Meet Springbok World Cup hero Bryan Habana who is helping athletes get back on the track

Athletes would have descended on Tokyo in July and August this year, hoping that four years of sweat and blood would bring them the glory of an Olympic medal. But their dreams have been dashed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has affected every single sports star with a resultant loss in income. New Zealand’s rugby players will be the world’s first sports people to play in front of crowds as it had eliminated Covid-19 from its shores, but Covid-19 is likely to hang around in most other countries for the foreseeable future. Organisers of other major sports events have tried to put together events without crowds, but have had difficulties luring big names to participate. The US Tennis Open Championship suggested that every player should arrive with just one team mate for this year’s championship in September, but last year’s winner Rafa Nadal indicated that he would not be interested if that is how the event would be run. So, what do athletes do in the interim to earn money and stay relevant? World Cup winning Springbok legend and try scoring machine Bryan Habana has teamed up with a former school mate, Mike Sharman to launch – a platform that gives athletes a solution to grow their commercial brands. The pair’s sporting agency,, which they founded with Ben Karpinski and Shaka Sisulu won the Sport Industry’s Young agency of the Year award in November 2019. – Linda van Tilburg

Post that pretty incredible victory in Japan in 2019 – seeing Siya Kolisi lift that World Cup trophy – sort of got me thinking from my own experience why none of the players have any websites. There’s all these different extremities of social media that they’ve got, but they don’t have this consolidated presence of their online environment. And I think Mike and his thinking ability to literally garner from some of the best entrepreneurs in the world and chatting to venture capitalists, just understanding how we can maximise opportunities that sport presents us with. We then came up with this idea of, which in its basic form is a consolidation of an athlete’s online presence; no matter where they are, what gear they’re in, what discipline they’re involved in or even what age group they are – bringing that all together and fully commercialising it in a way, because it showcases their their social media, showcases their sponsors, it showcases the demographics of their following and their reach. It gives an opportunity to set up a merch store where they can sell their own personalised merchandise – hassle free – without having to worry about sourcing clothing or garments, worrying about printing, worrying about couriering to the fans that are wanting or needing it. 

And then most importantly; it’s something that’s very close to my heart – the charitable element of sport. And we have seen in this pandemic, in particular, sports revenue has gone through exceedingly exorbitant losses. So, being able to give back and make a difference and through; we’re giving athletes around the world an opportunity to raise funds for either their own foundation or a charity of their choice, but with a very simple and easy to use mechanism. I had to go through the process during Covid of redoing – worrying about integrating HB eyes in the back-end for payment solutions – and with we’re taking all that hassle away from the athlete, making it as simple and as straightforward to use with an incredible amount of visibility and simplicity. 

After some research and some insight we were really stumped that nothing like this had really come to the fore before, especially because of the impact of sporting results, sports personalities, the athletes and how they benefit from digital marketing and their digital audiences. And obviously, like Bryan said, that the impact of Covid has led to sport to experience an estimated 61.7 dollar loss to date, because of events that are happening around the world. Right now – sport is in this really strange flux. If we think about the Olympics being postponed to 2021 (and possibly maybe not even occurring) and if we look locally in South Africa; the Craven Week – as a perfect example for the scouting of young talents. So many of those individuals are poised to make it and kick it up to the next level – from a professional point of view – from that Craven Week scouting and those individuals that train their entire lives for one period of time to get to the Olympics.

That’s an entire generation of athletes that are going to lose out on any commercial opportunities. So, they have an audience and they have social media. So we bring all of them together in a constant ecosystem where we can showcase, for example. You’ve got all these various different athletes who now have the ability to ring-fence all of their social media into one space to showcase their marketability.

So they’re not relying just on the traditional broadcast of the Olympics to commercialise themselves. They already have that audience. They already have that following, the community. So let’s help them get back into the game and kick off so that they can actually make some cash in new revenue streams. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to turn athletes into brands, into businesses. 

Are they traditionally not very good at that; branding themselves and marketing themselves?

They are really good at it. The problem that you’re currently facing is; you’ve got all these extremities and all these different avenues of having to worry about – posting the exact hashtags on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Now, a lot of things have happened now with TikTok. When we won the World Cup in 2007, Linda, the biggest thing everyone was worrying about is how many Facebook friend requests you were getting, and now – all of a sudden – through lockdown, Mike and the team have been putting all these things together and have come up with an MVP, which I’ve had to learn isn’t the most valuable player, but rather – the minimum viable product to consolidate and bring all these things together for the athletes, making them very easily showcase their sponsors. Athletes tend to forget to showcase their sponsors or as a collective they’re not allowed (when they’re in Springbok camp or in the national camp or with the Bulls) to name their individual sponsors, so their commercial rights and their collective commercial rights are really protected and safeguarded and their individual ability to commercialise themselves isn’t always at the forefront. I think what we’ve really done with, and it has accelerated because of this Covid pandemic, is we’re giving them an opportunity to generate revenue from sending videos, sending voice notes that are first-most to their fans around the world – but in a consolidated environment that really showcases who they are and what their online presence is all about.

Is there a problem that sponsors have pulled back a bit because nobody’s in the spending mode?

I don’t think the sponsors have totally pulled back. I think they’ve had to relook at their model. But we’ve seen – from a digital content perspective – how the sponsors engage with all their athletes. We’ve been seeing athletes challenging others in homebound challenges and challenges that have got people not only trying to be physically, but mentally fit as well over the course of the last eleven weeks in South Africa (potentially longer over in the northern hemisphere). So yes, from a sponsor’s perspective – there has been a massive loss in revenue on various different levels, but the sponsors in particular just want to engage again. I’m still involved with one of two big brands and I’ve had to do things that I wouldn’t normally have done, given my current contract, so that sponsors can still be engaging with their consumers.

Well I see you’ve already attracted big names. Seabelo Senatla – you probably know him really well, Bryan – and Brandon Stone and Thembi Kgatlana – she’s the Banyana Banyana ace, isn’t she?

That’s it, and she’s now playing in Benfica in Portugal. She was the CAF Player of the Year last year. The CAF goal scorer of the year. So, she’s doing incredible things and she’s obviously one of the most successful young athletes to come out of that team. She has a deal with Nike. She really is an inspiration to both young boys and young girls around South Africa and into Africa.

What other names are you thinking of, because this seems to be a rugby player, a football player and a golf player?

This is literally, Linda, for any athlete; no matter what discipline, no matter what age, no matter where you are based in the world and we’ve been having various interviews and chats over the course of the last 24 hours since launching the product of engaging with potential athletes from around the world you – whether you’re an Iron Man or Woman, whether you’re a cyclist, whether you’re a badminton player, whether you’re a rugby player. As an athlete; they all have an audience, they all have people that have extreme passion about what they do – and imagine being able to, as a massive triathlon fan, get your favourite triathletes to send you a video message, because now – all of sudden – you know where you can go to find out everything you know about that specific athlete. And again, it’s not just for rugby, it’s not just for cricket, it’s not just for soccer or golf – it is for every discipline. And we really feel that there are a lot of athletes around the world being able to showcase their values from a reach perspective, from a brand perspective. But to engage first-hand with the end user or consumer is something extremely encouraging and why the idea came to mind.

Henri Schoeman is a perfect example to add to that. He was a bronze triathlete from Rio, and for the triathletes space – it’s such an expensive sport, generally, because it’s not one of the top three largest sports in South Africa. And for someone like Henri and his peers in the triathlon space; there’s a lot of global travel that’s obviously been hampered now because of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, but annually when there’s a 70.3 events from around the world, for half Ironman in particular, the world champs occurs in Kailua-Kona (Hawaii) – and that’s a huge expense to get there. So, if you can imagine that with triathletes they don’t always have the biggest audiences but they have really engaged niche audiences so you can imagine if someone like Henri, for example, was able to sell merchandise sell voice notes – he is able to then make money off a different revenue stream and now get him to these competitions that previously was an unattainable business model and revenue stream. We’ve got MMA fighters – Dricus Du Plessis – he’s the South African champ both on the EFC and in the KSW Polish leagues. So we’ve got some really interesting mixtures of your mainstream sports as well as your niche sports. We have one of the finest cricketers out of the England women’s team – Tammy Beaumont, we have Rachael Burford who is an England women’s rugby player. We are really attracting a whole host of different individuals that realise the potential – as athletes – to be marketable and to develop their personal brand digitally into a single ecosystem.

Bryan Habana

Bryan, quickly just to get to the work you’ve been doing delivering food to communities. What was that like? What did you find out there?

Yes, (obviously) this pandemic has (this is not something new), but I think what the pandemic has brought to life is the massive need from a humanitarian aid perspective that so many in South Africa are really needing and I wanted to play my part. I was very fortunate to end up with Ozone as a financial services payment partner and started raising funds. And we’ve been going into communities across the Western Cape, where I’m based, over the course of the last four weeks, doing collaborations with One SA, giving to people who are absolutely destitute, who are in incredibly atrocious conditions and who have nothing. Some shacks we go into and people and their gratitude; it sort of touches your heart in a way so deeply, because they tell you that they haven’t eaten for a day or two and that they didn’t know when their next meal was going to be. I think for us, as athletes, we’ve got an opportunity to try and lend a hand and make a difference and I’m extremely fortunate for the life that rugby has given me. I’m extremely fortunate that I was able to play my part in nation building. But I think at the moment, to be able to give back and make a difference – you sometimes feel like it’s only a drop in the ocean. So, hopefully now – with the added opportunity of raising funds through my profile – I’ll be able to continue doing that for the next while.

And it seems while you were doing all this, you had quite a bit of fun. Did I spot an orange Superman’s suit somewhere there? What’s your superpower – apart from the ability to play rugby really well?

So I actually hadn’t gone out of the house for the first three weeks of lockdown level five in South Africa and I didn’t want to climb into any of the PPE that is needed for our health care workers. So, I managed to find a dress-up outfit that I wore to my son’s fifth birthday party last year. It’s pretty cool. And like I said, the ability to have fun again when you’re in a position of privilege – that you’re able to do that – I think the appreciation of your position is also highlighted, and I think again – being able to not only have fun but hopefully make a difference in people’s lives is incredibly important to me.

And how did you stay fit? I saw you planking with two small children on your back.

Yeah. Thankfully the online challenges that had happened were only very short timed ones, and then obviously Instagram Stories only got 15 seconds and just over a minute on a full pose. I’m not going to be saying I’ve been extremely efficient at training. I got myself a wattbike about two weeks ago. So, I’ve started slowly getting back into the swing of things, but since retiring – I’m probably in no condition remotely to even consider playing a game of touch rugby, let alone a full contact one. 

Ok, and the Blitzboks – they wanted to go to the Olympics. They must be so devastatingly disappointed that they couldn’t go.

Yeah, the Blitzboks – not just from an Olympics perspective – the HSBC Sevens Series has also come to an end unfortunately, because of this pandemic. A lot of athletes around the world go through this four year block of doing everything in their ability to try to be as prepared as possible to go to the pinnacle of sport – which is the Olympics. And the Blitzboks were in a bit of a rebuilding phase. As Mike alluded to, the remuneration and revenue loss has been something astronomical. So yeah, you feel for them. It is absolutely distressing times for all athletes, no matter what your discipline. If you were aiming and working towards that pinnacle of being at the Olympics, and with the Tokyo post Rugby World Cup 2019, it was set up to be one phenomenal experience, to say the least. It’s really disappointing and hopefully, I think everyone is just hoping, that player welfare is good at the forefront of a decision-making process when it comes to a return to play protocol, because rugby being a contact sport is very much different from golf or tennis or one of those individual sports, that (obviously) we understand, we know the close proximity from a contact perspective. So, when you’re scrumming – you can’t really social distance. Now we’re trying to look at rules; changes to accommodate that. But one doesn’t really want the essence of rugby to be lost. So I think the uncertainty surrounding all of it, particularly with rugby being a winter sport and winter is different in the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere, so there are a lot of unknowns. Again, it is a very weird time that no one really understands how to navigate the protocols in place. And, you know, in South Africa they say the peak might only be in August. So, player welfare should be a priority. And hopefully, in so doing, we can see rugby back on our screens in the not too distant future.

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