Cricket South Africa signs Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment agency to re-engage the fans

Cricket South Africa signs Jay-Z's Roc Nation entertainment agency to re-engage the fans

Cricket South Africa have turned to entertainment agency Roc Nation for assistance with solving their (99) problems following a lengthy period of administrative upheaval and reputational damage The company, owned by rapper and record executive, Jay-Z, already has white-ball captain Temba Bavuma and fast-bowler Lungi Ngidi on their books. Roc Nation has also partnered with other South African sports organisations such the rugby franchise, The Sharks, and football team Mamelodi Sundowns, and will work with CSA on fan engagement and event experience as the organisation seeks to “rebuild trust,” following a tumultuous two-and-a-half years.

This is Roc Nation’s first foray into cricket, and so they won’t be running this town entirely quite yet. “We are not bringing them in as cricket development partners. We understand that we are experts in developing talent and in cricket but we also have to be realistic that there are other subject matter experts outside of cricket. So we are bringing them in for a different perspective and help us connect better with fans,” CSA CEO Pholetsi Moseki said. “We were quite aware that they have zero experience in cricket apart from representing a few of our cricketers but we are also aware that they have got experience in terms of what we want to achieve in terms of connecting with our fans.”

One of Roc Nation’s specific roles will revolve around match-day activation, for which they will draw on their experience in hosting high-profile events, including music concerts. “We put on some of the biggest events in the world. We are involved in the Super Bowl, which is one of the biggest events globally,” Michael Yormark, President of Roc Nation Sport International, said.

Though Yormark conceded that his agency, “may not know as much about cricket as other agencies,” he said he saw that as an advantage. “It allows us to bring a new thought process, new ideas, fresh ideas to the table,” he said. “What we really want to do is bring the best practices from global events – practices that focus on what’s great for the fan – to South Africa and allow Cricket SA to take advantage of them for all these events that are coming up in their calendar over the next couple of years.”

South Africa will host three ICC events in the next five years – the women’s under-19 T20 World Cup next January, the women’s T20 World Cup in February and the men’s ODI World Cup (alongside Zimbabwe and Namibia) in 2027 – and are focused on putting their best foot forward for those events. “We are acutely aware of the challenges we face – the economic climate, the fact that sport is part of the entertainment business and we are competing with others in that space,” Lawson Naidoo, CSA’s board chair said.

CSA have also lost ground, by their own admission, because of their free-fall into on- and off-field chaos. Since late 2019, the board has changed twice and a significant portion of the senior staff, including the former CEO Thabang Moroe, have been sacked for misconduct. CSA were also found wanting in the way they handled the Black Lives Matter movement – a particularly polarising issue given South Africa’s segregated past – which culminated in the Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) project that pointed fingers at former director of cricket Graeme Smith and men’s head coach Mark Boucher, who were accused of prejudicial conduct. Smith was cleared and charges against Boucher were dropped but the effects of the SJN hearings on the South African cricket community will linger.

Apart from the division highlighted by SJN, which has alienated some supporters, CSA also continues to struggle to attract investors for their product. None of the three men’s domestic competitions is sponsored and the men’s national team has not had a headline sponsor since Standard Bank walked away in April 2020. The national women’s team continues to be backed by financial services company Momentum but women’s domestic events also take place without corporate backing. Another part of Roc Nation’s deal with CSA is to help them find commercial partners.

“We’ve been brutally honest over the last few months about the lack of trust, not even just the fans but with a lot of our stakeholders,” Moseki said. “We have been honest that we need to do quite a lot of work to regain that trust. To build trust takes a very long time but to lose it literally takes a split second. This is part of the journey of rebuilding that trust. As an example, connecting better with our fans and doing the things correctly, at organisation and corporate level. We are doing those things but we also understand that we need to communicate better with fans. It’s a journey. We understand it’s going to take a while.”

Like many other sporting boards, CSA also have not had much opportunity to see their fans since the pandemic hit, but pre Covid-19, interest levels in cricket were encouraging. While Test attendances have always been fairly low (apart from a few days at SuperSport Park, the Wanderers and Newlands), men’s ODIs and T20Is were sell-outs and the demographic of South African crowds had noticeably changed to include more people of colour, more women and more families. “The first step is to get back to the level we were at and that is already a standard that was high,” Errol Madlala, CSA’s acting chief commercial officer said.

South Africa have hosted two series in which fans were allowed in limited numbers and both were poorly attended. For the curtailed ODIs against Netherlands (which were stopped after discovery of the Omicron variant) 2000 spectators were allowed into the grounds, while there was a 50% capacity available for the two Tests against Bangladesh. Despite that, neither Kingsmead nor St George’s Park came close to filling their quota, and have historically also struggled to attract crowds. CSA intends to work with Roc Nation to get bums on seats, including those belonging to people who don’t normally watch live cricket. “What we are adding is looking at how we also compete for the hearts and minds of our fans as well as attract those outside of cricket into the cricket space,” Madlala said. “The advantage we have over other sporting codes is that we’ve got time, our events are slightly longer.”

Roc Nation will also be in charge of some of CSA’s social media over the duration of their three-year deal. CSA confirmed they will pay Roc Nation “a small retainer,” along with incentives attached to commercial deals. In other words, they’re trying to build an empire, or at least that’s their state of mind.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent

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