South Africa's PSL season begins amid concern at the state of the game
South Africa's Premier Soccer League boasts a place among the top television markets in world football, yet faces some real dilemmas as the new season gets underway on Tuesday.
Rapidly declining attendances go hand-in-hand with a general pessimism about the state of the domestic game, especially after a lack of success for the country's national team. The 2010 World Cup is now but a distant memory as clubs line up for a new campaign, albeit using all of the wondrous stadia infrastructure left in the wake of hosting of the four-yearly showpiece.
The PSL should, by rights, be the hub of the African game. There is no shortage of television cash, amounts that other, similarly mid-sized markets could only dream of. There is also an enthusiastic following that sees television audiences and soccer media flourish but, bizarrely, crowds are rapidly declining.
The league has historically never published official attendance figures but weekly anecdotal evidence from the size of match crowds shows that, as more and more TV subscriptions are sold, fans opt to watch from the comfort of their sofas rather than trek to stadiums.
There has never been a culture of away travel, given the vast size of the country, a weak transport infra-structure and the old Apartheid rules on movement. Popular clubs see attendances dip alarmingly when they are losing and, while Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates can fill up the 90,000-seater Soccer City for their derby, both teams are often playing their next fixture in front of just a few thousand.
All of this promises the potential of a long-term negative impact, even though the money paid by satellite television, to broadcast the vast majority of the season's games is more than R1 billion for the current contract period.
That, along with sponsorship for all competitions, keeps the professional game on a relatively healthy footing although, as is the case elsewhere, it is the clubs with rich owners who prove most successful.
Some clubs survive now largely on the monthly grant they get from the league as part of their share of TV rights money. With South African currency historically weak and having taken even more of a battering over the last years, the real value in hard currency terms hardly touches the enormous money paid for European football.
But in a country with a cheap cost of living, professional footballers are as much the subject of public fascination and fantasy as elsewhere.
South African football salaries are now competitive enough to keep top talent at home rather than go to markets like Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal or Sweden, where earning potential versus living costs are much the same. There is still a desire for players to compete in top leagues or the UEFA Champions League but that ambition is now fuelled more by prestige than salary.
PSL clubs attract coaches and players from around the world. The new season will boast players from countries including Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Burundi, Latvia, New Zealand, Zambia and Zimbabwe. But there are none with any marquee value. A further problem for the PSL is the hectic pace and physical demands of the local game.
Nonetheless, with all their resources, South African clubs should really be dominating in Africa and yet, over the last 25 years, have won the continent's Champions League just once, when Orlando Pirates triumphed in 1995.
This is because clubs still have an insular agenda. Domestic success is prized above all else and for many qualifying to play in the annual African club competitions is an irritant more than anything else.
This attitude is beginning to change, however. Orlando reached the final in 2013 and, this year, reigning PSL champions Mamelodi Sundowns are through to the semifinals and in line to make a psychological breakthrough for the South African game.
But the real all-round boost will only likely come if the national team can qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Under the management of Ephraim Mashaba, Bafana Bafana must show more consistency to win a group that also includes Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde to make it to Russia.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.