The Mzansi Super League (MSL) is the second-most-watched T20 league in the world, according to CSA CEO Thabang Moroe. Yes, you read that right.
Even at a time when spectators can watch three Test matches on the same day, interspersed with the Women's Big Bash League and followed by the Abu Dhabi T10, Moroe insists that South Africa's franchise T20 tournament is attracting more eyeballs than any of its contemporaries apart from the IPL. Moroe made his claim in an interview on Newzroom Afrika, and though its veracity was not tested, there's reason to be sceptical.
Turn on the television and you will see empty stands, especially at the cavernous 34,000-seater Wanderers Stadium, where only 4840 people attended the tournament opener. Almost 2000 fewer turned up at the second game (attendance was counted as 2844) and the first 1000 were let in for free. At Kingsmead, where the first match was rained off, a little more than 300 tickets were sold for the game against Tshwane Spartans, and Port Elizabeth's first match pulled a crowd of fewer than 1000 people.
In the Western Cape, there's been a little more support, especially in Paarl, where the biggest crowd of the competition so far has been recorded. The Rocks' second match, against the Spartans, was played in front of 5500 people. That's not a number to get too excited about except that the capacity of Boland Park is just 6000 and the sight of a venue more than 90% full made for pleasant pictures and happy noise and answered some of the questions around who really is watching the MSL. People in Paarl, for a start. Now let's look at why they are and the rest aren't and what CSA can do to change things.
The MSL started the week after the rugby World Cup ended, in the midst of the Springboks' trophy tour around the country, and is competing with football, school and university examinations, and end-of-year plans for attention, in a struggling economy. Even though ticket prices are low (R 60 is the equivalent of a little more than US$ 4), the entire competition is broadcast on free-to-air television, which may be taking away the incentive to get to the ground. There are also issues of awareness over what the MSL is and who knows about it. As a competition, it's only in its second edition, which is not enough time to build team loyalties. Advertising only began around two weeks before the first match and although the MSL features almost all the big-name South African players, the tournament only includes a sprinkling of international names, some of them so well-worn around the T20 circuit (read: Chris Gayle) that their novelty value is wearing off.
And then there is the case of Cricket South Africa.
The players' association is embroiled in a court battle against CSA over the proposed domestic restructure, which CSA proposed as a response, in part, to the austerity measures they need to put in place to run the MSL. The tournament is a major burden on CSA's books, with television rights all but given away and no sponsors to help bear some of the costs. The first edition is understood to have cost around R 80 million, which has contributed to CSA forecasting a debt of R 654 million over the next four-year cycle.
Finances aside, CSA is in the midst of a managerial crisis with no clarity over if or when they will appoint a director of cricket, who will decide the way forward for a national team in the doldrums. South Africa have lost their last five Tests, there are neither any appointed selectors nor any certainty over the team director. In five weeks' time, they will play England and there's little evidence of adequate planning, with most of the national squad having had no red-ball cricket since their whitewash in India. On social media, fans talk about no longer caring about the way cricket is run or wanting to watch the national side.
But in Paarl, where national captain Faf du Plessis leads the Rocks, spectators are not an endangered species. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. And it has a lot to do with the location.
Boland Park is the only international ground in South Africa, which is in a township. This is important because townships, in the South African context, were areas specifically designated to house people of colour in the Apartheid era and continue to exist today as a hangover of that planning. They are not places that an elite sport like cricket is often played in. Look no further than the ill-fated Global League T20 for proof. When that competition was planned, Boland Park was set to be the home ground of the Stellenbosch Kings, a franchise named after a completely different place. Stellenbosch, with its old money and fine wine, is 30 kilometres - and a whole world - away from Paarl, which is adjacent to the township of Amstelhof. And people from Amstelhof and its surrounds don't see high-level cricket very often.
Typically, Boland Park typically only hosts one international match a season, and it's only ever a white-ball game. Although people could drive 45 minutes to Cape Town for a Test or other short format games, many don't for reasons ranging from cost to convenient to culture. So the MSL is an obvious opportunity for those who want to see the players they only hear about. But it's not as simple as supply and demand; it's also about effort.
Unlike the other five franchises, the Rocks are not based at one of the country's major Test grounds, where the larger administrative offices are. As a result, the Rocks could not rely on an existing marketing team and had to outsource their advertising. The company they hired came in with innovative ideas, which included both traditional and new-age promotion.
As you drive along the freeway and approach the turn-off to Boland Park, you can see purple banners advertising the MSL. The entrance to the ground is decked in flags. Members of the Rocks' squad have been going to schools every morning since they have been in town, meeting and talking to the kids and encouraging them to come to the game; a dance competition which fans can enter by sending videos of themselves via WhatsApp is running in the innings break, and the franchise has hired social-media influencers to post promotional content on Twitter and Instagram. The Spartans have done something similar by signing on national women's player Suné Luus as their official media ambassador, but drive through Cape Town's southern suburbs, home of the Cape Town Blitz, and you wouldn't even know what the MSL is. Word from Durban and Johannesburg is that it is similar there. The big cities have enough of an entertainment scene for the MSL to barely make it on the radar; Paarl does not.
Therein lies the biggest lesson for CSA as they plan for future editions of the MSL: take it to smaller places. Places like Potchefstroom, a student town north-west of Johannesburg, Kimberley, in the Northern Cape, and East London, in the heartland of black African cricket culture all come to mind as potential venues. Like Paarl, they don't see much international cricket. But then there is also Soweto and Mamelodi and Chatsworth and Mdantsane - townships like Paarl that have sports facilities that may need some sprucing up but could also be MSL hosts. If CSA are serious about taking the game to the people, that would be an obvious way to do it. It will also earn them some goodwill at a time when their reputation is in serious need of repair. And it might provide the pictures that prove Moroe's claim about the MSL being the second most-watched T20 league in the world. Until then, who really knows?