Crying shame that SABC pulled plug on radio rugby
Radio commentary brought the sport to audiences that could never hope to see a live game
One of my most memorable moments covering rugby was the final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Paris, not only because the Springboks beat England to claim the Webb Ellis Cup for a second time, but for a piece of commentary that will live with me forever.
As the clock wound down, with the Boks firmly in control of the match even though England had possession, the deep Scottish brogue of legendary BBC radio commentator Ian Robertson wafted back to my seat some three rows back.
He was beautifully describing England’s attempts to bludgeon their way through the immovable Bok defence, needing two scores to win with only seconds left on the clock.
When the inevitable happened and the game was lost, Robertson expertly summed up the occasion only to be drowned out by the wonderfully gravelly tones of Thobela FM’s Simon Ramafalo, who was describing the scenes to his hundreds of thousands of listeners.I didn’t understand exactly what Simon was saying, but I didn’t need to. He was sobbing, hitting the desk, and in between bursts of monologue I’d pick up “Amabokoboko, eWorld Champions” followed by more sobs and thumps. The emotion was raw and powerful, unrestrained and colourful. It was more moving than any image.
Hearing and seeing Simon in Paris left me in tears. I can only wonder how his listeners must have felt as he relayed the magic of the Stade de France back home, where most of the people tuned in would never have been to France or seen the Springboks in the flesh. Yet he brought the moment alive and gave them a beautiful picture of a great occasion for South Africa.
Commentary on TV, but especially on radio, is critical to the game and one of the most underestimated areas where rugby is taken to new audiences is through the SABC’s myriad radio stations.
Which is why it’s sad that a memo at the SABC was sent last week that it will not carry live Super Rugby in the coming months due to, one can only speculate, budget constraints.
It’s not secret that the SABC has been under huge financial pressure after a series of management and board changes over the past five years, but hopefully cutting rugby from the airwaves is a decision the board will reconsider.
SA Rugby confirmed that they were to have a conference call with the SABC about keeping rugby on radio, with the possibility of contributing to the cost of broadcast rights.
SuperSport owns the rights to rugby, having paid SA Rugby handsomely for them. The rights also include radio, which means the SABC has to purchase those from the pay channel.Given that SuperSport is not in the radio market at all, it’s unlikely that they will charge much to spread the game, but SABC’s costs are not limited to paying for rights.
There has to be boardroom will from SABC to want to broadcast the sport because there is the cost of commentators and producers. Travel to games was cut completely at the end of 2016 and most matches are now broadcast from a studio, off TV, in Auckland Park or Cape Town when games are not in the commentators’ home town.
But even that setup looks likely to disappear under the new instruction, which would be a great shame for listeners and a huge blow to the influence and popularity of the sport.
Radio is the essential lifeblood to spread the professional game to a much wider audience than TV.
On any given Saturday between 15 and 20 commentators from stations such as Thobela FM, Lesedi FM, Radio 2000, RSG, SAFM, Umhlobo Wenene FM, Phalapala FM and several more are carrying rugby to markets that SuperSport’s TV coverage doesn’t reach.
SuperSport has done its bit by introducing Xhosa commentary on certain matches while it also launched the first Xhosa rugby magazine programme called Vula, Mgunbhoxo Lo in 2013 to further take rugby to a different audience.
While SuperSport’s initiatives should be applauded, the reality is that rugby has always reached the masses through the SABC and, if it weren’t for radio, millions of people without access to DStv wouldn’t have a clue who John Smit, Victor Matfield or Bryan Habana are.
If you don’t believe me, dwell on this startling nugget. When the Springboks play, on Umhlobo Wenene FM, the honeyed tones of the likes of Mthuthuzeli Scott reach upwards of six million listeners. Big games on SuperSport attract about 1.2 million viewers.
While SuperSport delivers a world-class TV product, it’s the regional radio stations that are taking rugby to the masses on an epic scale.
Disclaimer: Craig Ray is a rugby commentator for SAfm.