Sth Af Loses Sponsor

South Africa: Athletes Count the Cost As Mr Price Pulls Out

Sunday Times (Johannesburg)

October 29, 2006
Posted to the web October 30, 2006

Simnikiwe Xabanisa

MR PRICE’S decision to withdraw their sponsorship of track and field athletes has rocked the country’s already embattled athletics community.

From year-end, the clothing retail company will release the 20 top SA athletes on their books and no longer sponsor their three “athletics” institutions: the University of Johannesburg, the University of the North West and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

The athletes who will lose their contracts include household names like Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, LJ van Zyl, Khotso Mokoena, Alwyn Myburgh, Chris Harmse, Leigh Julius, Estie Wittstock and Marcus la Grange.

Mr Price sponsorship manager Graham Daniel said the reason for pulling out was a business one.

"Our research shows that we’re not getting the same return as we used to. We’re spending a lot on athletes who are competing overseas five months of the year so we’re not getting a good enough return.

“We’ve decided to focus our athletics spend on road running, cross-country and schools.”

The biggest club in local track and field, Mr Price’s exit caps an exodus by big business from athletics over the past two years. Rentmeester parted ways with Tukkies 18 months ago, while Liberty Nike have also given all their athletes (road runners and track stars) their Don’t Come Monday letters.

And the blame has been heaped on the impotence of the sport’s governing body, Athletics South Africa (ASA). Over the past few years, ASA have lost Engen and Absa as track- and-field series sponsors.

Currently, their domestic series relies on funding from the National Lottery.

Former middle-distance star Jean Verster, coach of Hezekiel Sepeng, said:

"It’s a sad day for athletics. But you can’t blame them if they only have six meetings in which they get exposure, and even then not on live television.

“ASA are not promoting the sport as well as they should be. That’s probably why Absa pulled out (of sponsoring the local track and field series). Not enough is being done to promote the sport for sponsors to want to be involved.”

Veteran hurdler Shaun Bownes, who was also cut by Liberty Nike this season, said the sport was on a downward spiral. "I got my ‘Dear Johnny’ letter quite a while ago, informing me that they would discontinue their support of athletes. But I’m surprised that Mr Price are going the same way as well. The bad thing is that Engen, then Absa, pulled out. Now the clubs are following suit.

“Athletics keeps going backwards and ASA keep talking about our sport being the flagship of the Olympic team. We might be the flagship but if there are no clubs there won’t be much athletics.”

ASA general manager Linda Ferns, although surprised at the news, denied that the exposure of athletics was different to what it used to be, to the extent that sponsors had to pull out.

“Nothing has changed from last year, so how are they not making the same returns?” she asked.

“Athletics coverage has never been live so I don’t understand how their exposure has changed. If they’re pulling out, it’s tremendously sad and disappointing.”

Ferns said she would have appreciated it if the sponsors had discussed their exit plans with ASA.

“They didn’t have to, but it would have been nice if they had asked us what we could do to help.”

John Hamlett, coach of former Comrades winner Andrew Kelehe, was baffled by Liberty’s decision to quit road running.

“If you read the Comrades stats, each of the professional teams got roughly R3-million out of the race in coverage. And our team won the team prize, but now they’re being offered half what they were earning by other teams.”

Bownes said the sponsors’ exit would have a ripple effect on grassroots athletes.

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"A lot of the athletes rely on their club income. How many, other than a handful, can afford to be full-time athletes without the help of the clubs?

"The club retainers were responsible for things like fuel, supplements, additional physio, overseas airtickets and incentive bonuses.

“Now guys are going to have to work to finance their athletics. I’ve recently started working, and it’s a struggle to do both. Young kids are going to join sports like cricket and rugby instead of athletics.”

All so true. Here in Aus, i was talkin the other day to a coach from a regional area at the schools states titles. He was saying his yr 10 kid has already been approached by the brisbane broncos (Rugby league). The broncos travel around Queensland and go to the local areas, and poach the best/fastest/strongest kids well before they leave high school. If you were a kid, earning $5 wk pocket money and training for track, then the broncos come to you and say, “Gee man, your fast and strong, ever thought about trying out for the broncos junior team?” and you say you have not, He then replys “Mate, we are having trails in 3mnths this way, if you practice some ball skills, i bet you could get a $1000 per term schoolaship to be a junior bronco!”. All of a sudden, this kids income is happening. He turns his attention to football, casue that is where the $$ are and after all, they recon he can do it - what track coach has that belief in him they are prepaired to spend $$ on him? 1000$ aint much, but to a 15yr old kid, its like winning the lottery.

According to the agent of some of the athletes mentioned, they don’t need the money from the club. No big deal. They earn enough at overseas meetings. Lucky??!!

A sad day … !

Are the sponsorships being ended altogether or have other sports successfully poached the sponsors?

I agree with your point about other sports identifying athletic talent and poaching it. There is a danger that fewer athletes will come into the sport or stay in it due to it being relatively unattractive.

Athletic talent in terms of speed and strength is relatively easy to identify and transfer to other sports.

Charlie I recon they would like us to believe that they have quite altogether. They will however pop-up in other sports in a couple of months. At the moment most of the companies only pump money into sports that gets mass tv time like rugby and soccer, where even school teams attract massive sponsors. The really big companies are also currantly putting all their money into the 2010 soccer world cup which will be staged here.