheme of things.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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