Has rugby been captured by corporates?

The majority of South Africans can’t afford to watch the Springboks live. You’re most likely to find only the elite and corporates at stadiums.

Ask former Springbok coach Nick Mallett about test match ticket prices and he’ll tell you that speaking about this cost him his job.

While he was still coach in 2000, SA Rugby bosses decided to inflate ticket prices for then Tri Nations matches. The reality then, as it is now, is that watching the Springboks play, particularly against the All Blacks, the Wallabies and Argentina, is beyond the reach of many ordinary South Africans.

Back in 2000, a test match ticket between the Springboks and Australia was a hefty R300. Fast forward 18 years and a ticket for the Springboks vs All Blacks test at Loftus will easily set you back R950.

Some, like Mallett, might say it’s greed. Certainly the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Sport and Recreation commented on the “unacceptably high” ticket prices in 2000. But the escalating cost involved in providing guarantees to SA Rugby for the right to host a test match doesn’t come cheap.

The high costs of hosting a test

Many of the test matches are hard on the pockets of the hosting union, and ticketing seems to be the only available stream of income.

“It is because of the cost [of hosting] a test [that tickets are this high],” says Malcolm Drysdale, the commercial manager at the Blue Bulls Company who host the Springboks’ test against the All Blacks on Saturday. “SA Rugby is busy looking at the model. The older model that we still sit with is that we have to pay a guarantee, which is a substantial amount.

“At least for the All Blacks you know you are going to sell out, and there will be some good profits to be made. But at this stage, if you host an Australia game, you are lucky to break even or make a small profit, and the other tests are all losses … [In] an All Blacks test, the tickets are [priced] higher than in the other [ones].” 

Drysdale says the purchase of a ticket goes beyond guaranteeing a seat for the spectator. According to him, it is crucial in feeding into the operational costs of running the stadium.  

“If you look at the costs you incur for a test match, the guarantee differs, and it differs dramatically,” he explains. “The operational costs per test varies … If you host an Australia or England game, you hope for about 60% to 80% [sales], so you plan accordingly. You’re not going to [need a] full posting on security, cleaning and [so on], so you are going to limit that, but you can’t go below a certain point.”

But, even though the current ticket prices have skyrocketed, Drysdale is not at all surprised by the swift uptake of tickets for Saturday’s test against the All Blacks in Pretoria.

Rugby for corporates

While many seats were sold to the public, Drysdale says corporate financial muscle continues to prop up the numbers when it comes to ticket sales.

“The first guys [sic] who buy the tickets are your corporates. It is still an environment where corporates buy a lot of tickets. In the smaller kind of tests, it is more individuals [who buy tickets] because [they] are cheaper. There are people who have bought [10] tickets at around R1 500 [each]. These guys are … from Zimbabwe and Botswana. Most of the tickets are bought by corporates,” says Drysdale. 

He admits that rugby’s die-hard fan base has been stretched to the limit. “The only way [the majority of South Africans could get access to seats] is [if] a big corporate buys out tickets and hands [them] out for free. But what happens with those things is that people become used to it and don’t buy tickets and wait for free tickets.”

South African rugby faces the undeniable reality that it is no longer oriented towards its real fans. Could this unsustainable model eventually destroy the sport?

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.