How SuperSport-PSL broadcast rights deal changed the game forever

07 December 2019 - 14:58 By SIBUSISO MJIKELISO
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PSL chairperson Irvin Khoza.
PSL chairperson Irvin Khoza.
Image: Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix

It used to be that a Bafana Bafana match would not go by without the masses pulling their chairs closer to the television to sit in a trance of some Doctor Khumalo magic or to see the boy wonder Benni McCarthy blast past hapless defences.

The same applied to Proteas and Springbok games, especially the ones of massive national importance, such as World Cups and major international competitions.

In 2007 the ground shook beneath the sports broadcast rights game when the Premier Soccer League (PSL) and SuperSport rights deal opened SA up to the world of mega-money broadcast rights deals. But it also ushered in the age of blackouts.

MultiChoice group executive chairperson Imtiaz Patel, who was the CEO at the time, pioneered the five-year R1bn PSL rights deal. The teacher-turned cricket administrator had a vision for a truly super sports offering once he joined SuperSport in 1999.

With rugby having bought into the lucrative exclusive rights game, and cricket half-in half-out, football was the only one left to join the party. Once it did, nothing in SA was the same again.

It came with all the controversy you’d expect for something that many feared would create such a rigid dichotomy between the haves and have-nots. But once ratified, the deal proved there was plenty genius from PSL executives, led by chairperson Irvin Khoza.

“We, like many South Africans, have realised the power of sport as a vehicle towards national cohesion and nation building,” says Patel, who is vacating his position in 2020.

“We are proud that through our efforts to bring real commercial value to the PSL we have managed to contribute to this important cause.”

Patel could have been lost to the entire operation a year after the deal when the International Cricket Council (ICC) came knocking, but he chose to stay in the country. He systematically put SuperSport, globally, as one of the sport broadcast powerhouses.

“We saw the opportunities of enhancing both the PSL and SuperSport’s businesses by affording to the PSL the muscle and support which it had previously lacked,” the organisation says of Patel’s impact.

“The deal was transformative in every possible way. It helped MultiChoice break down the perception of it being an elitist platform and also led to a significant increase in its subscriber base on the Compact package.

“MultiChoice had previously been perceived by many as the domain of the elite, showcasing sports genres that appealed to the well-to-do.

“The deal also transformed the PSL. SuperSport broadcast more matches live than had ever appeared on-air in SA before.”

The PSL went from being a local delicacy, to a global aphrodisiac, able to attract some of the biggest football names and a slew of African stars. It could even slip a grant to its 16 member clubs, to the tune of R2m per month, to assist with their financial survival and competitiveness on the transfer market.

The players, many of whom had died paupers in the past, earned meatier salaries. While the public thought migrating the PSL product to a pay-channel would take football away from the masses, in fact, it created the opposite effect.

Prior to 2007, when the public broadcaster held the rights, it showed merely 384 hours of football, as opposed to 1, 257 in the 2017 season. As MultiChoice’s subscribers grew by the millions — from 3.5 million to 15 million in the 10-year span — the SABC was also forced to jack up their act.

“[In 2007] we put in the element of sub-licensing, whereby whoever buys the rights, cannot hog the rights alone,” said Khoza, reflecting on the 2007 landmark deal earlier this year.

“We made sure that there was a minimum number of games that were guaranteed on free-to-air television. We did very well over the years to make sure that our supporters were not being disadvantaged.”

Then the bubble burst. The SABC’s perilous financial situation meant it couldn’t pay for those sub-licensing rights “afforded” to them by holders SuperSport.

In 2018, for the first time, the SABC failed to guarantee that they’d broadcast PSL matches and this year matters came to a head at the start of the Absa Premiership season in August when sponsors threatened to pull out of football if they didn’t get the SABC’s mammoth radio and television coverage for their competitions.

The blame game kicked off. The public blamed SuperSport, accusing it of being the bully that squashed the little guy on the playground, but Khoza and the sports department mediated a solution that brought a five-year peace deal between the two broadcasters.

Meanwhile, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) wanted to deal with those frequent blackouts and lack of elite sports events on SABC by redrafting the sports broadcasting services amendment bill at the end of last year, whose hearings were held in May this year.

Icasa advocated for pay-channels to be stripped of their exclusivity for competitions deemed to be of national interest, such as PSL games, Rugby and Cricket World Cups, as well as national netball and hockey matches etc.

The SABC, who confirmed at the five-day hearings in Pretoria that that made R9m turnover on their R500m spend on sports rights and production, cheered Icasa’s cause.

“Due to the exorbitant costs of the sports rights, the SABC is unable to fully deliver on its mandate by securing the sports broadcasting rights of the identified sports events which are declared of national interest,” says SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo.

“Sports rights are one of the biggest cost drivers for the SABC and a core genre in television broadcasting, which requires regulatory intervention. The public broadcaster presented its submission at the public hearings ... advocating for the unbundling of rights, a fair and transparent sub-licensing framework and fair competition in the broadcasting sector.”

Almost to a man, sports federations balked at the idea of stripping SuperSport of their exclusivity, some saying it would be the “death” of their sport. That death, in financial terms, meant they would get 70% less money from broadcast rights than they enjoy should Icasa’s regulations pass.

With capacity and management issues still dogging the SABC — uncertainty over digital terrestrial television and their mooted streaming service — they still boldly say they’ve secured rights to air next year’s Olympic Games in Japan. A R50m per annum deal with the SA Football Association to show Bafana games has also concluded. It’s a bumper season for sports lovers.

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