Icasa: A broadcasting balancing act for sport

For many South Africans, most sporting doors have been closed to them for years because of the exorbitant fees they have to fork out to access premium content on pay television. (Gallo)

For many South Africans, most sporting doors have been closed to them for years because of the exorbitant fees they have to fork out to access premium content on pay television. (Gallo)

An unlikely hero stood up for poor South Africans as the country’s sports federations, armed with some of the sharpest and most expensive legal minds, tore apart the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s (Icasa) attempt to amend the broadcasting regulations. These organisations threatened to fight Icasa on the matter to the bitter end.

Premier Soccer League (PSL) chair Irvin Khoza said the PSL would shut down should the amendments be made, saying they will lead to the “destruction of football in the country” by robbing the league of 80% of its funding. SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux took it up a notch, saying that “our doors will close in the next five years if these regulations are implemented”.

But for many South Africans, most sporting doors have been closed to them for years because of the exorbitant fees they have to fork out to access premium content on pay television. The Proteas and Springboks, for instance, can only be watched on the most expensive package from major satellite service MultiChoice, costing close to R900 a month.

Icasa seeks to change this with its broadcasting regulation amendments, which stipulate that games of national interest be shown on free-to-air television. This would strip organisations such as the PSL, SA Rugby and Cricket South Africa of their ability to sell exclusive broadcasting rights to the likes of sports channel SuperSport for billions of rands, something the cash-strapped South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) could never afford.

Expanding games of national interest

Icasa broadened the spectrum of what constitutes games of national interest. Previously it was only the national teams, but the proposed amendments would see competitions such as PSL matches, Currie Cup rugby, Super Rugby, Africa Cup of Nations football for men and women, World Cups, Cosafa Cup football, national netball, and CAF Champions League and CAF Confederation Cup football, among others, added to the list. All the federations oppose this.

But Grade 11 pupil Sanda Mgedezi spoke for the majority of the country’s poor when he spoke in support of the amendments.

Mgedezi sat alone, facing a panel of 12 councillors and spoke from the heart, saying that generations of sports fans are growing up without access to sporting idols because of the blackout of major competitions on free-to-air television. He said, “With DStv prices rising, people would be delighted if Super Rugby could be on SABC.” DStv is a satellite service owned by MultiChoice.

Mgedezi, a staunch rugby fan and student of the game, stood firm in making a case for access to sports content for the millions of South Africans who were not afforded an audience at the week-long public hearing, held at the African Pride Irene Country Lodge in Centurion, Gauteng.

The conference room in which Mgedezi spoke was a quarter full most of the week, but on the occasions when the big institutions – the PSL, SA Rugby and broadcasters – made submissions, there was hardly a seat unoccupied. Many opted to stand, just so they could see and hear the submissions Icasa had called on affected parties to make about its proposed amendments.

The public hearing from 27 to 31 May happened during an exciting time in South African sport, with five national teams – the Under-20 men’s football side, Banyana Banyana, the Proteas, Springboks and national women’s netball team, the Spar Proteas – featuring in World Cups this year. Bafana Bafana will be taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt later in June, while the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Doha in September will feature a number of South African athletes including Caster Semenya.

South Africans who rely on SABC will not see any more Proteas matches having exhausted their quota of two games. The public broadcaster will not show a single Banyana Banyana match in their maiden World Cup campaign that started on Saturday.

“Why are we not up in arms as a nation and authority?” asked David Sidenburg, chief executive of research company BMI-Sport Info. Sidenburg criticised Icasa for failing to implement its own regulations to ensure that there was access to national sporting events.

The balance between access and funding

Icasa’s biggest challenge is to find the common ground between most of the country having access to major sporting event broadcasts and the federations who run these events making enough money to secure the future of these sports. The PSL currently has the best model.

A number of league football matches are available to the SABC and SuperSport. SABC has broadcasting rights for most of the main events, including the semifinals and finals of domestic knockout competitions as well as the Soweto derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. SuperSport, the main rights holder, has exclusive rights to certain other content.

The same cannot be said for cricket and rugby, where there is a blackout in domestic competitions and partial light when it comes to the national teams, but only when they are playing at home. Springbok games are shown “delayed live” rather than broadcast in real time.

“Do you believe the sport broadcasting is equal?” asked Icasa councillor Palesa Kadi rhetorically. The chairperson of the sports broadcasting inquiry was responding to the question of why regulate.

“The terrain [in sports broadcasting] is not as equal … We are coming from an informed view, so far as what needed to be done, especially the review, because regulations are reviewed between three and five years from time to time. So this is what we have done.” 

The blackout in domestic cricket and rugby creates a disconnect between the players and the general public. The Mzansi Super League – a South African Twenty20 franchise cricket tournament that launched last year – was shown exclusively on SABC and reached millions of households, but did nothing for Cricket South Africa’s coffers.

“I was at a petrol station the other day, and two of the attendants were talking about the Mzansi Super League and which game they could get to,” Proteas batsman Rassie van der Dussen told New Frame previously. “They couldn’t have known that I was a Jozi Stars [franchise team] player, but to hear that kind of conversation was a first for me, after playing professional cricket here for years. I have been on countless flights around the country before and never heard people actively discussing domestic cricket. It was nice to hear.”

SABC’s capacity to broadcast

Kadi emphasised during the hearing that intense consultations with different stakeholders took place before the draft regulations were made public for further inquiry.

This was disputed by some sporting bodies, such as Netball South Africa, which claimed it was not consulted prior to the publication of the draft regulations. The sports body also revealed that the SABC had the broadcasting rights to their matches, but didn’t show a single game. Netball South Africa sold the rights to SuperSport, which has come with more money and more matches shown on television.

The same happened with the PSL. The SABC showed fewer matches when they were the main rights holder than they do currently with the rights belonging to SuperSport.

The issue of SABC’s capacity is one that needs to be addressed, making this a complicated matter that will require compromise and additional dialogue.

Former Icasa chief executive Pakamile Pongwana is critical of Icasa’s proposed amendments.

“There also seems to be a presumption that by imposing these remedies, it automatically means content is available on competitor platforms. The obvious question is, which ones? We know for sure that the SABC did not broadcast Bafana Bafana matches and the Two Oceans Marathon because of disagreements with rights owners over the value of the rights.

“Will the same happen across a wide range of content? Will current consumers of MultiChoice’s products be worse off? Are the proposed remedies then justified?” Pongwana wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper.

This is the first of a three-part series on the Icasa broadcasting regulations amendments. Part two looks at the impact these amendments will have on sport in South Africa. 

This article was originally published by Newframe.

Musawenkosi Cabe

Musawenkosi Cabe

Musawenkosi Cabe is from Pietermaritzburg. His areas of interest involve bottom-up social mobilization, social movements, and unions, football, social justice, spatial justice, and constitutionalism. Read more from Musawenkosi Cabe

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