SABC’s Free-To-Air sports programming ‘challenger’ strategy delivers audiences using a wider range of sports rights

22 October 2021

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For years, Africa’s sports programming has been dominated by football in general and in particular the English Premier League. In South Africa, cricket and rugby are also key to the mix. When sports programming veteran Gary Rathbone joined SABC to head up their sports strategy it was always going to be interesting. Russell Southwood spoke to him this week about what has been achieved so far.

Rathbone was bought into SABC as part of its turnaround strategy. After a decade of political appointments at a senior level, it was in a financial mess. This had hit its ability to acquire and show sports. Now it has three top directors all of whom have come from private sector and know how to run a business.

“When I joined (they said) you’ve got to turn sports around. We’d prefer a “free-to-air’ proposition but you’re coming into a situation where you don’t have any budget…I said OK and I have had tremendous support from people at the top. I’ve had the backing to push the ideas I wanted. When I joined we were acquiring 3-4 sports rights a year. So far this year, we’ve acquired 45 new properties.”

In addition to the sports described below, these have included cricket, motor sport, fight sports, athletics, tennis, hockey, netball and a range of womens’ sports. Rathbone believes that far more women watch sport than is commonly understood.

His first task was to make sports work across the SABC’s three channels, 1,2 and 3 and not just let it get “shoe-horned into the gaps. We have to create business plans for each property acquired and I’ve had to cut my cloth accordingly.” Outside of broadcast channels, it started to put sports content on Telkom’s streaming platform TelkomOne: “It’s free for users but it’s still in the build-up stage.”

The heart of the new sports strategy was a free-to-air sports channel currently on DTT boxes (around 1.5 million viewers) and the OpenView HD platform (2.5 million viewers). By comparison, the audience universe for analogue channels is about 35 million. The channel was launched in May but it has not yet done a full marketing campaign.

Effectively, it’s a niche channel within niche channels but one with already larger audience figures than other offers without marketing. But niche rather understates what SABC can do. It has three existing FTA channels on which the new channel can be advertised alongside its existing sports content and also 19 radio stations, 11 of which are vernacular language stations. It has already built up regular audiences and continues to grow.

That’s a structural overview of the sports programming but what is actually bringing the audiences in?: “The Bundesliga gave us an FTA package at a rate we can work with. It gave ne great flexibility on which games I could schedule and we can choose the bigger games after 6pm. No-one else in South Africa has access to then.”

It chose to start by putting these games on SABC 3: “We started driving engagement with audiences and we’re getting 2-3 times the audiences that Supersports is getting for the EPL. It’s a property I can take to sponsors and build on it.” On SABC 1, its premium channel, these matches have been getting 1.5 million viewers a game: “We now have a second game from the Bundesliga that goes on the sports channel and we drive audiences from SABC’s established channels to it.”

With rugby, where Supersports is very dominant, it has bought the Top 14, a French rugby league that is one of the biggest in Europe. It also has many Springbok players who have gone to it. This has been programmed on SABC 2 where the key rugby audiences sit. It then added a deal with amateur club rugby that has a 1000 local clubs.

“The Heritage Cup is the biggest single tournament in the world and we’re going to turn it into a property. We’re the national broadcaster so we want to do things that have never been touched by television. It’s a roots thing and it’s about the players who will be playing professionally in the future.”

It is building its own app and it sees this as part of a strategy of ‘future-proofing’ its offer: “Whatever we do has got to be a good thing for 2025. We’re building in sports news, information, results, analytics, tables and fixtures. You will be able to have online mobile content through the app.”

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