Pressing Issues: How the public broadcaster became its own worst enemy

S'Busiso Mseleku
S'Busiso Mseleku

If you were to tell a young person that there was a time when we relied solely on the SABC to watch live football, rugby and cricket, they would be forgiven for thinking that you were telling them insumansumane (fairytales in isiZulu) or intsomi (the isiXhosa word).

In fact, when English soccer titans Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur came to neighbouring Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to contest the Royal Swazi Sun Soccer Challenge in two legs in 1984, those South Africans who could not travel and be part of the capacity crowd of 8 000 at Somhlolo National Stadium followed the match on SABC TV.

Every time the World Cup finals or the FA Cup Final came around, you knew that you would follow all the goings-on live on the SABC platform.

How the once-mighty public broadcaster has fallen!

You might be wondering why my mind is cascading down memory lane at such break-neck speed.

Let me relieve you.

The broadcaster has become a poor shell of its former self. In fact, the SABC has become a joke when it comes to sports broadcasting

My mind was jolted into action this week when I saw its English Premier League (EPL) promotion.

The whole week, the SABC was shouting across the rooftops about its “match of the week” that was to be beamed live yesterday.

Said match was the gigantic encounter between Newcastle and Bournemouth at St James’ Park.

This, on a weekend that features today’s Manchester derby between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium – with yesterday’s six fixtures having included an encounter between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur (that name again).

It sent me back to the watershed events in 2006, when the SABC lost its Premier Soccer League (PSL) broadcast rights to SuperSport.

The SABC failed – no, it refused to make the PSL a reasonable offer to extend the contract after being given the first option.

It was then that SuperSport snatched the rights from under the broadcaster’s nose. And the SABC had to go cap in hand to beg the pay channel for a subcontract.

While no details of the deal have been revealed, those in the know told us that the SABC ended up buying the rights for much more than it would have initially given the PSL. In other words, it could have been the other way around as SuperSport – which was dying to broadcast local football matches live then – would have been prepared to pay an arm and a leg to the SABC for a subcontract.

The new set-up meant SuperSport had the first turn in picking which matches to broadcast live – and, like the biblical Lazarus, the SABC had to make do with the crumbs falling off the rich man’s table.

What made the SABC the butt of many wisecracks within the sporting fraternity was the fact that it continued with the tagline The Home of Football.

This, at a time when SuperSport had not only the PSL rights, but also those of the biggest European leagues such as the EPL, Spanish Laliga, Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga. Poor sods!

We are told that the SABC lost the rugby and cricket rights in almost the same manner – despite SABC3, which used to broadcast the two sports, having had a larger footprint and drawing bigger audiences than the pay channel.

The public broadcaster recently paid plenty of moolah to air some Africa Cup of Nations matches – rights that see it fail to beam live Bafana Bafana home matches, but able to show away matches.

What a cockeyed business model. Talk of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

By the way, when SuperSport came about, some smart aleck at Dithering Heights decided to do away with the TopSport logo and replaced it with SABC Sport.

Ask any marketer worth their salt which of the two names is catchier. Your guess is as good as mine as to which one they would settle for.

But no, not the SABC!

So, this is the back story that explains why those who can only follow their football on SABC were stuck with the “match of the week” yesterday, while SuperSport showed all six matches yesterday and will today screen the Manchester derby.

SABC Sport is dead! Long live SABC Sport!

Follow me on Twitter @Sbu_Mseleku

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