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Repositioning Nigeria Professional Football: Time for concerted action

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Enyimba of Aba are the defending champions of the Nigerian Professional League.

In the mid 80s, English football was at the verge of collapse. The landscape littered with crumbling stadia, match attendance was at its lowest, hooliganism was such high that English clubs were banned from European competitions for five years until 1990, the EFL which lumped all clubs into divisions had been overtaken in profile and returns by the Italian, German and Spanish leagues which were netting more from the increasing television broadcast fees in world sports.

Worried by the situation, the top clubs decided to pull out of the EFL to form a Super League, but the UK government engaged them for better solutions. At the end of negotiations in 1991, it accepted to provide a grant of about £150m to upgrade the stadia with full covers, better grassing, lighting, conveniences and such other telecommunications, broadcasting and security infrastructures to support the clubs for a better deal, spectators and viewers experience. The move gave boost to the now commercially successful English Premier League.

The return on investment for England has been huge and sustained over the years. The paltry £6m TV broadcast earning in 1985 has grown in excess of £400m and in the 2015/16 season, the EPL contributed about £3bn, increased to £3.3bn in the 2016/17 season, in taxes to the treasury, further adding a value of £7.6bn to the economy with the 20 clubs supporting about 100,000 jobs and attracting about 686,000 international tourists yearly to the UK.

The EPL continues to attract direct foreign investments from the Arab world, Far East and America, and prides itself for generating “significant social, cultural and economic impact” across the society beyond match days.

Spain, Germany, France, Italy and various European governments have also recharged their efforts to sustain and drive up their shares in the global football economy through policies, legislations and varied financial investments in supporting infrastructure to give strength to their leagues.

Recently, the South Africa government brought the SABC broadcast rights holders Multichoice, the leadership of the PSL and the sports ministry to brainstorm on how to reposition their domestic league. They realized that they needed to promote it to secure a wide national audience behind it, beyond the reach of the cable broadcast right holder on which majority of the population didn’t have access. The reach could only be provided by the national television network, which didn’t have the budget for dedicated production and payment of broadcast right fees to the league. The government agreed to empower the SABC with the necessary funding to meet these needs.

The move has been hailed as the next most significant achievement of the South African government after the dismantling of Apartheid and for good reasons. It will help mobilize the citizenry around their game, check attraction to foreign leagues, provide veritable marketing communications platform with visible large audience for brands and reverse investments by corporate organisations on foreign clubs to reach their home market. It will also translate to more money for the clubs to improve on technical standards and secure the employment of players and workers. The long-term objective is to attract foreign investments into the clubs. It is a win-win for the people and government, the league, the clubs and the economy of South Africa.

Today, the Nigeria Professional Football League is at crossroads. It requires the realisation, synergy and commitment of all stakeholders, including the federal government, club-owner state governments, the broadcast sector and the league organisers to shore it up towards its full potentials for national mobilization, employment creation, generation of enterprise and attraction of both domestic and foreign investments.

With the withdrawal of Supersport from the broadcast deal by which the league received fair income, it has been left in the lurch and the gains of its resurgence between 2012 and 2016 are being eroded. While Supersport only considered its cost-benefit to pull out from Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, rightly so as simply a profit driven outfit, the organisers approached the Nigeria Television Authority, as the national broadcaster, to rise up to the challenge of sustaining the broadcast, but it has lacked both the capacity in equipment for internationally marketable standard of production and for payment of broadcast fees. It was an irony that the league, rather than receive, even had to pay for productions, a situation which is not only unsustainable but negates the very business of the league.

Aside the difficulties of broadcasting which gives the most income to all leagues, the clubs have remained stunted, unable to advance spectatorship and attract individual sponsorships and investments for various reasons. The standard and state of the stadiums are largely unfriendly to both players, spectators and viewers, they lack supporting infrastructure for quality production, the grip on the clubs by the state government and the constraint in engaging commercially-driven professional managers give no confidence to private investors, the absence of television hampers their promotion and reach to their communities and the consequent poor “followership” dampens the attraction for brand sponsorships, endorsements and merchandising.

It is a vicious circle which needs to be broken to enable us take advantage of our large market which our failing now leaves to the exploitation of the foreign leagues, not only in the cultural erosion in our young persons, even at infancy, adopting foreign football heroes, the spends by football lovers on foreign club merchandises, the investment by our corporate organisations to associate with foreign clubs for marketing communications, and, more critically, our loss on the job, enterprise and investment generation potentials of the league and the value added to the economy.

The point remains, as we can see, that nations are growing their football leagues into significant industries in their economies and enjoying a steady flow of foreign investments crisscrossing clubs. We need to come to terms with the trend and the fundamentals for its achievement. No doubt, funding can be the big issue but an understanding of the multiple benefits to cultural preservation, national mobilization and the economy makes it an imperative. It is even so as the investment is not only on football facilities but mostly on infrastructures that will serve across sectors. It is therefore not just a task for the NFF and the LMC but for all stakeholders, from the federal and state governments, the Ministries of Sports, Industry, Trade and Investment, Finance, Communication and Information, as well as the corporate and advertising community.

Further to those, indeed, it is surprising that ministers like Babatunde Fashola, Rotimi Amaechi and others, who know well about the global trend of the football economy and on whom we place high premium to think for our government beyond the forte of their ministries, have not broached this concern at the Federal Executive Council.

While the initiative of the Minister of Information to amend the National Broadcast Code to insist on corresponding investment on the domestic scene by advertisers and promoters of foreign sports on the Nigeria broadcast spectrum is commendable, the government has to follow up by granting funds for the repositioning of our league. This can be from the National Sports Lottery Fund, which, in any case, draws mostly from taxes from sports betting. But it doesn’t stop at revitalising the stadia and broadcast sub-structures, the state governments must also be brought to open up the clubs to readdress ownership structure, management approach and personnel engagement, to bring meaning to the business of the league and, it will be a win-win for the nation.


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