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Set the First Division free

Last week, two matches reinforced my belief that South African football could rise to the pinnacle of African football and regain its stature as the most commercially successful league in the continent and on the playing field as well.

I watched students, who attend the Maluti FET College during the day and train for a short while after school before focusing on their homework in the evenings, turn the tables against mighty Orlando Pirates and mesmerise them with a memorable performance to run out 4-1 winners.

Mind you, Maluti play in the third tier of South African football and the gap between them and Pirates is not even comparable. The following day, I watched former Pirates and Sundowns great – Dan Malesela – leading a first division team to triumph against Premier League side Chippa United.

Malesela’s team – United FC - was not awed by the reputation of Chippa. They ripped them to shreds with masterful one-touch football, spiced with a bewildering close-passing game that was reminiscent of Barcelona at their blistering best.

I was impressed. If teams in the lower tiers of South African football can produce this kind of performance without enjoying the benefit of financial backing from corporate South Africa, how will they perform if they enjoyed financial backing from business South Africa.

The teams are run from the pockets of the owners. Premier League clubs receive a R12 million stipend each year from television rights, the First Division clubs take home R300 000 a month and those lower down are lucky to receive R12 000.

I was convinced, after watching United FC, that perhaps the time has come for the PSL to set the First Division free. Allow them to form their own marketing group that will approach sponsors and package their own league, which is very attractive.

The football audience needs to be given an opportunity to also watch First Division matches and, if this should happen on a regular basis, sponsors would be impressed about what they see. I was sold on the product.

They do have shrewd marketers like Jabu Khumalo, who I am sure could sell eggs to a hen if given the opportunity to package the First Division for a presentation to prospective sponsors. The PSL can use their influence to ensure the First Division also enjoy television coverage.

It has been proved that, if properly packaged, a product can help attract both sponsors and spectators. The Kenya Premier League was becoming a dodo until it was re-packaged for the television audience and now attracts incredible crowds while sponsors are lining up.

The same applies to the Nigerian League, Zambia, Uganda and now Botswana. We have the capacity to broadcast some of the lower division league matches to ensure sponsors receive the necessary mileage from their outlay.

Is it that simple? Perhaps there are forces out there beyond my comprehension that dictate that only Premier League matches must be televised. Otherwise the First Division, if it gets enough coverage, will steal the thunder from the Premier League.

If in Britain they can showcase the EPL and lower divisions, surely nothing should stop us from showcasing our lower division league as well, to allow them to accrue enough funds to enable them to run the business of further developing and improving the game.

It will also free the teams from being perpetual beggars as they will now throw away the begging bowl and concentrate on polishing their product even more in order to be independent.

The cake is far bigger than the PSL can handle. It can be shared equitably among the clubs if there is no greed but one gets the impression that the senior teams just do not want to share the limelight with their younger brothers.

Perhaps that is precisely the intention; to keep the First Division clubs in chains so that they should not get big headed and flex their muscles. That is something big brother does not want because they could then speak with a powerful voice.

Suppressing them is also detrimental to the growth of South African football as they are never going to realise their potential if they are subjected to oppression. Encouraging them to grow will, in the long run, help towards the development of the game in the country.

I am sure that if players in the lower division also receive television coverage, it will inspire them to raise their game, knowing that Premier League clubs and talent scouts are watching them.

Let’s pool our resources. Above all, let’s share this huge cake and not eat it alone. Otherwise we will get bloated!

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