Liquid Telecom allegedly reneges on athletics contract said to be worth R15m
Company still hasn't paid for 2018 GP series. It has also liquidated deal with Akani Simbine
The multi-million rand sponsorship aimed at producing top-drawer athletics has collapsed, leaving organisers of SA's premier track and field series in a "R10m hole".
Liquid Telecom signed two separate deals valued at no less than R23m early last year and both were supposed to run until 2020.
In February it announced an R8m accord with sprint king Akani Simbine which allowed his coach, Werner Prinsloo, to quit his job to focus on training full-time.
A week later Liquid Telecom was unveiled as the title sponsor for the Athletix Grand Prix series, believed to carry a price tag of at least R15m over three years.
But the company has liquidated its arrangement with Simbine, and has allegedly reneged on the agreement with Stillwater Sports Management, which arranged the GP series on behalf of Athletics SA (ASA).
Sources close to the deal say Stillwater put up the money for the first three-leg series in 2018, but Liquid Telecom has not yet paid what they had agreed to.
"Everything was going well - except the sponsor didn't pay," said one source.
"Stillwater is in a R10m hole," added another, explaining the debt included outlays that were supposed to go for the duration of the sponsorship, such as branding.
Liquid Telecom told the Sunday Times in a written statement: "Liquid Telecommunications South Africa (Pty) Ltd was a sponsor of Athletics South Africa and Akani Simbine respectively.
"The company is no longer involved in the sponsorships of athletics in SA and is engaged in a confidential dispute resolution process with Athletics SA and Stillwater Sports Management."
Stillwater MD Michael Meyer declined to comment.
The deal with Simbine, who lifted the Commonwealth Games 100m crown in April, ended in December, the athlete's agent Peet van Zyl said.
"We have come to a mutual agreement to end the sponsorship. We negotiated terms for an early release."
He was hopeful of landing a new sponsor.
The reason for Liquid Telecom's change of heart was unknown, although Van Zyl said he was told the company "felt there's no future for them in athletics".
There was also a management change soon after the sponsorships were signed.
The Athletix GP series in 2018 featured most of SA's stars, including Caster Semenya and Simbine, as well as top international competitors like 100m world champion Justin Gatlin, Olympic javelin silver medallist Julius Yego and former world 400m hurdles champion Nicholas Bett, who died in a road accident some months later.
The prize pool for the three meets totalled more than R1.3m. Top-eight finishers all earned money, from R20,000 for the winners down to R500 for eighth place.
The 2018 GP series was the first time in five years that SA enjoyed a sponsored track-and-field series, and the first time in 15 years that high-profile athletes from abroad had been enticed to compete in SA, as used to happen with the old Engen series.
BMI Research CEO Dave Sidenberg said the sponsorship had "tracked really nicely" and Liquid Telecom had enjoyed brand awareness above average for a product in its first year. "There's a great opportunity to take their place quickly."
ASA president Aleck Skhosana said the federation had a meeting scheduled with Stillwater this week. "It will be premature for me to comment on this [now]."
ASA's provisional calendar for 2019 has three track and field dates set for March 9, 16 and 21.
"The whole idea ... is to prepare our athletes better for the world championships [later this year]," Skhosana said.