South Africa defends sport against pay-TV

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The Independent Online


South Africa has declared sport an inalienable part of its national heritage and by doing so has thrown down the gauntlet to Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation over television viewing rights of rugby and football.

"We believe, quite rightly, that sport is our national heritage and the concept of pay-to-view matches on television flies in the face of that philosophy," a sports ministry spokesman, Radu Khulile, said.

The Sports Minister, Steve Tshwete, said this week that football and rugby were being targeted by Mr Murdoch. Mr Tshwete said the government and the ministry were "doing everything within our power to frustrate his ambitions", including investigating legislative and legal options.

He criticised Mr Murdoch, saying he had no interest in South Africa. "He is only interested in augmenting his financial route."

Last year, News Corporation concluded an estimated $550m (pounds 360m) deal to buy the rights to South African rugby union matches for the next five years with an option to extend for another five. In recent months, there have been several reports that senior News Corporation executives were in Johannesburg, discussing a similar deal for South African football, which is planning to launch a premier league in June.

On Monday, Mr Tshwete said he would introduce new laws if necessary to block pay television from monopolising coverage of rugby union and football. "In the worst-case scenario, the minister will seek recourse in the courts," Mr Khulile said.

Similar battles against agreements between sports associations and satellite and pay television companies are now being fought in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. But South Africa maintains that the struggle here is more than just fight for viewers' rights; it is a battle for important national interests.

Football is the sporting lifeblood of the vast majority of poor South Africans. What pay television would do, the government says, is deny the communities which produce South Africa's sports stars the chance to see them in action.

"It is not that we are taking up cudgels to take on Mr Murdoch and pay television stations. What we are defending is our deep-seated philosophy that sport is for all, not just a select few which can afford to buy a gadget to watch it," said Mr Khulile.

The government fears that the advent of pay-to-view sports could undermine the process of reconciliation and nation-building in which sport has played a vital role. In the past year, South African teams have won the Rugby World Cup and the African Nations Football Cup and defeated England in the recent cricket test series. The victories have brought black and white together in joyous celebrations which have been crucial in forging a new national identity for the country.

"Sport has shown it has the capacity to heal the nation. If you introduce pay-to-view sports in this country now, you will only bring back the racial divide," said Mr Khulile.

Already a local pay television station, M-Net, has bought back the rights to all major rugby union matches involving South Africa from News Corporation but said that in the interests of the country it would leave the two home tests against New Zealand and Australia to the state broadcasting channel SABC.