The SABC, the South African public-service broadcaster, has failed to secure sub-licensed free-to-air (FTA) rights for national team matches at the upcoming men’s Rugby World Cup (RWC) in France.

The SABC had been engaged in a lengthy period of negotiations with sub-Saharan pay-TV heavyweight SuperSport, which holds full tournament rights, but has been unable to come to an agreement for games covering South Africa – the defending champions – at the RWC.

The tournament will be held between September 8 and October 28 in France, with South Africa’s initial four group-stage fixtures against Scotland, Romania, Ireland, and Tonga.

It has been reported in South African media that SuperSport was asking for R38 million ($2 million) from the SABC for all potential South Africa RWC games.

Over the weekend, SuperSport released a statement saying it was “disappointed that it has not reached an agreement with the SABC for the sub-licensing of broadcast rights to the 2023 Rugby World Cup despite SuperSport having made various proposals to the SABC on reasonable commercial terms.

“SuperSport has approached these discussions in good faith, reflecting its genuine commitment to the nation’s rugby enthusiasts. It has used its best efforts to conclude a fair and commercially viable agreement. Regrettably, all proposals made by SuperSport have been declined by the SABC.”

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At the previous men’s RWC, the SABC and SuperSport only struck a last-minute sub-licensing deal for the tournament's final, in which South Africa defeated England.

SuperSport, owned by MultiChoice, is currently only legally required to sub-license nationally important sporting events – such as South Africa games at the RWC – to FTA networks at a reasonable price.

This is a difficult definition to enforce for the SABC, which has to prove that SuperSport has not offered the rights at a reasonable cost.

This comes despite the South African broadcast regulator ICASA having expanded its draft list of public interest sporting events that need to be shown via live or delayed coverage by an FTA broadcaster, in 2019.

In addition to this issue, even when SuperSport does strike a sub-licensing deal with the SABC, it usually only permits the FTA broadcaster to cover live sporting action on linear TV channels, as opposed to on its various satellite and digital platforms.

SuperSport will cover RWC action on its Grandstand and Rugby channels.

It has been reported that the SABC has convened an emergency board meeting for tomorrow (September 5) to discuss the issue.

In October 2021, a similar issue arose around South African TV rights to the men’s ICC T20 World Cup cricket tournament when the SABC and SuperSport (the rights-holder) could not come to a fee agreement.

In early July, French pay-TV heavyweight Canal Plus was revealed as having increased its stake in MultiChoice to just under 32%. In MultiChoice’s latest annual report, Canal Plus’ stake in the company was noted as 31.7%, while in February, that figure was only 30.3%.

July also saw good news for the SABC, meanwhile, who retained domestic free-to-air rights to English soccer’s Premier League for the 2023-24 season.