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Sport’s billions and how Nigeria is missing out through delayed league kickoff

By Christian Okpara and Samuel Ifetoye
11 January 2019   |   4:15 am
Sport is one of the biggest employers of labour the world over. It is one sector that requires only the natural talent and a combination of planned structures...

Enugu Rangers

Sport is one of the biggest employers of labour the world over. It is one sector that requires only the natural talent and a combination of planned structures to empower youths, who hitherto would have wasted their energy in unproductive ventures.

In many countries of the world, football, which is regarded as the king of sport, contributes greatly to the national GDP such that responsible governments ensure a conducive atmosphere for the league and other soccer competitions to thrive.

The English Premier League is indisputably the most attractive, the richest and the most marketable football league in the world. It is also the most glamorous employer of labour with so many different professions finding home in the round leather game.

According to a report from the Ernst & Young (EY) Economic Impact Assessment, the League and its 20 member clubs contributed a gargantuan figure of £2.4 billion to the British economy inn the 2013/14 season.

The report also affirms that the League and clubs supported over 100,000 jobs while making a contribution of £3.4 billion to the United Kingdom’s GDP.

“The success of the Premier League, which is grounded in the quality of the football competition, has created a ‘cycle of growth’. This should help ensure that the significant contribution to the UK economy and society will continue to increase in years ahead,” it said.

The Premier League’s television deals with Sky Sports and BT Sport for the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons saw a 70 per cent rise in British television rights value. The deal was expected to pour more money on clubs with the broadcasters willing to pay more than £10 million to screen each game.

Apart from the direct participants in the league, the British government also earns over £800 million in tax from from Premier League players.

According to a report by sportskeeda.com, by EY’s calculations, the Premier League’s humongous monetary contribution could pay the salaries of 93,000 police constables – well over 90 per cent of all constables in England and Wales.

“It is estimated that £891 million in tax comes directly from Premier League players.

“The Premier League’s growth in both financial terms and in infrastructure helped support 103, 354 Full Time Equivalent jobs in the United Kingdom in 2013/14.  The Premier League clubs committed to adopting the Living Wage for their full time employees in March 2015 and the scheme is expected to commence itself from the start of the 2016-17 season at the latest.

Although the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) is many years away from bringing in such dizzy financial benefits to the Nigerian economy, it has since become a source of livelihood for many, including players, coaches, match officials, traders and so many others, who follow the flow of the game. And so whatever happens to the game directly affects their quality of life.

Since the advent of the League Management Company (LMC), which runs the NPFL, clubs and football arenas have become a huge market place that caters for different segments of the economy. These stakeholders from advertisement, hospitality industry, journalism, kit makers and betting outfits have grown their businesses using the many products provided by the game.

Until recently, the LMC had a $34 million deal with satellite broadcaster, SuperSport, which was supposed to run until the 2019 season, but the agreement was terminated by mutual consent.

Recently, the LMC signed an agreement with 1XBET and OCP Africa, a Morocco-owned fertiliser and agricultural giant with growing business interest in Nigeria, as Official Supporter. The deals give the firms rights of association with the Premier League. These are among so many other financial agreements the LMC has secured for the league.

However, all these deals and the football have been ‘suspended’ for more than six months since the league came to an end abruptly. Although the NPFL was expected to follow the FIFA calendar and harmonise with the rest of the world, the competition was shut down for the past six months by a disagreement between the LMC and the second-tier Nigerian National League (NNL) over the number of clubs that should be promoted to the NPFL.

The disagreement stemmed from the LMC’s decision in August 2018 to end the league after Matchday 24 and submit Lobi Stars’ name as the country’s representative in the CAF Champions League.

Table-topping Lobi Stars have been proposed to be handed the NPFL championship and to represent Nigeria in next year’s CAF Champions League after a meeting of the LMC and the 20 clubs aimed at beating an October deadline for submission of the country’s representatives on the continent.

The decision became necessary as that was seen as the only way Nigeria could beat the CAF October 15 deadline for submission of its entry into the competition. The abrupt ending of the league also meant that no club was relegated to the NNL with four teams expected to be promoted from the second-tier competition.

The abridged 2018/19 season of 12 teams per zone was billed to kick off in November. But that could not hold, as the NNL clubs demanded that eight, instead of four teams, must be promoted to make for a 28-team league. The NNL refused to participate in the Super Eight play-off, which was originally meant to produce four teams for the 2019 NPFL season.

However, reason eventually prevailed and the NNL Super Eight play-off was held in Aba this week, paving the way for the kick off of the new season on Sunday. But even with the expected resumption of the league this weekend, clubs, players and other stakeholders are reeling from the effects of the avoidable impasse, which held the competition down for six months.

According to the Chairman, MFM Sports Club, owners of NPFL side, MFM Football Club, Godwin Enarkhena, the delay in the beginning of the 2019 season is an unfortunate situation, of which there is no winner.

He said, “The economic factor cannot be quantified. Wherever football is played in Nigeria you find people who make their living from selling things as little as sweets.

“Any time MFM is travelling for an away match, hoteliers bombard me with calls advertising their facilities. Imagine what has happened to these people for these six months.

“The psychological factor is too much. You tell players the league will start today and then nothing happens. They become despondent because this is their source of livelihood.

“It is also not easy for the clubs because they must pay the players their salaries since they signed season-long contracts with them.”

Enarkhena believes the newly promoted teams will suffer from the effects of the impasse more than other clubs because of the little time they have to prepare for the season.

NFF 2nd Vice President/LMC Chairman Shehu Dikko will serve as Vice Chairman

Bendel Insurance, Remo Stars, Gombe United and Kada City Stars gained promotion to the NPFL following their success at the just-concluded NPFL Super Eight play-off in Aba.

Matches involving the new clubs have been postponed to give them a breather from the exertions of the Super Eight competition. But Enarkhena sees the time too short for the teams.

He said, “I pity the teams from the NNL. The question is how prepared are they? Have they recruited well?

“There is no winner in this situation, but I think it is the price we have to pay for the maladministration of the situation we found ourselves.”

Go Round FC of Omoku’s Media Director, China Acheru cannot wait for the league to kick off this weekend. He says the delay in the commencement of the season has stretched his club’s resources, adding that they have had to bend backwards to keep the wheels of the team running.

“As a privately run club, we do not have the luxury of excess funds, so any delay in kickoff affects us financially.

“First, having players in camp since November with little or no activity in terms of competitive football was counter-productive. It meant financing their stay in camp that includes feeding and playing lots of friendly matches without being sure of when the league would start.

But most of all, it is tasking on the coaches and players. The coaches cannot plan a programme with so much uncertainly. When do you overload the players? When do you go light? When do they peak?

“For the players, it gets boring when all you do is play friendly matches without an end in sight.

“It is a good thing the season is finally kicking off. I hope we can shake off our lethargy early enough,” he said.

To Heartland of Owerri’s Secretary, Cajetan Nkwopara, the delay in the kick off of the league was not altogether bad in itself as it gave the administrators time to reassess the competition and put things right.

He believes everybody involved in the league has learnt valuable lessons that would lead to a better competition.

Nkwopara said, “The problem with Nigerian football shortly after last year’s World Cup was a monumental one, which affected every aspect of our game. So, it was the right decision to look for a workable solution.

“It would have been meaningless to continue the league when the administration was mired in confusion and uncertainty.

“We did not play matches this period, but we had time to assess the team and put certain things in perspective.

“We paid all the players their entitlements, except match bonuses because there was no league games during the period.”

Former Shooting Stars of Ibadan star, Adegoke Adelabu believes the situation would have been avoided if all the stakeholders did their jobs diligently.

He said, “This obviously cannot happen to the English Premier League because those managing it know the cost implications. Until we change our perception about what sport is all about, we will never make headway in our football.

“Now tell me, the players that are on recess, who pays them for doing nothing? Our belief has always been that, after all, the governments, who are the major sponsors of these clubs, will always pay the players’ salaries for doing nothing. Nobody is actually concerned about the state of our leagues.

“We are yet to manage our leagues in a professional way. The leagues are being run as an amateur venture, but we pretend we are running a professional league.

“I am sure that three-quarter of the administrators have clubs they support in Europe and they are ready to die for them. If these same clubs they support were run the way they manage leagues in this country, where will the interest for clubs come from?

“What is worrisome is that we have not held anyone responsible for what is going on with our leagues. For now, everybody is doing what they like and the people managing our leagues don’t even think we are losing anything as the leagues are on recess.”

On the way forward, Adelabu advocates a sports policy that will define steps to be adopted in every situation in the administration of the game.

“We must be able to determine what we want for ourselves as far as managing the leagues is concerned. The administrators should sit down and ask themselves why they occupy their positions and what they hope to achieve for the country.”

Former Stationery Stores of Lagos Coach, Kashimawo Laloko sees the situation as a prize Nigeria has to play for its inconsistency in sports administration, adding that the leadership of the Nigerian league has failed to fashion a good framework for the seamless administration of the league.

Lamenting the impact of the impasse on the football community, Laloko said it was wrong for the NNL board to dump the original programme close to the end of the season.

He said, “They agreed at the Congress that a particular number of clubs would be promoted and later you turned back to say that they have to go on a Super Eight League to decide, which club gets promotion to the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL).

“The thing is that I suspect someone must have gone behind to do something. We cannot continue to run our leagues like that. Even the LMC itself is very faulty. Look at the way it selected Lobi Stars as the nation’s representative for the CAF Champions League. Though they may be doing creditably well but that is not the way to do things.

“Where were they in 1976, ‘77, ‘78, ‘79 when clubs could not travel from one place to the other and the leagues were run properly? How did Rangers become champions, was it through an abridged league? Then the leagues were properly managed and winners emerged through the proper process.

“If they do not know how to run our leagues, let them give them to those who have better knowledge. The running of our football is not good enough; we need to improve on it. It is only when we improve on it that our leagues and players can also improve.

“We have to appeal to our football administrators not to begin to perpetuate mediocrity, but they should learn. I do not want to go into personalities on the issue. Anyone who does not know anything about football cannot just come into it and start telling us what we know before.

“Even among the LMC, there is someone I know well who understands how the league should be properly run but because of what he is getting, he too has joined them in administering mediocrity in the running of our leagues also. The cost of our leagues not running is enormous and it is very bad. We need to search our conscience and do what is proper.”

Former Gombe FA Chairman, Ahmed Shaibu Gara-Gombe believes Nigerian football is paying for the insensitivity of the league managers, ‘who shut down the competition because they wanted to travel to Russia to watch the World Cup.’

Kano Pillars fans, like their counterparts across the country, have been starved of league action since August, last year.

He said the abrupt end to the last season and delay in starting the 2019 competition have driven away serious sponsors, who have not seen any seriousness in the competition.

“The first mistake they made was in shutting down the league during the World Cup. It was wrong to shut down the league because of the World Cup when we didn’t even have home-based players in the Super Eagles.

“We’re abnormal people, so we do things abnormally. We can never do some thing normal like other parts of the world. And there is so much corruption and deceit, this is the same LMC just managing the league that took more than 70 people to Spain and say they want to model our league after La Liga.

“They took journalists, marketers, administrators to Spain and I can tell you that they just went there on tourism. They dropped whatever they saw and learnt in Spain at the airport because we have not seen any impact of it.

“Some officials of La Liga even came with funfair and they said they signed a MoU. What was the value of that agreement to Nigeria? We have destroyed the foundation of our league.”

While clubs and players are counting their losses from the shutdown of the league, another set of stakeholders, the traders, who depend on patronage from football fans for survival, say they have never had it so bad.

In every major league venue across the country are eateries and drinking joints, which serve the match population on every league day. These are businesses that depend on league games and spectators for survival, which have not seen their major customers for close to six months.

However, there is respite on the way for everybody associated with the competition, as the league gets set to begin on Sunday.

At the NPFL draws held inside the Aba Stadium immediately after the promoted teams were confirmed, the LMC explained that matches involving the new teams and those in the continent have been moved forward.

At the mini-draw supervised by the LMC Chief Executive Officer, Nduka Irabor, Insurance took slot 1, Remo Stars in 2, while Gombe United and Kada City were in 3 and 4 respectively.

The mini-draw thus pitted Wikki Tourists against Insurance, Rivers United and Remo Stars, Yobe Desert Stars and Gombe United and Go Round FC to play Kada City.

Speaking at the draw, LMC’s Chief Operating Officer, Salihu Abubakar said, “the games involving the promoted clubs from the NNL are being shifted to give the club’s time to return to their respective bases and make adequate plans to play in the NPFL.

“It is only fair that the players be allowed time to recover from the rigours of the tournament they just participated in and they would join from Match Day 2, while a new date will be announced for the postponed fixtures.”

The other postponed games are those between Lobi Stars and Katsina United and between Rangers International and Niger Tornadoes. While Lobi are playing in the CAF Champions League, Rangers are campaigning in the CAF Confederation Cup and both clubs are in action this weekend.

The LMC and the NPFL club owners will meet in Abuja today ahead of the commencement of the new season.