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.
Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics Officially Postponed Due To Coronavirus
Toplines: After a slew of calls to postpone due to the risks of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, Japan and the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday announced it would delay the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics until 2021, making it the first time the Games have been moved outside of World War I and II.
- Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had agreed with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to delay the world’s biggest sporting event until next year. “I proposed to postpone for about a year and IOC president Thomas Bach responded with 100% agreement,” Abe said.
- Speculation that the Olympics would be postponed escalated on Monday after Abe said, “If it is difficult to hold the games in such a way, we have to decide to postpone them, giving top priority to the well-being of the athletes.”
- Senior IOC member Dick Pound told USA Today that “On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided… The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the Games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”
- It’s a move that was widely expected given the hundreds of conferences, festivals and sporting events affected by the pandemic across the globe, as well as mounting criticism levied at the IOC and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by players and fans, the latter of which voted overwhelmingly in a public poll conducted by Kyodo News to delay the Games.
- Much of the criticism wasn’t focused on the possible safety of the event itself, which was set to begin on July 24 until August 9, but the risk to athletes presently as they attempted to train for the Games while adhering to lockdowns and social distancing practices in their home countries.
- On March 18, the IOC held a conference call with 200 athlete representatives that caused further ire, with Spanish Olympic Committee president Alejandro Blanco saying there would be unfair competition given the training gym shut downs in certain countries, and U.S. table tennis player Han Xiao saying, “Regardless of their intentions, their first priority is not the public health aspect of it,” according to the New York Times.
- Adding fuel to the fire this month: Kozo Tashima, the vice chairman of Japan’s Olympic Committee and the head of the Japan Football Association, tested positive for the coronavirus following trips to Europe and the U.S., Greece’s Olympic committee barred fans from attending the traditional torch lighting ceremony and Canada pulled out of the Games this past weekend.
Crucial Quote: In late February, a senior official told Reuters that Japan essentially had no backup plan, saying “We are not even thinking of when or in what contingency we might decide things. There is no thought of change at all in my mind.”
Big Number: $12.6 billion to $25.2 billion. That’s the estimated investment the city of Tokyo has made in the event and will have to swallow during a delay before recouping any revenue from the Summer Olympics, according to CBS. Sponsors additionally will take a financial blow, though, one of its biggest broadcasters, Discovery Inc., told investors in February that it was insured against a cancellation and that it wouldn’t hit the company particularly hard. NBCUniversal as well assured investors it had insurance, but it also would lose profit from the already $1.25 billion it’s sold in advertising, signing a $7.7 billion U.S. broadcasting deal for the Games until 2032, according to the New York Times. The Olympics is the largest spectator event affected by the global coronavirus pandemic, with the 2016 Games in Brazil selling 6.2 million tickets.
Key Background: According to Johns Hopkins University, there are more than 392,000 total confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 17,000 deaths worldwide. In Japan in particular, there are 1,140 cases with 42 confirmed deaths.
Tangent: The Olympic Games are among the athletic world’s most storied events. First held in 776 BCE, the Games were revived in the modern era in 1896, when the Games were held in Athens, Greece. The 1916 Games were cancelled because of World War I, as were the 1940 and 1944 Games due to World War II.
An Evening When The Stars Descended With Racquets: Federer And Nadal Faced-Off On African Soil For The Mother Of All Tennis Matches
The world’s biggest names in men’s tennis today, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, faced-off on African soil for the first time at a celebrity charity match also attended by Bill Gates. FORBES AFRICA was witness.
This is the story of how on a balmy summer day in February, a billionaire, a late-night talk show host and two sporting legends came together for the mother of all tennis matches in The Mother City.
In the coastal city of Cape Town in South Africa, a sea of admirers at Cape Town Stadium on February 7 waited with bated breath for the men with racquets they had booked tickets months in advance to see. And this for an exhibition match titled, ‘The Match In Africa’, which drew a record crowd of 51,945, all for a good cause.
Security was tight. And the crowds were building up. And in they walked, for the practice session first. Roger Federer appeared from the players’ tunnel, wearing his Uniqlo black shirt and shorts, a white headband and white Nike shoes bearing the ‘RF’ logo.
Next to the 20-time Grand Slam men’s singles champion was his mother, Lynette Federer, in a distinct green top and black pants.
Shortly, Rafael Nadal, the ‘Spanish Bull’, the world number two in men’s singles tennis, made his grand entry on to the hard court sporting pink and white Nike shoes with the word ‘Rafa’ written on them, a pink Nike shirt, and a white Nike baseball cap with his trademark ‘bull’ logo.
And the two players gave the crowd a taste of what they would see later on in the day: world-class tennis.
Earlier, Lynette, who hails from Kempton Park, a small town in the East Rand of Gauteng in South Africa, had spoken to FORBES AFRICA about the legacy she thinks Federer and Nadal are leaving for the next generation, in particular those in South Africa.
“I really do hope that it leaves a certain message because South Africans are known to be passionate sportsmen. I do hope that tennis can pick up once again as it has been – South Africa was once upon a time a big tennis nation – and that it maybe does inspire more children to play the sport and that would be marvelous because that’s one part of the message we would like to leave. But the main message is that we’re also here to help the children of southern Africa.”
Lynette is on the board of the Roger Federer Foundation that has managed to uplift the lives of over a million children in southern Africa.
In June 2019, tennis fans in South Africa couldn’t contain their excitement when Federer had disclosed in Vogue’s highly-popular video feature, 73 Questions, that his greatest rival, the 19-time Grand Slam champion Nadal, was going to help him again for the Roger Federer Foundation.
“We’re going to try to break the record for most attendance, in Cape Town, South Africa, for my foundation… I’m so looking forward to it, so thank you Rafa,” Federer had said.
This was the sixth edition of the match, but the first to be played on African soil.
The previous day, Federer had taken to Instagram, posting a video saying “hello everybody, I’m in Cape Town, I just got to the tennis court or football stadium, have a look, it’s amazing,” as he panned the camera for a full view of the stadium. “And we have got the orange color for Rafa so he feels like he’s on clay but it’s hard court.”
Federer was referring to Nadal being dubbed the ‘king of clay’ for winning 12 of his 19 Grand Slam titles on the orange clay courts of Roland Garros (French Open) in Paris.
The media stood on the courtside as the champions displayed some of their famous moves. Federer’s dad, Robert, was also present.
The mood in the stadium was beginning to get ecstatic.
The ‘Swiss Maestro’ and ‘Spanish Bull’ are undoubtedly the biggest rivals the sport has ever seen.
Yet, despite their fierce on-court rivalry, the two have managed to form a close friendship off-court.
More importantly, they have managed to inspire fans from all walks of life in different parts of the world.
And South Africa was no exception.
In the audience, a middle-aged woman named Sylna, dressed like Federer, gushed: “The moment is just too big because you don’t know what to expect and you have all these images that [Federer and Nadal] are going to shake your hands and you’re going to pass out.”
Theresa, another woman dressed as Nadal, sporting the player’s signature pink headband, enthused: “It’s actually long overdue that we’ve had some nice international tennis players in South Africa and it’s for a good cause as well.”
Jim, a 63-year-old tennis fanatic from Stellenbosch, originally from Zimbabwe, said he paid a fortune to witness this moment. “The fact that [Federer and Nadal] have been able to maintain their stature, physicality and competitiveness is absolutely amazing. You can have a good day but they have had a good 20 years of playing tennis. It’s just their spirit… Tonight is a good night to forget about all the bad things and concentrate on the good things because there’s a lot of good things in South Africa.”
One of the most rapturous moments on that packed night was when the ‘Mexican Wave’ was achieved in a metachronal rhythm by fans, and captured by thousands on their phones.
And then the world’s second richest man staged an entry.
Bill Gates appeared from the players’ tunnel with his doubles partner Federer, in matching outfits. Federer now swapped his Uniqlo black shirt and shorts for a white shirt and green shorts. He also decided to exchange the white headband for a green one. Gates opted not to wear the headband but had his glasses on.
Shortly afterwards, Nadal and South Africa’s very own Trevor Noah too appeared from the players’ tunnel in matching outfits to screaming fans and a thunderous applause. They wore pink Nike jackets featuring Nadal’s bull logo, pink shirts, pink and white shoes, and white shorts. Noah walked on to the court with the confidence of a multiple Grand Slam winner.
“I feel incredibly excited. So happy! I spent a lot of my childhood here. It’s been 20 years since my last time to Cape Town. It was worth the wait. I didn’t expect this kind of a welcome,” said Federer to SuperSport even as fans held up signs that said ‘welcome home Roger’.
He said some of the best things he experienced coming back to South Africa were the food and lifestyle. “It’s a beautiful country. It’s so scenic. The safaris, and you name it. The people at the end of the day have the warmest hearts. It’s a wonderful place.”
On playing Noah for the first time, he said: “I have never seen him play tennis in my life so that’s a good advantage for him but I’m not sure how good he is. But he’s got the best partner he could find in Rafa so it’s going to be very special. Trevor is a great guy, great person, so funny as well, and I think that could throw us off a little bit. And Rafa, obviously the legend he is, we know how great he is.”
“Play aggressive and very well, that’s the most clear way to success.– Rafael Nadal
The Swiss maestro then went on to tell the crowd: “I hope you all have a blast. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you!”
Gates had previously played in a doubles team for two ‘The Match For Africa’ tournaments prior to ‘The Match In Africa’ finale. Together with Federer, they called themselves ‘Gateserer’, and were unbeaten.
On teaming up with Federer for the third time, Gates said: “We’ve had a lot of fun. The events have been a blast to do. And they’ve raised great resources for his foundation so it’s a thrill to be here; the biggest crowd ever!”
And Nadal, on being back on South African soil, said: “It’s amazing. I’ve never played and felt like this… Just thank you everybody for supporting this.”
The crowds cheered louder.
“It’s very very special. We’re here supporting Roger’s foundation event. It makes me super happy.”
Noah nodded profusely.
“We’re going to create good team work for sure. No doubt,” said Nadal. “I said to Trevor the strategy is clear. Play aggressive and very well, that’s the most clear way to have success.”
Ten years ago, who would have thought that a young man from Soweto, a township in South Africa, would be playing tennis with two of the world’s greatest male tennis players, and also tech-billionaire and Microsoft founder Gates?
“We’ve got a strong strategy. I think Roger’s at a disadvantage. We’re both half Swiss, half South African, so I’m in his head. I know what he’s going to do. I won’t use it too much against him. I’ve got one of the greatest players that the world has ever seen next to me so we’re going to make it a good match. It’s going to be a really good match,” said Noah.
He said playing alongside Nadal was a great combination because “the World Cup 2010 was in South Africa. Spain won that World Cup. So we’ve got a special connection right here. We’re bringing that magic back today.”
Noah brought his trademark humor to the court but that wasn’t enough to pull an upset despite having Nadal on his team. Team ‘Gateserer’ beat Team ‘N-Squared’ 6-3 to hold onto their unbeaten streak. Federer said on Noah’s tennis game: “I couldn’t even see the feet, they were so fast.”
Before the players headed back into the locker rooms, Gates spoke about the work the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing in Africa. “A lot of the work we do in South Africa is to help fight HIV and tuberculosis. And so, going and meeting the doctors, seeing the patients and understanding the drugs; how we can make them better. It’s inspiring to see the people who do the work in the field. Things have improved in those areas but there’s a lot more to do.”
Preluding the main match of the night, the Ndlovu Youth Choir, a South African singing group that recently appeared on America’s Got Talent, performed Shakira’s foot-tapping Waka Waka song.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The players once again appeared from the players’ tunnel, returning to court and a frenzied crowd.
Spotted in the front-row were South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe and his fashion entrepreneur wife Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, as also the country’s rugby legend Brian Habana.
Federer spoke about Nadal trailing behind him for the record of the most Grand Slam wins.
“The good thing about tonight is that he cannot catch me. Tonight, I’m relaxed.” Federer further said he wouldn’t mind if Nadal caught up with him, however, he would like to win one more Wimbledon title.
Siya Kolisi, the first black captain of the South African rugby team, which won the Rugby World Cup late last year, also made a special appearance. He came on court bearing a gift for the rugby team’s special fan, Federer. From one champion to another, Kolisi handed over a Number 8 green Springboks jersey with Federer’s surname written on it to symbolize his South African roots.
Federer wore it and the two champions hugged.
“Thank you to all of you beautiful people of South Africa. We appreciate everything you do. Roger has been telling me how amazing it’s been since he’s come back here. It just shows how many great things we can achieve as a country; for these two gentlemen to come out here and want to play in South Africa is really an awesome thing. And I hope it inspires a lot of people to come here and do this because we’ve got beautiful facilities like these and we can fill up the stadium which is amazing,” said Kolisi to SuperSport.
In the end, tennis fans were treated to a thrilling match that saw Federer hitting his famous backhand, a shot that has been instrumental in his career. He won the first set by 6-4. Nadal didn’t hold back either. He unleashed his lethal curling forehand shot on Federer as if it was one of the many ‘Fedal’ Grand Slam final classics that tennis fans have witnessed over the years. Nadal managed to scoop the second set 6-3. In the final set, he made some errors that ushered Federer’s victory, as he won the match by 6-4 3-6 6-3. The two hugged it out by the net.
‘The Match In Africa’ raised $3.5 million, the highest amount the Roger Federer Foundation has ever netted from a single exhibition match. The proceeds will help support children’s education in Africa as the exhibition is all about empowering children, in particular, in the area of early childhood education. The event also set a world record for the most attendees at a single tennis match.
So the numbers beg the question: is South Africa ready for a tennis Grand Slam, or at the very least, ready to be added on to the calendars of the ATP and WTA tours?
At least on this night, it was clear South Africans love sport. Maybe the game has only just begun.
What Federer Thought Nadal Must Do In South Africa
“I think Rafa has to go to Table Mountain, and then also of course to the Cape of Good Hope, maybe some of the vineyards, and Bo-Kaap – I went there this morning… I think [this trip] is going to make him want to come back to have a proper time with his wife and maybe his kids, in the future, and really travel South Africa and Africa extensively. He came here for the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals when Spain played at Soccer City in Johannesburg so he’s got a little taste here already and I think this one is definitely going to motivate him for many more returns,” said Federer to FORBES AFRICA.
LeBron James Adds Multiyear AT&T Deal To His Endorsement Stable
LeBron James’ move to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency in July 2018 brought star power back to the NBA’s glamour franchise. AT&T hopes James can bring that same star power, and his millions of fans, to its latest offering.
Today, the world’s largest telecom company fully launches its new streaming service, AT&T TV (not to be confused with AT&T TV Now), with a national campaign featuring James and others celebrities like Missy Elliott, Tracy Morgan and Cookie Monster in a series of ads based on “TV Famous Mouths.”
James has dominated the NBA action on the court this season. He leads the league in assists and has the Lakers five and a half games ahead of the rest of the Western Conference in his 17th year in the NBA. Yet King James might be enjoying an even better year off the court, with a handful of new lucrative endorsement partners and the continued growth of his I Promise community.
The four-time NBA MVP’s sponsorship prowess and commitment to Akron schoolchildren converge with the multiyear AT&T agreement. As part of the partnership, AT&T’s technology and other resources will be allocated to the I Promise Village, which serves as transitional housing for families with students at the nearby I Promise School opened by James, his namesake foundation and the Akron school district in 2018.
“To have one of the biggest communications companies in the world believe in my kids and the work we’re doing to uplift families is incredible,” James said in a release announcing the agreement.
James already has a deep relationship with AT&T through the company’s Warner Bros. Entertainment and HBO divisions. His production company, SpringHill Entertainment, partnered with Warner Bros. to develop the Space Jam 2 film, which stars James and is set for a 2021 summer release. The Shop and Student Athlete are both SpringHill shows that appear on HBO. And Warner Bros. and Turner Sports invested $15.8 million in late 2015 in Uninterrupted, the digital multimedia company founded by James and his business partner Maverick Carter.
AT&T joins James’ burgeoning endorsement portfolio, which also added Rimowa luggage, Walmart and the mental fitness app Calm over the past year. General Motors revealed James as its new pitchman last month during a Super Bowl ad for the upcoming GMC Hummer EV. The above brands join James’ longtime sponsors Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats and Blaze Pizza. Forbes estimates James will earn more than $60 million off the court this year, on top of his $37.4 million salary with the Lakers. Nike represents more than half of his endorsement earnings.
James has incorporated many of his recent sponsors into his I Promise initiative, including AT&T. Walmart stocks the school’s pantry, which is accessible 24 hours a day for the school’s families, with fresh and frozen food, toiletries and other basic necessities. The content on the Calm app is available to all I Promise students and staff.
AT&T TV has been available in 13 cities to this point. It enters a crowded streaming market battling for cord-cutters, many of them subscribers of DirecTV, which AT&T acquired in 2015 for $48.5 billion. AT&T TV features an Android-based set-top box that acts like a Roku or Apple TV and offers live TV, DVR storage and on-demand titles that are also available on mobile devices.
AT&T is banking on James to attract subscribers. His 150 million social media fans across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are by far the most of any American athlete. The only athletes with more fans are global soccer stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
– Kurt Badenhausen, Forbes Staff, Sports Business
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