When it comes to popular sports such as football, it does not matter what TV channel many an ardent fan watches the match. What matters is the game.
Much loved locally and around the world, neither do borders matter. Win or lose a match, a fan of, say, Manchester United or Arsenal in the wildly popular English Premier League will find sympathetic kinship anywhere he or she may travel.
I mention the Premier League only to make a point. But the unrestrained enthusiasm is the same with the annual Champions League under the Confederation of African Football (CAF) that brings together top sides from Africa’s football leagues.
It is one of the foremost continent’s events that remind us of our unity to accept defeat when our side loses and still forge peacefully ahead together, and which any broadcaster craves the right for their national or continental audiences.
Thus, during the 11th General Assembly of the African Union of Broadcasting (AUB) held recently in Kigali, one of the issues that stood out was the vexed issue of football broadcasting rights. Some of the other core issues included funding, content generation and the delay by many of the African countries’ transition to digital terrestrial television (DTT).
One of the reasons football broadcasting should occupy such attention at the AUB meeting is that many a fan may have failed to enjoy live CAF matches in “the absurdity concerning the rights to broadcast African football matches, played on African soil, by people from outside the continent.”
This newspaper recounted how, in 2015, CAF sold worldwide rights for the Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League games to French-based company, Lagardère, for about $1 billion from 2017 through to 2028. (See “Kagame to African media: Tell your continent’s story”, The New Times, March 16, 2018).
Giving the French firm the rights means that no broadcaster may air the matches without permission, according it the right to sell at a cost determined solely by the firm.
The upshot of this was that procuring airing privileges was so expensive, that during last year’s Africa Cup of Nations only 13 countries could afford the broadcast rights.
A billion dollars is not small money and, while CAF may seek to maximise profit on a product commanding high demand, delegates at the AUB meeting felt the confederation ought to have made an exception and consider the challenges, especially of funding, and accord some broadcasting rights to Africa.
In fairness, and though noncommittal, the CAF President was willing to listen and attended the AUB meet in a gesture that was viewed as important in beginning the conversation.
This was noted by Dr Kwame Akuffo Anoff-Ntow, the outgoing president of the AUB, in a subsequent interview with this newspaper when he explained how “it used to be the case that we could not even sit on the same table [with CAF] and talk.”
However, something is being done about it. Dr Anoff-Ntow explained that, along with urging the African Union “to speak” to CAF, efforts would be adopted for the AUB to collectively negotiate on behalf of its member countries.
Many will agree with him that “sports is not just sports here in Africa. It has a certain political, cultural and social end. It is not a simple matter people playing football. It is a more complicated issue that we take very seriously.”
If we do it collectively, he said, we will go in with muscle than if individual countries go alone.
And yet, there is more to consider. Sports, along with news and one-off events such as national day celebrations as we communally view them, are the exception. Even as African broadcasters must be digitally compliant and pay heed to the call to generate own content and take charge of our story, the broadcast terrain is changing.
It is increasingly becoming clear that it’s no longer like before when broadcast stations packaged content and decided which channel and at what time to watch or listen to a programme.
The days when watching traditional linear TV and had a limited number of channels we had to synch our schedules with the TV guide are already slipping behind many viewers.
Like with the ardent football fan, the catchphrase now is that it does not matter how the content is delivered, what matters is the show.
The trend is favouring over-the-top (OTT) channels such as Netflix, YouTube and Showmax, thereby changing our viewing habits. For instance, it has allowed binge watching of entire TV programme series.
OTT channels are affording us flexible digital lifestyles, allowing us to consume our content the way we want, streaming it at anytime and at our convenience on our smart-phones and laptops, or smart TVs.
Adapting to these changes is not an option.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.