Hewed by the NBA, Ekezie is ready to ferry Nigerians to Rio 2016 Olympics
For six years (1999 to 2005), Obinna Ekezie was a main feature in the NBA, which he joined when he was drafted to play for the Vancouver Grizzlies. And from then, he did not look back, as he played for five other big teams, including the Atlanta Hawks.
Although, he had always wanted to be a successful sportsman, Ekezie made sure he completed his education before he delved into professional sports. That decision to get quality education is what has taken the Port Harcourt-born son of a petroleum engineer to the summit of tourism and travels business. Today, he manages Wakanow, which is the biggest tourism and tour company in Nigeria.
Still as committed to sports development, as he is to all his ventures, the University of Maryland at College Park 1995 graduate recently signed an agreement with the Nigeria Olympic Committee (NOC) to serve as the country’s Rio 2016 Olympic Games ticket resale agent, which means that Wakanow is the sole custodian and reseller of the 2016 Olympic tickets to Nigerians wishing to travel to Rio for the games.
Explaining his firm’s commitment to Nigeria’s participation at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Ekezie said Wakanow would sell flights, hotel and tour packages for everybody travelling to the games.
He said, “will help its customers to secure their visas and offer end to end solutions for travelers.
“We also offer services like the prepaid cards that enables customers pay for their transactions abroad. We also have travel sim that is global, that enables customers use one travel sim globally and get the best rates.”
Ekezie, who disclosed that Wakanow has been into sports tourism since 2010, when it started with the South Africa FIFA World Cup, says the experience they acquired from the London 2012 Olympics and the Brazil 2014 World Cup will come handy in ensuring a seamless experience for Nigerians going to Brazil for this year’s games.
He advised interested tourists to visit the Wakanow website, where they will see links directing them on how to choose the packages convenient for them. “We have different packages that cater for opening ceremony and closing ceremony. It enables you to watch all the events. We also have ‘follow my team,’ which enables you to follow the football team to the match venues.
“Nigeria is playing in Manaus and Sao Paolo, so you can follow the Nigerian team to watch the group matches. You can take three matches, two in Manaus and one in Sao Paolo. We provide other services too.”
Although Ekezie is a busy businessman, he still finds time to indulge in his sports, which he describes as sector that can add to the economy of the country if well managed.
He said: “One of the biggest misconceptions about sports is that it is seen as a kind of charity event. It is not a charity event… it is big business. Some of the highest paying jobs in the world are sports related. It is only in Nigeria that sport has been treated as some kind of charity, which is why we still rely on government to fund it.
“My interest in sports is on the business side and not as a community social responsibility. My interest is in investing in basketball… build a valuable business using basketball. It is unfortunate that we don’t have facilities where people can go to relax and watch their favourite sport. We don’t have a 10,000 seat capacity arena in good location to draw the crowd to the sport. So, we need to invest in that so that we can conveniently host teams from other countries.”
Ekezie is also interested in the tourism potential of sports because it draws people to a country where they spend their money.
“Millions of people will be going to Brazil to spend money. They will stay in hotels, book flights and patronise local businesses during their stay in the country. These are the things our people should understand. Sport is a money-making machine, which should attract huge investments if we want to harness the sector very well.
“Fortunately, government has released that sports is big business that is why it is talking about privatisation of the sector. It is now looking at ways to provide the enabling environment for the investors to come in.
“There is no sports minister in the United States, Britain and Germany. This is because sport in these countries is privately-sponsored. Government has no business in the sector.”
Ekezie was among the players that laid the foundation for the current growth of the national team, the D’Tigers, who are now African champions. But he does not buy the optimism being expressed in some quarters that the team will get to the semifinals at the Rio Games.
He said, “my own experience in sports shows that we have not developed the facilities and the talents to aspire to such heights. We have a situation where most of our players are based abroad and meet for the first time few weeks to a competition. They don’t have the time to blend as a team.
“In 1998, we met ourselves just two weeks before the world championships. We had just two weeks to practice, get to know how team members play before our first match. Now when you couple that with the management issues we have, I will be impressed if we go beyond the second round.
“We can’t begin to aspire for the semifinal if we don’t create the platform to develop talents locally. In some other countries, the players know themselves from the youth set up such that by the time they get to the senior team, they are familiar with each other. Even when they go to play in other parts of the world, they still come back to play as a cohesive team. Germany, Lithuania, Greece, Australia, Spain and Argentina have consistent systems that delivers quality players to their teams.”
Ekezie believes Nigeria still has a long way to go before it gets to the level where it can begin to talk about making the semifinals of any major world championship. “There is no magic to it. I will say the best we can get is second round after that, any other thing is a bonus,” he said.
He dismissed the insinuation that the Nigerian basketball family is divided, because of the African Basketball League, which involves mainly the clubs in Lagos. According to Ekezie, “the problem is that when a new thing comes into place, it takes time for people to appreciate what it is all about. There is really no problem. We believe that the African Basketball League (ABL) is a good thing that will help basketball to develop very well in the whole of Africa. It is for the development of the game and there is no problem between the federation and the ABL. It is all about sitting down to iron things out, which is ongoing now. We are looking at structuring how the ABL, the federation and FIBA can work together to grow the game in the country. There is really no problem.”
Ekezie advised intending travellers to Brazil to begin the processing of their documents on time to ensure easy acquisition of the necessary papers, adding, “we encourage people to start the procedure early so that we can make the processing easier for them. We understand some people have difficulty in making full payment for the packages, so we have created a platform to help them pay for their packages instalmentally. We have been trying to discourage people from waiting for the last minute to avoid creating a chaotic situation. That is why we encourage people to book early and secure their packages in good time.”