The union, and especially the Southern Kings, represented an opportunity to bring transformation front and centre while still providing entertaining, high quality rugby. With Cheeky Watson at the forefront, the union was set to practise what it preached given how much he and his brothers sacrificed in the 1980s in the service of combating rugby’s apartheid structures.
But oh, how hope and promise give way to reality and lamentation. Now the Kings are being run by Saru with Watson and the clubs (for now) in control of the EP Kings, who will soon kick off Currie Cup play.
Yet if the match against the Chiefs is any indication, the Kings could use a few lessons in maximising profits. I should know, I am an American and a sports fan who has seen the many ways that sports teams can milk their fans of money.
At the same time, I have spent nearly 20 years working in and on South African history, politics and sport, and am equally acquainted with the odd ways that South African professional sports seem reluctant to take money that might be on offer. It is an endearing trait, unless your rugby union is broke.
Here is a list of suggestions for the Kings to consider at least to pretend that their financial situation is not a nightmare. If this leads to a sea change in South African sport, so be it.
Do you want to resist the crass American model? Fine, but you’ve already invited in the worst of American sporting sub-culture in the form of cheerleaders and the bizarrely mismatched Super 18 conference tables. Why not at least consider the American money-grubbing model?
Many of these issues are systemic – I’ve run into virtually all of them at Loftus and Newlands, at Ellis Park and the Shark Tank. But far from being justification of complacency, this stasis represents all the more reason for the Kings and the EPRU to take the lead.
Americans are gauche and crass, aggressive and bombastic. But we know how to run a professional sporting event and since we suck at rugby, you can claim all of these ideas as your own: ý Sell tickets at the stadium How is it that fans cannot buy a ticket for a match at a stadium that is less than likely to be a quarter full on the day of a match? Loftus, that erstwhile home of Northern Transvaal rugby, looked empty on the TV during a recent match.
Three weeks ago I had to jump through more hoops than a circus animal just to get a ticket to a Stormers match at Newlands that was at best two-thirds full. For the Kings-Chiefs match Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was for all intents and purposes empty.
While this might be connected to the wisdom of the country tossing itself headlong into the Fifa cauldron in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, it also indicates tremendous short-sightedness on the part of South African rugby officials.
Sell tickets at the match, have a ticket booth available every 100m or so and cultivate a culture of game-day decisions for fans who might not be devout Kings fans, but who want to see a high quality match on a glorious Eastern Cape Saturday. Since the same problem prevails for the country’s top soccer league, it seems as if the crisis is systemic.
Solve the damned problem. It will only help South Africa’s professional sports across the various codes.
- Sell more things in more places more often to more people
I got to the NMB Stadium almost two hours before game time in hopes of avoiding parking nightmares (that did not exist) and massive crowds (that were not there), but also in hopes of taking my time to buy food and kit (that were largely not available). After more than an hour of wondering why I could not spend my rands, by coincidence I discovered that all the way across the stadium from the section where I was seated there was a lone place to buy a Kings jersey, T-shirt or hat.
That, frankly, is absurd. If you want everyone wearing Kings colours, you need to make the Kings colours available throughout the stadium, inside and out.
It is actually flabbergasting to have to suggest this. There is nothing untoward about selling Kings jerseys at a Kings match. The only untoward thing is to have to point that out.
(And by the way, when the Kings were last in Super Rugby they had one of the best jerseys in all of professional sport, a sharp black and grey trim combo. The current year’s jerseys look like a puppet threw up a pile of argyle socks.)
- Open earlier, or later, but really be open The same things were true of the food concessions. If you open two hours before the match, everything needs to be open two hours before the match.
Believe me, anyone who gets there at 1pm before a 3.05pm match truly wants to eat, drink and hang around. Give the people what they want.
Every concession needs to be open as soon as the stadium opens. If it takes until 2pm to be open for a 3pm match, so be it. But once you are open, allow people to spend the money they are happy to spend.
(I would also think of a way to have at least one of the suite bar/restaurants open before the match on a cash basis, but that seems negotiable.)
- Have a real web presence It is shocking how awful the Kings’ web presence is. The most useful information I found with regard to things like parking was from the FAQs for a Roxette concert in February.
Basic Google searches about basic Kings- or NMB-related matters do not actually lead to immediately helpful places. The Kings, or the EPRU, need to find a couple of web-savvy folk to make sure that all searches lead to you, and lead to a version of you that has all of the right answers to all of the questions that a reasonable person should be expected to have and a few that might not be expected.
- Do it better than the Americans – seize the opportunity, don’t exploit Americans are the worst. We really are. And our sports teams never fail to seize an opportunity and then exploit the hell out of it.
Concessions at a typical American sporting event can quite literally cost the amount of an average monthly salary in the Eastern Cape. So do all of the above, but do it in the way that is representative of the element that truly is the most endearing aspect of South African sport: you tend not to screw your fan base by trying to take every rand from their pockets.
So please, sell tickets at the stadium, sell more things in more places more often to more people, open earlier and really be open, and grow your web presence. Keep costs as low as possible while still making a profit, give the people what they want.
And please, please, please put a team on the pitch that can make all of us in the Eastern Cape – natives and adopted sons – as proud as we can be of a Kings team that we want to see rise even if all signs point to a leadership that is happy to see it set.