25 July 2022


Sports Business

South African rugby finally seems ready to kick COVID-19 into touch.


In October 2019, the Springboks were crowned World Champions following their historic victory over England in what can be described as one of rugby’s most scintillating World Cup finals ever. Sorry to all our English followers. However, despite the final representing a milestone for SA Rugby, claiming their 3rd World Cup title, instead of the result being a catalyst on which to build future performances, it would be a source of much nostalgia during the global pandemic that soon followed. The Springboks, Springbok Women and age group teams were completely inactive in 2020 and the Springbok Sevens team appeared only four times before the pandemic hit. In fact, SA Rugby fans have not been able to watch their world-beating Springboks live in South Africa since before their World Cup triumph, an almost three-year period.


However, as any South African will tell you, you simply can never count the Springboks out, and it was their return to play in 2021 that has once again come to the sport’s rescue. Understanding how they got to that point is worth exploring.


Successes of the Sport in 2021


The sport has undergone a tremendous transformation since that crowning moment in Yokohama.


Most notably, the decision of the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers to leave Super Rugby and join the United Rugby Championship (“URC”). And while sceptics may question the Trans-hemisphere competition's viability, the on-field product is hard to argue with. On this point, URC CEO Martin Anayi noted: “We did not [include the South African teams] for the money. We knew the four teams coming in will add to the competition,” adding: “We knew they will add [additional value] to the competition and not just participate in it. They are an integral part and I think we see it now.”


Currently, three of the top sports are occupied by South African teams; with the Sharks, Stormers, and Bulls having all qualified for the 2022–2023 European Champions Cup. The expectation is that all three teams will be aiming for a deep playoff run in their maiden campaigns. With their previous experiences against the top club sides in Australia and New Zealand, who would bet against them?


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It would be remiss to mention 2021 without giving credence to what the Springboks achieved on the international stage. Mike Greenway points out that “Having been locked down for 20 months, they went from a standing start to play 13 Tests in 20 weeks, winning eight and losing five, with three of the defeats coming from heartbreaking, lastgasp penalties.” This showing of sheer, indomitable will ensured that the Springboks start and ended 2021 as the first-placed team in world rugby. A remarkable achievement which included a dramatic, and unforgettable, Series win over the British and Irish Lions. The biggest victory, perhaps, was not even on the field, however.


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As nations grappled with various waves and mutations of the COVID-19 virus, sports needed some form of normalcy, a reassuring constant amid all the uncertainty. Despite the insurmountable obstacles, the Springboks conquered the biggest challenge: just getting onto the field. And it was this achievement which helped pave way for not only the sport’s return-to-play, but also renewed hope for the future. Something which SA Rugby’s recent Annual General Meeting (“AGM”) highlighted.


Key Takeaways from the AGM


The return to action allowed revenue to increase by 80% on 2020’s severely impacted levels – rising from R710m to R1,283bn – recovering almost to pre-COVID levels (R1,296bn in 2019).


This increase in activity generated a recovery in broadcast and sponsorship revenues. Broadcast income increased from R417m in 2020 to R655m, while the net income from the Castle Lager Lions Series (R107m) when added to existing sponsorship contracts (R222m) saw sponsorship income rise to R329m (R282m in 2021).


The return to rugby activity had a consequent impact on expenses with rugby costs increasing by R107m to R280m; commercial costs by R52m to R292m and image rights and insurance costs by R18m to R73m. The improving environment allowed distributions to member unions to increase from R187m to R244m.


The return to play of the Springboks and the delivery of the Castle Lager Lions Series were critical to the survival of the sport in 2021,” noted Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby.


Had we not been able to deliver those events we would have been closing rugby’s doors by year end.”


Now? With South Africa’s top club sides participating in Europe, and the financial windfall from broadcasting revenue that would bring, and the Wales Summer Tour in July, the future seems a bit brighter for the sport.


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Local Rugby


Local South African rugby fans can also look forward to a return-to-play of some of the country’s most historic school-based rugby events this year with the return of the 2022 Craven Week set to take place later in the year. Events such as the Wildeklawer, Premier Interschools and Easter Festival weekends have been well attended, spurring a resurgence of support for the countries beloved sport at a grassroots level. Many of the country's blossoming rugby talents have been held back over the course of the pandemic, limiting their exposure to unions and talent scouts, but with a return to normal play, schools-based rugby can breathe a sigh of relief. Future Springboks are again set to be unearthed at some of the country’s biggest school-based events.




Mark Alexander, President of SA Rugby, best surmised the feeling of South Africa around the sport’s status: “This has been an extraordinary year due primarily to COVID, and though the threat to rugby has not diminished, we remain hopeful that the national vaccination programme will allow society and our sport to gradually return to normal.”

However, a return-to-normal would never have been possible without the Springboks’ return-to-play. A big congratulations goes out to all stakeholders at SA Rugby for steadying the ship and guiding the sport out of a difficult period and into the future. 

- By Shane Wafer and Nick Flowers