Changes in the formation of the competition have had some unforeseen knock-on effects.
Super Rugby returned for the 2019 season last month but questions remain as to whether the southern hemisphere club championship is a competition on the rise or one that is slowly dying in popularity and relevance.
The competition was cut from 18 to 15 teams, in 2018, in a bid to make it more competitive, but that failed to create an improved product and the same issues of too many one-sided contests remained.
The field contains five sides from New Zealand, four each from South Africa and Australia, and one each from Argentina and Japan, who have been given a slot to try and grow the popularity of Super Rugby in Asia.
It is a complex competition that straddles 16 time zones with matches on four continents, leaving players exhausted and, especially later in the season, under-performing as a result.
Teams send under-strength squads to play some away matches, wary of the impact the travel will have on their players, and that means the paying public, or viewers on television, often get sub-standard entertainment and fixture outcomes that are too easy to predict.
Experts can debate the standard of the rugby on the pitch, and many agree it is declining outside of New Zealand, at least, and the reality is that people in South Africa and Australia, especially, are getting turned off.
Between 2015 and 2017 South African teams saw their gates diminish by 25% and in Australia, they went down 20% over the same period.
In 2017, Super Rugby matches saw, on average, stadiums filled to only 38.2% of capacity, meaning more than 60% of seats were vacant. Part of this is to do with bigger venues now being used, but it creates poor optics for viewers and potential sponsors when all you see are empty seats.
With a broadcast deal that is up for renewal in 2020, Super Rugby organizers need to come up with a plan to make it more entertaining and, if not quite get bums back on seats, get viewers more switched on to the product.
There had been widespread media reports that the competition could shed another unnamed side, possibly the under-performing Sunwolves of Japan, and drop to 14 teams. Governing body SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina Rugby) say that while no decision has been made yet, they want clarity soon.
“We don’t have the luxury of time on our side and if there are going to be any changes to the competition structure we need to know what that is going to look like because we’ve got to start some face-to-face engagement with our broadcasters during the course of 2019,” SANZAAR Chief Executive Andy Marinos told The New Zealand Herald.
“We’ve done feasibility studies around putting teams in North America and the Pacific Islands and we’ve seen the metrics aren’t really stacking up for us at this point in time but that doesn’t mean we won’t look at taking our product into those markets in the form of regular season games or preseason friendlies.”
Marinos went on to suggest that the single-stream, round-robin format was the best way forward, in his opinion.
“When we get to the business end of the season, you want to know everybody has played everyone and they’ve all had a similar path to get to the finals so that the finals series has integrity,” he said.
“Those have been big pieces for us to look at; how do we increase the competitiveness and how do we get the integrity back. Certainly a round robin format would deliver that.”
It is expected that a decision on the future of the competition will be made at a SANZAAR board meeting in March.
South African Rugby Chief Executive Officer Jurie Roux has previously weighed into the debate, saying he believes the optimum number of teams for Super Rugby was 12, which the competition had from 1995 to 2005, before expanding in what is now viewed as an ill-fated move. “In the end, the ultimate competition was probably the Super 12,” Roux said at a press conference. “To be honest, we probably should’ve never moved away from it but there were different reasons for that.
“Over the last decade or so, every union had different reasons for supporting the expansion. Some of it was purely selfishness, others had a clear mandate from the union on high performance.
“Some of it was politics and others purely about making revenue. Whatever the reason, it ended up being a tournament that if we don’t change it, we’ll have serious issues.”
The expansion brought with it a decision to put teams into conferences, which has proven complex and not popular with audiences.
There are also the sporting considerations, as New Zealand teams the Wellington Hurricanes and Waikato Chiefs ended with more points than the Lions (South Africa) and New South Wales Waratahs (Australia) on the overall log in 2018, but finished below them as a team from each country is guaranteed a place in the top three on the table to ensure they get a home quarterfinal.
In 2017, the ACT Brumbies from Australia were allocated a home quarterfinal despite all five New Zealand sides having obtained more points than them in the pool stages. It created a giant mess that was viewed as unsporting and damaging to the integrity of the competition.
It appears clear that the best way to save Super Rugby is to cull more teams and go back to a single stream, returning the competition to how it operated at its peak.
With more competitive games, hopefully viewers are switched on, again.
African footballers are a wanted commodity but are not necessarily from the continent
By the time the mid-season transfer window closed at the end of January, an estimated 2,000 footballers used the month-long opportunity to transfer from one club to another.
It is one of the two periods in the year when clubs are allowed to buy and sell players and although not as busy as the June-August window, it is a frenetic time as clubs in the major football-playing nations look to strengthen their teams for the second half of the season.
Among the list of movements this January were a bevy of common African names: Bangoura, Boateng, Diaw, Kamara, Mendy, Owusu, Sissoko and Touré.
But while this might suggest there is a healthy exodus of Africa’s top talent to the bigger, and more lucrative leagues of Europe, it is but an illusion.
READ MORE | The Million Dollar Game
African footballers are still a wanted commodity, but not necessarily those from the continent.
Instead, it is the ever-increasing numbers from the diaspora – second- and even third-generation kids born in Europe to African parents who are prized for the physical prowess and creativity that their African genes provide, but also having had the benefit of a more formal footballing education in Europe.
France has always been the primary destination for African footballers with the top clubs long casting an eye over the best that the continent has to offer.
But while there were many African footballers moving to and from French clubs this January, not one arrived directly from an African team.
In England, Germany and Spain, none from them either. Two Belgian clubs took players from academies in Mali and Senegal but not from clubs.
Only Italy’s Atalanta spent €200,000 ($225,533) on William Tabi from ASEC Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. His teammate in the Ivorian under-20 side, Wilfried Singo, also went from Denguélé to Torino.
It is as if the market has dried up and a lot of it has to do with the age restrictions on player movements,” London-based agent Rob Moore tells FORBES AFRICA.
South African Moore was at the heart of the biggest move of the January transfer window as American Christian Pulisic went for some €60 million ($67.6 million) from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea.
“There is little doubt that when FIFA brought in the rule that restricted the movement of players aged 18 it put African players at a severe disadvantage,” adds Mike Makaab, whose agency has moved players to Belgium, Germany, Greece and Italy in the past.
“Clubs want younger players because they believe they can still mould them. It has been a major blow to the market although I wouldn’t be surprised if that rule is changed.
“Obviously, it would have to come with strict rules and restrictions on potential exploitation.”
But African football is about much more than only an incubator of talent. It has established competitions like the Nations Cup, Champions League and Confederation Cup, which now all enjoy fulsome coverage with matches broadcast live around the world.
“Football clubs in Europe are spoiled for choice,” Makaab adds.
“The market in Africa is competing with players from Eastern Europe, from the Americas and now increasingly Asia. There is a lot of choice.
“I find that sometimes the clubs in Africa are not realistic in their pricing of players. They want too much for players who have already established themselves, not cognisant of the fact that clubs can find similar quality elsewhere in the world.”
READ MORE | Unequal Pay for Equal Play
Moore says clubs in Africa must also realize that the increasing sophistication of football and its growing technicality demands better developed players, with physical prowess and skills now needing to be matched by decision-making and sporting intelligence.
“This is probably why now there are so many young players from the USA that are making a breakthrough in Europe. American youngsters grow up with a lot more of theory of the game than those from Africa. It’s the way they are coached at an early age.”
Historically, most transfers from Africa are from the west. Players from north and southern Africa are paid better in their domestic leagues and, therefore, tend to stay home.
“You find that South African footballers don’t really have that ambition to go overseas anymore as the money in the Premier Soccer League has improved. Once they get to the PSL, many of them tend to sit on their laurels,” laments Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter, who feels it is imperative that players move to Europe for the experience and increased competition.
Our national team is stronger if there are more players based at European clubs. I try to encourage players to get out there but not many make the move.
“The best African national sides are those with the most players at the biggest clubs. That’s the reality,” Baxter adds.
When South Africa won the African Nations Cup title in 1996, the majority of their players were either already at European clubs, or on the brink of making the move.
Fast forward to this season and the country does not have a single player in the top leagues in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and just a handful plying their trade in France.
It’s a fact that correlates with the downward turn in fortunes for the national team.
The Million Dollar Game
Waves of fans poured into the FNB Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, in regalia rivalling the world’s most jubilant festivals, to watch South Africa’s biggest Premier Soccer League teams Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs clash it out for the Soweto Derby.
The stadium, also known as The Calabash and home to the Chiefs, seats 87,436 fans and rumbled with vuvuzelas and unbridled euphoria. The Soweto Derby is one of the most fiercely-contested matches in African football. Between the two rivals, there have been 163 past derbies‚ and of that, 67 won by Chiefs and 39 by Pirates.
However, it would seem that Pirates are making inroads to close the gap. Chiefs have not managed to claim a victory against Pirates since 2015; the equivalent of 12 matches and 1,496 long days.
READ MORE | Unequal Pay for Equal Play
In this image, fans wear the traditional team colors; gold and black for Chiefs, black and white for Pirates. They wait with bated breath and watch the players who will control the course of their destiny – for at least the next 90 minutes.
The whistle blows and the stadium roars in anticipation. This is an event that spectators and organizers alike bank on.
“Just out of this event, we are looking at just over R30 million ($2.2 million) contribution to the local economy. We are talking sales from a granny selling pap and vleis, to the guy selling merchandise and the guys helping to park cars. That’s what sports does,” says Barba Gaoganediwe, Head: Destination Promotions and Marketing for Gauteng Tourism.
Unfortunately, the match ends in a draw and neither side is pleased as they disappear into the changing rooms to plot the defeat of the other side for when they meet next.
Can Football Stand On Its Own?
Some African football teams view the exorbitant cost of CAF competitions a penalty.
In the days before commercialization, when nationalism was growing and newly, or recently, independent countries looked to make a mark, winning an African football competition carried great currency.
It also carried the financial backing of the state, oftentimes, with limitless expense as national prestige and pride were on the line.
Effectively, national teams and top clubs were able to enter and compete in continental competitions with little concern for costs.
The downside was that it also meant that football associations had no independence. Their reliance on the state coffers – meaning their business – was dictated to them by the government of the day.
That is still a factor in some African countries but these days, football seeks to stand on its own feet, assert itself and get by on its own resources – earning revenue from television rights deals, sponsorship agreements and gate takings, which are all important to fund the expense of participation.
But the reality of travel on the African continent is one of enormous expense and football clubs are increasingly wondering whether prestige and national pride is worth the end result, as they expend great fortunes on playing against the other top teams from the continent.
Some nations place more value on it than others. In the Arabic-speaking north of the continent, the long-time dominance of clubs from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia is a source of regional pride and a massive spur to remain as competitive as possible.
West African clubs still also attach a high value, but it has been years, decades even, since they were regularly among the winners. The independence of their football structures nowadays means resources are limited.
Clubs from West Africa do well with the patronage of benefactors as was the case with Accra’s Hearts of Oak, who were assisted by businessman Harry Zakour, in the early 2000s when they were African champions. More recently, Guinea’s Horoya, enjoys the backing of entrepreneur Antonio Souaré.
The deep pockets of mining magnate Patrice Motsepe allow Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa to consistently win domestic success and qualify for the African Champions League as a result… and be competitive. He has pumped an estimated R200-million ($14.4-million) into the club over the last decade and encouraged his coachers to chase African success.
But this is not the attitude of most South African clubs, who largely see competition north of their border, such as the Champions League and the Confederation Cup, as a bothersome exercise. They participate with clenched teeth as if carrying out a chore they have to complete but want to dispense with as quickly as possible.
There is a two-fold reason for this. The distraction from domestic competition that remains a priority for insular-thinking South African clubs and the exorbitant cost of participation in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) competitions. “It is money that, quite frankly, would be better spent strengthening our squad with more players,” says a candid Ari Efstathiou, the Ajax Cape Town owner who says it costs anything between R250,000 to R750,000 ($18,000 to $54,000) per game in African competition.
His side are now relegated but just two seasons ago were competing in the African Confederation Cup.
“Of course, it is an honor to be able to represent the country but in the long run, unless you actually win the trophy, it is a big financial burden and there is not much to show for it at the end.”
Travel in Africa is exorbitantly expensive and when you are forced to move a squad of some 30 players, coaches and support staff around the continent, it quickly adds up into a massive bill.
Rarely are flights direct, with many clubs using hubs like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Dubai and Doha to move from one side of the continent to the next.
The game costs are made up of travel, match-day security, hotels, ground transport and paying for the referees. In a bizarre system, open to much abuse, CAF forced the home club to pay for the flights and the daily allowances of the referees but have since taken up much of their bill themselves.
There is still a fulsome entry list each year for the two annual CAF club competitions and the controlling body will point to an almost 100% success rate in the fulfilment of fixtures.
But there is a growing sense that changes are needed to make the competition more viable, otherwise they face a slow demise. -Mark Gleeson
30 Years And Still Grooving
African footballers are a wanted commodity but are not necessarily from the continent
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