The organisers of the Varsity Cup rugby tournament look set to learn the hard way that, in order for followers to remain invested in their product, the integrity of a sporting competition is most important.
By “integrity” I mean that the way the tournament is run and governed has to be seen to be giving all the competing teams an equal chance, a level playing field. Like English Premier League football, where every team plays the others home and away and the top team on the log wins the trophy.
For students, the Varsity Cup has been a breath of fresh air, a place to hang out with your bros and, no doubt, check out the ladies, all accompanied by typically student quantities of alcohol. But for the organisers, the real target has always been television, where the big money is, hence their decision to play matches this year off-campus.
And for television viewers, a level playing field will be more important than any of the many gimmicks they have come up with in terms of rule-changes. Perhaps Varsity Sports should have paid more attention to simplifying their complex eligibility rules than to coming up with weird and wonderful law variations that, frankly, make me consider the Varsity Cup to be the IPL of South African sport.
The allegation that Pukke had an ineligible player on the park while they beat Maties in the showpiece final is obviously a PR disaster. But it was made even worse because Varsity Sports had already made their bed by earlier slapping an extremely harsh 12-point penalty on the UKZN Impi for the same technical offence – both teams having had their players cleared by the tournament-appointed auditors, KPMG – ensuring that the KwaZulu-Natalians, who have dominated the Varsity Shield for two seasons, no longer had any chance of promotion.
The harsh decision, which their advocate presciently warned was creating a dangerous precedent, caused further disgruntlement for a side that had been forced to play some of their home matches at the ground of their biggest rivals, Wits, albeit because of the unrest that was sweeping university campuses.
UKZN were already feeling like they weren’t really wanted in the big league and there were even allegations from elsewhere in the country that Varsity Sports wanted to ensure foundation members UCT and Wits were in the Varsity Cup, partly because of the cost of playing games in the relatively-isolated province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Whether they remain consistent and strip Pukke of the title or reinstate UKZN, the Varsity Cup management are in a quandary, their failure to run the tournament in a professional manner having been exposed.
But they are not the only ones.
Sanzaar just don’t seem able to settle on a SuperRugby format that will work, with the current competition clearly lopsided in favour of some teams. Some sides don’t have to play the top teams from last year, while some franchises, like the Bulls and Stormers, don’t even have to tour New Zealand, while the Lions and Sharks do.
A competition that was confusing before has become even more complex and unfair, alienating supporters.
Social media was alive this week with another example of an organisation that is playing fast and loose with the integrity of the game – Cricket Australia.
The first day/night Test against New Zealand last November was not an overwhelming success, whatever CA have been saying in the many propaganda press releases they have sent out this week. It was all over in three days, which rather nullifies the commercial advantages because of two days of lost television coverage, and the views of the players involved was hardly one of unbridled enthusiasm.
The problems with seeing the pink ball once it becomes worn meant the Adelaide Oval pitch was a grassy seamer, and 224 was the highest innings total.
AB de Villiers was quite right to point out that the prior experience Australia have of playing in those conditions was a massive advantage, especially in the potentially decisive final Test of the series, at that level where the margins are so small. Perhaps they’re trying to pull a fast one because South Africa was triumphant in the last two Test tours Down Under?
It would be akin to the Springboks being asked to play a Test with a new scrum rule they had never played under.
The concept of day/night Test cricket is a good one, but I have a feeling it will only work if the white clothes go and a white ball is used.