5 March 2022: An Orlando Pirates fan takes part in a protest outside Orlando Stadium ahead of the Soweto Derby to demand that fans be allowed back into stadiums. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
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SA football will die if things don’t change

Some tough decisions need to be made if football is to thrive as an industry in South Africa, starting with putting fans front and centre.

The future of South African football is at stake. The coffers of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) might be in a healthy state, but the current climate is bleaker than in March 2002, when the organisation was reported to be bankrupt.

A member of the PSL’s board of governors told City Press newspaper at the time that the situation was so dire it could be liquidated or placed under curatorship. The league couldn’t even pay its R250 000 monthly grant to the clubs in the elite league that February. It found itself in this financial position for a number of reasons, from poor leadership to a tarnished brand – 43 people died during the Soweto Derby stampede at Ellis Park in 2001 – but mainly because it was getting peanuts for its broadcasting rights.

Five years later, under the late Trevor Phillips as chief executive, the PSL had turned things around to the point that it had made R20 million in profit by 2007. Phillips laid the foundation, but Irvin Khoza’s shrewdness and vision led to the league going from making millions to posting just over R1 billion in revenue for the 2018-2019 financial year. That was largely owing to the league’s broadcasting rights deal with satellite television service MultiChoice, which earned the PSL a seat at the table with the most lucrative football leagues in the world.

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The windfall from this deal allowed the PSL to pay clubs in the premier division R2 million a month and those in the first division R500 000 a month. This cushioned them from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, when they went 145 days without competitive football because of lockdown restrictions.

But while clubs were spared the worst hardships of the lockdown, fans and those who depend on live football for their livelihoods​​ – from security guards and parking attendants to food vendors at stadiums – have been hit hard.

Knock-on effects

Mapaseka Moabelo, 52, was forced to return to her family home as she could no longer afford the rent at her house in Dobsonville, Soweto, where she had lived for 20 years. Moabelo sold braaied meat at football games.

There are many people in her shoes. Fans haven’t been allowed back into stadiums and journalists continue to be barred from live games, unless they work for MultiChoice’s SuperSport channels. It’s illogical. A large portion of the population is now vaccinated and those same league clubs, including Orlando Pirates, which Khoza owns, beg journalists to cover their continental Confederation of African Football games, where there are no such restrictions.

The widely held notion regarding media coverage is that the status quo makes financial sense for MultiChoice as spectators rely on its feed to follow the game, with the SABC broadcasting the scraps. The pay television giant contributes more than half of the PSL’s revenue as it is the broadcasting rights holder as well as the title sponsor of the league.

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“It’s like maybe we’re trying to make sure that people buy more subscriptions to watch their games at home, instead of making sure that the game is watched in the stadium,” said Sundowns co-coach Manqoba Mngqithi. The PSL refused to let even the 2 000 government-permitted supporters into stadiums before President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address on Tuesday 22 March.

Ramaphosa announced that venues can now fill to 50% of their capacity, provided that attendees are fully vaccinated or produce a negative Covid test no older than 72 hours. Other sporting bodies jumped at this, raising their ticket availability within minutes of the announcement. But the PSL, which had said it couldn’t open stadiums for 2 000 fans as clubs would operate at a loss, told its clubs that things would remain the same until its executive committee met on Monday 28 March to discuss the implications of the announcement. Don’t hold your breath, it’s likely that teams will play behind closed doors until next season – unless there is strong pushback from the clubs.

Playing the short game

What puts the future of South African football at stake is the PSL’s shortsightedness. Protecting the clubs and their sponsors’ financial interests will come at a big cost for the game. The lengthy delay in allowing fans back into stadiums has created football apathy. A number of passionate supporters of the game are losing interest in the league.

The Soweto Derby, the biggest sporting event in the country, has seen its viewership dwindle because of the soulless nature of games playing with no supporters in the stands. With television the only portal, millions are no longer interested in watching the clash between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. The most recent Soweto Derby in March was preceded by a supporters’ strike demanding that stadiums be reopened. It registered a viewership of 7.4 million, down by almost four million viewers from the 11.2 million who watched the derby in 2019, before Covid hit.

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Numbers aside, there is also disinterest among young supporters, especially those from impoverished areas where pay television is a luxury. Some weeks, the SABC shows just one PSL match, from a league with game days on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is unsustainable as it sidelines a large viewing audience. It’s going to become more difficult for the league to attract sponsors as the audience most of them target are watching on SABC channels, not MultiChoice. And as unemployment and the cost of living rise, luxuries such as pay television are the first to go.

The league needs to relook a number of its decisions if it wants to be relevant five years from now, from those at the helm who aren’t growing the game to how to win over the country. Even if stadiums reopen tomorrow, attendance figures were already dwindling before Covid. A strategy is needed to not only bring fans back, but keep them coming. The PSL needs to embrace the new viewing patterns of supporters and how the sport is consumed. There is untapped potential in the digital sphere.

Club issues

Clubs are also problematic. They were struggling to stay afloat. Even the almost 100-year-old Bidvest Wits sold its status because its running costs were too high. The high turnover of statuses means unscrupulous people like Shawn Mkhize, whose fortune was allegedly made on the back of Black suffering, or those driven by vanity, such as Lawrence Mulaudzi, flood the league. Mulaudzi bought Wits’ status to take Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila to the premier division, only to be forced to sell eight months later after embarrassing blunders and shoddy management.

While people such as Mkhize and Mulaudzi bring big money, they aren’t in it for the long haul. They leave even bigger gaps in the league when they depart, or their bumbling ways create larger problems. Mulaudzi couldn’t pay some of his players at one point.

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The biggest positive from MultiChoice acquiring the broadcasting rights for the PSL was that players were suddenly paid more. Before that, many entertaining and star footballers died as paupers as their earnings couldn’t sustain them after they’d hung up their boots. This is a welcome change, but alienating fans means even those salaries are under threat in the long run. No one will pay millions to broadcast games that no one is watching. It’s in the interest of everyone in football to save the game in South Africa before the situation is disastrous and many more lose their livelihoods.

Fans united

Fans coming together can change things. We saw the power supporters have when the European Super League was dismantled before it even took shape. Supporters have power, but they will be among the biggest losers if things don’t change. Scheduling of games to suit television rather than those who travel hundreds of kilometres on dangerous roads in unreliable transport is among the things fan power can fix. But for that to happen, there needs to be more unity.

At the moment, fans are susceptible to being divided by those in power. A clear example of this is the decision by the South African Football Association (Safa) to endorse South African National Supporters (Sanasu), which sprouted just as the more established – but still not widely recognised by the fans it claims to represent – National Football Supporters’ Association (Nafsa) was gaining momentum in its call for stadiums to reopen. Nafsa, which was founded in 1992 but amalgamated in 2001, organised the protest demanding that they reopen.

Safa then released a bizarre statement, using fan-for-hire Saddam Maake, to warn supporters not to be “hoodwinked by anyone who purports to speak on behalf of South African football fans. Only Sanasu has the legal standing to do so.” This is a strategy to divide fans, as some leaders of Nafsa aren’t in good standing with the leaders of Safa, whom they have criticised continuously. But Sanasu is made up of “super fans” who make up the rent-a-crowd crew and attend a lot of Safa events, and importantly don’t ruffle feathers. This is what collapsed many supporters’ branches, with management siding with “elite” fans to whom they give perks and betraying the interests of the supporters they supposedly serve.

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Supporters need to see this for what it is: an attempt to diminish their power and divide them. A united fan base will change South African football as the billions invested in the sport wouldn’t be there without them.

Gabriel Kuhn warned in Soccer vs the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics that there is a threat to football as it becomes increasingly “dependent on consumers rather than on a solid, working-class supporter culture”. He wrote: “Should organised football go out of fashion with the middle and upper classes, the working classes might be so alienated that it will no longer save the industry from going under.”

If the current trajectory South African football is on doesn’t change and the PSL continues to put its wallets ahead of fans’ interests, the beautiful game in this country is doomed.

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