Propelling Nigerian sports through private sector investment

Around the mid-week of April 2021, the U-17 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye and Enyimba striker, Tosin Omoyele, urged billionaire businessmen Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola to invest in the Nigeria Professional Football League.

Around the mid-week of April 2021, the U-17 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Dele Ajiboye and Enyimba striker, Tosin Omoyele, urged billionaire businessmen Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola to invest in the Nigeria Professional Football League.
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Dangote had expressed a desire to buy English Premier League side Arsenal.

But Ajiboye said if both business moguls invested in the NPFL, it would go a long way in uplifting the domestic league, which had been battling with sponsorship in recent seasons.

“Our billionaires like Dangote and Otedola can change the face of the NPFL if they want to do it. Instead of investing in clubs outside Nigeria, they can start from here,” Ajiboye told journalists.

“Everything shouldn’t be left to the government. If they take on one club and spend good money on it, the club will compete with good results globally. European clubs like Milan, Manchester City and PSG are bankrolled by billionaires. They too should start from home.”

On his part, Omoyele stated, “If Dangote and Otedola invest in NPFL, there would be massive growth and development of our league. It will help our league become greater than South Africa’s or the North African leagues.”

At the dawn of Nigeria’s independence, the Federal Government established the National Sports Commission (NSC), which served as the focal point from which all sporting activities emanated. The NSC aimed to create an enabling environment in which the practice of sport, the implementation of sound sporting structures, and the development of Nigerian sports could be realised.

The visionary statements of these two sporting legends remain the truth even today just as the advocacy for the involvement of billionaires and the private sector to be in the driving seat of sports development has gained official recognition in the form of a policy framework.
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In 1992, the NSC made a national sports policy aimed at achieving international recognition and success in global sporting competitions. This newfound interest coincided with Nigeria’s debut in the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, in which the Nigerian nation incurred high hopes for its athletes, given the country’s previous football success, having won gold in the 1996 Olympic football competition.

This policy was reviewed by the civilian administration in 2009, which aimed to use sport as a vehicle for a more united and stronger Nigeria. A new national sports policy emerged, highlighting the enormous contribution and immense benefits that sport and recreation can bring to bear on society and individuals.

Nigerian sports can be traced as far back as the pre-colonial days. The various traditional events that are held or practiced today can be traced directly to the forms of worship and festivals. Sports are linked with people’s aspirations, desires, fears, standards, and values. Sports have been a major source of national pride and identity.

The colonial era emerged with an entirely new dimension to Nigerian sports. The colonialists instituted and introduced new forms of recreation, including sports. Before this era, Nigerians had only participated in what we considered sports informally. The new sports had foreign appeal and were identified as being civilised and sophisticated.

Nigerian sports policy has failed to achieve its targets since its inception. The reasons are not far-fetched. First, the policy has been characterized by inconsistencies and abrupt changes. Second, the adverse effects of military regimes on Nigerian sports cannot be overemphasized. During military rule, a good number of the leaders had other careers and regarded their positions in sports administration as part-time jobs.

Acting mainly as agents of the ruling cliques, their decisions were often politically motivated and hence, not in the best interest of Nigerian sports. Third, bureaucratic control of sports has hindered development. A substantial amount of funds has been channelled into the establishment and maintenance of bureaucratic structures for sports.

Little is left to develop the basic framework of sports and the common practice has been for such government officials to further their ends. Fourth, the typical fire brigade approach to sports development has rendered the policy inefficient and a drain on resources. Yet, another reason for the failure of the policy has been its inability to harness contributions from all sectors of Nigerian society.

Nigeria, a nation brimming with athletic talent and fervour for sports, stands at the cusp of transformative change in its sporting landscape. The government, recognising the vast potential inherent in sports development, has articulated aspirations to catalyse private sector involvement. Nigeria boasts a rich sporting heritage, with football reigning supreme as the nation’s most beloved pastime.
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The Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) serves as the cornerstone of domestic football, yet myriad challenges, including inadequate infrastructure, limited funding, and governance issues have hindered its growth. Despite producing a plethora of world-class athletes across various disciplines, the country struggles to translate its raw talent into sustained success on the international stage.

Historically, the Nigerian government has shouldered the responsibility of sports development, investing significant resources in infrastructure and athlete welfare. However, this top-down approach has proven insufficient in unleashing the full potential of Nigerian sports. Budgetary constraints, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and fluctuating political priorities have hampered the government’s ability to provide sustained support to the sporting sector.

In the heart of Nigeria’s bustling sporting landscape lies a vision, championed by none other than the Minister of Sports, Senator John Owan Enoh. This vision, rooted in the transformative potential of private sector engagement, seeks to unlock the latent brilliance of Nigerian sports.

As the nation grapples with longstanding challenges in infrastructure, funding, and governance, Enoh’s call for private sector investment emerges as a beacon of hope, promising to revolutionise the sporting ecosystem from grassroots to professional levels. In this essay, we delve into the intricacies of Enoh’s vision, exploring its merits, challenges, and the roadmap for its realisation.

At the core of Enoh’s vision lies a fundamental shift in the way Nigerian sports are conceptualised, financed, and managed. Historically, the burden of sports development has rested squarely on the shoulders of the government, with varying degrees of success. However, Enoh recognises the inherent limitations of this top-down approach, characterised by bureaucratic inefficiencies, budgetary constraints, and wavering political priorities. In contrast, Enoh advocates a paradigm shift towards private sector-led initiatives, harnessing the dynamism, resources, and expertise of Nigerian billionaires to propel sports to new heights.

The crux of Enoh’s vision lies in the proposition that private sector investment holds the key to unlocking the full potential of Nigerian sports. By encouraging Nigerian billionaires to acquire ownership stakes in domestic football clubs, Enoh seeks to inject much-needed capital, expertise, and innovation into the sporting ecosystem.
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Drawing inspiration from successful models observed in Europe and the USA, Enoh envisions a future where Nigerian clubs operate as private enterprises, driven by a spirit of competition, accountability, and excellence.

The transformative impact of private sector engagement extends far beyond mere financial contributions. Private investors bring with them invaluable networks, expertise, and global best practices, facilitating strategic partnerships and enhancing the commercial viability of Nigerian clubs.

Moreover, private ownership aligns financial incentives with sporting success, incentivising performance and accountability at all levels of the sporting hierarchy. Through this convergence of sporting prowess and entrepreneurial acumen, Enoh envisages Nigerian sports transcending borders, captivating audiences, and inspiring generations to come.

A comparative analysis of sporting landscapes in Europe and the USA serves as a compelling testament to the transformative power of private sector involvement. In Europe, football clubs operate as private enterprises, with billionaire owners spearheading strategic investments in player recruitment, stadium infrastructure, and brand expansion. This model has propelled European football to unprecedented heights, with clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich commanding global recognition and commercial success.

Similarly, in the USA, the franchise-based structure of major leagues such as the NFL, NBA, and MLS has facilitated significant private sector investment. Billionaire owners not only provide financial backing but also leverage their business acumen to enhance the commercial viability of their respective franchises. This convergence of sporting prowess and entrepreneurial acumen has transformed American sports into a multibillion-dollar industry, attracting sponsors, broadcasters, and fans from around the world.
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In the context of Nigeria, Enoh’s vision for private sector-led sports development faces both opportunities and challenges. On one hand, Nigeria’s burgeoning population, coupled with its insatiable appetite for sports, presents a lucrative market for savvy investors.

By strategically aligning with the right partners and leveraging emerging technologies, Nigerian sports clubs can tap into new revenue streams and expand their global footprint.

Moreover, private ownership fosters a sense of ownership and pride among local communities, driving grassroots participation and talent development.

However, the path towards private sector involvement in Nigerian sports is not without its challenges. Structural impediments such as regulatory barriers, corruption, and political interference pose significant hurdles to prospective investors.

Moreover, entrenched interests within the existing sporting hierarchy may resist efforts to decentralize power and embrace private ownership. Nevertheless, the potential rewards far outweigh the inherent risks, and with bold vision and steadfast commitment, Nigeria can emerge as a sporting powerhouse on the global stage.
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In conclusion, Enoh’s vision for private-sector engagement in Nigerian sports represents a watershed moment in the nation’s sporting history. By advocating for a paradigm shift towards private ownership of sports clubs, Enoh seeks to harness the dynamism, resources, and expertise of Nigerian billionaires to propel sports to new heights.

While challenges abound, the potential rewards are immense, with the promise of unlocking Nigeria’s sporting potential and inspiring future generations of athletes and fans alike. With unwavering resolve and collaborative efforts from all stakeholders, Nigeria can chart a course toward a brighter, more prosperous future for its sporting fraternity. Enoh’s vision is not just a dream; it is a call to action, beckoning Nigeria to rise to the pinnacle of sporting excellence on the global stage.

All eyes are therefore on Nigerian billionaires to take up the challenge to get involved in running sports development through ownership of clubs in the different genres of sports. In this way, Nigeria can say that it has joined the global giants of the business.

Onwubiko is the Head of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) and was a National Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria.
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