The business of sport

[Image]President Nelson Mandela, wearing a
replica of the captain’s jersey, hands
victorious Springbok captain Francois
Pienaar the William Webb Ellis trophy
when the national team became world
champions for the first time in 1995.
(Image: Rugby World Cup)

[Image]Devoted Blue Bulls rugby fans in Soweto.
(Image: Tarryn Harbour)

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SA becomes business tourism hub

Chris Waldburger

South Africa is a global leader in sports tourism, but this industry can be further maximised through greater marketing efforts and the alignment of sporting events with business tourism.

Whilst many purists out there consider the term ‘professional sport’ an oxymoron, there is simply no getting away from the fact that modern sport is big business.

With the advent of new media and technology, the public’s demand to watch and experience high-level sporting events has inexorably led to the rise of sport as a multi-faceted billion-dollar (and even more rands) industry.

Sport as business has become one of the core features of our new global village and there is no turning back. The main question now is whether such demand can be utilised and streamed for the good of business, and indeed society.

It must be remembered, however, that such a question is ultimately a mere afterthought to the exhilaration of supporting one’s national team in a packed stadium, with friends in tow. It is this very human experience, along with the media, that has made the sports industry what it is today.

Tourism opportunities

The best example of this partnership between human experience and business is the 2009 British and Irish Lions rugby tour of South Africa. Described by rugby experts as ‘rugby’s last great adventure’, a Lions tour is undoubtedly a hardcore rugby fan’s dream.

Tourists followed the team from one place to another, creating a rock ‘n roll atmosphere, with the old-world charm of the team and the unique series format ensuring that the sporting experience was unforgettable. The tour seemed amateur in the romantic sense of the word, yet it was a hugely successful money spinner.

From a tourism perspective, the tour was neatly translated into opportunity. It has been estimated that the event pumped R1.5-billion (US$221-million) into the South African economy – a miniature and non-bureaucratic stimulus during a recession that went straight to the service sector of our economy.

Our rugby administrators were quick to point out their part in this happy state of affairs:

“A Lions tour ranks only behind the Rugby World Cup in terms of its scale and appeal,” said Andy Marinos, the then-managing director of the South African Rugby Union.

“Such a tour places significant demands on a rugby union and its members, but also brings many benefits, one of the most profound being the economic impact it has on the host nation.”

He added: “Preparing, hosting and moving around large numbers of rugby fans is a complex exercise but the most pleasing aspect is that a large number of overseas visitors had an outstanding experience in South Africa.”

Investing in human and natural capital

South Africa has invested in its natural capital – its magnificent coastline, game reserves, mountains, and bush – and created a tourism trade that is one of the brightest lights in its development offensive. But another field waiting to be maximised is our human and social capital – which finds a unique nexus in the global sport of rugby.

When fans from abroad watch South African teams play, and perhaps more importantly, when those fans support these teams, they are immediately drawn to the country as the nation’s mythology and narrative is on display.

Take South Africa’s sporting colours and emblems – the green and gold, the Springbok, and the symbols associated with the 1995 World Cup. These have become part of global sporting iconography, and at the same time they are associated with the start of South Africa’s democracy.

South Africans’ familiarity with sport has forged a kind of fellowship with fans abroad and creates a common language with which to share experiences. This language can precede a mutually beneficial trade.

Various organisations make use of this connection through the operation of travel companies gathered around sporting events. These companies cater for rugby, Formula 1 or even equestrian fans, and provide travel packages for events that take place in South Africa or overseas.

Added to the business of tour operation, sport offers opportunities for corporate marketing, combined with corporate hospitality and client-community building. All major stadiums cater for corporate or private suites, and such suites offer an alternative to the tired cliché of conducting business on the golf course.

They also have the advantage of being more universal in appeal and less time-consuming. With the obvious attraction of doing business alongside the South African sporting experience, it is clear that there are many more opportunities awaiting discovery.

Expert sporting hosts

South Africa has proven time and again that, despite weaknesses in certain logistical areas of our economy, we are practiced experts in hosting sporting events.

This strength can be increasingly exploited, just as sport through media becomes a more expansive and universal pastime (just think of the constant growth of Super Rugby, and the current experiment of staging southern hemisphere rugby matches in cities like London and Hong Kong).

It has often been said that investment in South Africa will only follow a local buzz, or wave of investment. The same is true of tourism. What South Africans enjoy, creates a desire and market for international tourists to come and enjoy the same things with us. And one of the greatest experiences in South Africa is the chance to sit inside a full stadium and watch a game.

This was again demonstrated when the Pretoria-based Bulls rugby team moved their headquarters to Soweto in the build-up to the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Because their home ground, Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, was under the control of Fifa by the time their Super 14 semi-final against the New Zealand Crusaders was due, they decided to take the game to the township.

It was a popular move. Streams of supporters ventured into Soweto to watch the game at the packed Orlando Stadium and the local bars. All of a sudden Soweto became an enjoyable day outing for thousands of white South Africans who might otherwise have never gone there.

Not only did sport once again prove to be a great nation builder as it was when we won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, but it also guaranteed a rip-roaring good time, and increased trade for local patrons.