'They'll never survive': Future of South Africa's franchises under threat
Roc Nation Sports president Michael Yormark has called for drastic changes in South African sport, including rugby.
Speaking at the recent Sport Industry Awards, Yormark had a lot to get off his chest about certain issues in the game, which includes the relationship between South Africa’s franchises and SA Rugby.
Founded in 2008, Roc Nation has grown into one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies, with Roc Nation Sports launched in 2013.
Roc Nation Sports first popped up on the South African sports industry radar at the end of 2019, when it signed World Cup-winning Springbok captain Siya Kolisi before the agency added fellow Springboks Cheslin Kolbe, Sibusiso Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi to their books, along with former Springbok prop Tendai Mtawarira.
Yormark pointed to the fact that many sports organisations in South Africa, including the “top three” of rugby, cricket and football, are facing financial challenges, and need to develop a model that ensures their survival.
“One of the things you would have seen recently with the Sharks is the influence of private ownership, and that’s another area that South Africa is going to have to accept moving forward,” said Yormark, who is also a member of the American consortium that acquired a 51 percent controlling share in the Sharks in January, and he believes other South African franchises should follow suit.
“They have to attract private ownership,” he said. “That’s how they are going to grow these clubs [franchises], which currently in South Africa are under-capitalised.
“They need capital infusion, they need best practices from American sport, they need to understand the concept of true partnership between the governing bodies, the fans, the clubs and the players. And once they are willing to accept that, we can take sport in South Africa and truly bring it to the next level and make it profitable.”
Yormark didn’t hold back in his assessment of the dynamic that exists between South Africa’s rugby franchises and the national body, SA Rugby.
“Rugby clubs [franchises] in South Africa are secondary to the national team, and that can’t happen,” he said. “That dynamic needs to change, because as a secondary priority to your national team, they’ll never survive.
“In rugby and football, it’s the clubs who are paying the players, enriching the local community, and creating jobs on a consistent basis in each of their local markets. The clubs are super, super important – they can’t be treated like the stepchild, and they can’t be just a feeder system to the national teams. It’s not right, it has to change, and we’re going to do everything we can to impact that change.”
Yormark says players need to have a say in the decision-making process.
“When you think about South Africa, the players have no voice and there is no true partnership,” he said. “The governing bodies control sport, whether it’s rugby, cricket or football – the players don’t have a seat at the table and are not involved in the decision-making.
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“That’s a problem. We’re trying to elevate the influence of athletes in South Africa to push them to the table, to give them that opportunity to be true partners in the sports that they are participating in. That’s one of the biggest differences between sports in South Africa and America.”
It’s strong words from Yormark, who over the past two years has obviously got acquainted with how sport is run in South Africa, as well as how it is sold and commercialised. It’s fair to say that he remains unimpressed, although he clearly sees potential.
“It all starts with further commercialising sport in South Africa, driving revenues, creating more fan engagement, filling your stadiums, and really making the sports industry successful, from every aspect,” he said. “When I say, ‘Get to the next level’, it means making these franchises sustainable on their own, making sure that clubs don’t play a secondary role to governing bodies.”
He also had some harsh words for those corporates or brands who, in his opinion, have previously leveraged the influence of South Africa’s top sports stars for fees well below market value, and he rejected the notion that his local clients were now unaffordable for South African sponsors/partners.
“Many organisations in South Africa have taken advantage of the Siya Kolisi’s, the Cheslin Kolbe’s, the Bongi’s [Mbonambi], the Tendai’s, the Lungi Ngidi’s, by not paying them fair market value for their services,” said Yormark. “We can no longer accept brands saying, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m willing to offer you, you need to accept that’. Those days are over.
“We have to demand that brands see the value in these ambassadors, these influencers, these brand partners, and pay them fair market value, whether it’s in rands, dollars, euros or pounds. We know that South Africa-based companies can afford it, and we just have to protect and defend our athletes, and make sure that they’re treated fairly.”
Yormark believes that greater power in the hands of athletes will translate into a win for all parties in the South African sports value chain.
“When you think about professional athletes in South Africa today, and you think about the position they don’t have, it’s a concern,” he said. “In order for the industry to continue to grow and monetise itself, we need to create star power, and what the industry in South Africa needs to understand, whether it’s the governing bodies or the clubs, is that when stars emerge as stars, as athletes build their brands and their visibility, it’s great for the clubs, it’s great for the governing bodies, and it shines a light, not only on them, but the entire sports industry.”
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