Whenever Stephen Kirker takes his place inside the glass cubicle at the radio station where he works, there is one thing he can be sure of: when he starts talking about sport, the switchboard lights up like a string of Christmas lights.
“Every single time,” says the SAfm radio presenter, “there is an incredibly high level of active listener participation. People just love sports!”
Even stripped of the power of aesthetics, radio is no exception to the rule of thumb that sport and all its heroes drive consumers to listen, read and watch high volumes of content. Ratings go up, advertisers buy more space with guaranteed audiences and everyone wins.
But why does sport act like a magnet for audiences?
Jonty Mark, group football writer at Independent Newspapers, says the ‘hero of the day’ is related to whatever sporting events are unfolding at a given moment in time. South Africans will then latch onto that person’s image.
“(Chad) Le Clos and (Oscar) Pistorius [prior to his fall from grace] are massive,” he says, “and not just locally but globally too. Then there is (Thulani) Serero who is a ‘local hero’ because he plays for Ajax Amsterdam, so when everyone is talking about Afcon because it is a current event, everyone will talk about Serero too and respond to an image of him.”
But, he adds, there are often page one stories that are related to sports and that draw many readers, but that aren’t on the ‘heroism’ side of sport.
One of the biggest examples of this was the recent shooting of Reeva Steenkamp allegedly by Pistorius. Most newspapers around the world led with this story, selling billions of publications. The story continues to attract headlines. The increased publication sales are all due to attraction of people to reading and knowing about sporting heroes.
“It is certainly good for sales if a sports story translates into something that will go on page one. A coach getting sacked will always be a story of high interest. People also love money stories related to sport: player bonuses, how much a coach earns, ticket sales for a tournament… people love that stuff!” Mark says.
Television is no exception. Channels like SuperSport use former players as presenters, and this drives up ratings.
“The level of the ability of these players will vary, but the broadcaster will use them for the name recognition value that they bring to the channel, and the expectation that they will have certain insights into the game,” says Mark.
But what about media platforms such as weekly newspapers, which have less leeway in terms of how sports stories are packaged or presented? Do they also get to cash in on Le Clos’ bulging pecs or Serero’s nifty footwork?
According to Drew Forrest, who has watched countless editions of the Mail & Guardian being put to bed under his watchful eye on the newsdesk, sport remains a form of entertainment but in a different way.
“You will find more features and interpretive content if you’re reading a weekly,” he says, “and even though it’s not a primary driver like it might be at the dailies, people still expect some type of sports coverage from their weekly read. The M&G has never written about sport in a serious way, and nobody expects that, but it is still there in the content.”
Dr Martha Evans, an academic at the University of Cape Town, explains how, for many South Africans, there is an added psychological dimension to the relationship between sports and media.
“People’s consumption of sports is all tied up with national identity,” she explains, “so when they are doing well and we witness it through the media, it generates a feel-good moment for the viewers too.”
Nthabeleng Nkomo, the portfolio sales manager at Metro FM, says that media platforms also grow audiences by firing them up with opinion.
“Especially with your big sporting events like Afcon and the PSL derbies, you get a lot of presenters on air who root for one team or the other, so they build up a rivalry and that draws in listeners who then call the station to stake their claim and stick up for their team.”
She says that advertisers also listen to what is happening at the time, and will want to associate themselves with an event. Apart from official sponsors who get major airtime during such events, there are also those who “jump on the bandwagon”, she says.
“For example, Tiger Brands teamed up with Universal Music for an on-air competition,” she says, “but they made the questions for the competition more relevant by linking themselves to the listeners’ huge interest in Afcon, so all the questions were related to Afcon.”
Widespread interest in sport is not a new phenomenon at all, says international communications expert Daniel Beck, and it dates back to the beginning of any human activity. But, the information technology revolution has increased the ways in which audiences can consume imagery and information about their sporting heroes.
He says that spectator sports “have become an integral source of entertainment for contemporary societies because they have every single ingredient of delightful entertainment”.
Not only is there the spectacle of “public participation through things like ola-waves and football songs, there are also all the rituals before, during and after events”.
These all make for great media moments as consumers get to enjoy things like the introduction of the players, the national anthems, the handshakes and the opening ceremonies.
“Also,” he says, “there is the suspense. There is drama, conflict, combat, victory or failure and risks. These all form part of the ideal combination of the dramatic and the unexpected.”
Consumers also feel a sense of belonging and identify with the stars, icons and heroes of the sporting field who are sometimes even elevated to a saintly status. For this reason the arrest of golden boy Pistorius was so shocking.
But, he adds, the most important attraction is the sheer “sex appeal”.
As consumers get to enjoy “bodies in action and on display”, the financial department tucked away on the fifth floor hears the delightful ‘ching ching’ of money falling into a cash register.