From the outside looking in, the Nigerian Professional Football League seems, in the eyes of many, a barely watchable combination of pale brown sand-and-grass pitches, tacky (sometimes oversized) jerseys, methodless ball-chasing, and near-empty stadiums. Match outcomes are usually predictable (the home side almost always wins), and except for the really big teams, not many people care about those games anyway. Compared to the glitzy, star-studded leagues of England, Spain, Germany or France, the Nigerian version of top-flight football (not to talk of its lower tiers) appears to be a poor trifle. Although there’s been a partial revival of local interest in the Nigerian football league, patronage of domestic football remains relatively low. Most fans would rather spend a Saturday afternoon watching Manchester United play Chelsea than spectate at a Kano Pillars-Enyimba FC duel.
Businesses have followed in the direction of the fans, choosing to align with foreign club sides. Adverts put out by a number of top Nigerian brands smugly declare that they are “official partners of”, or “proudly associated with” an English premier league club. They spend millions of dollars to procure and maintain sponsorship rights to “partner with” European teams. Many keen observers of the local league have cried foul; they accuse these Nigerian brands of irrational snobbery, pointing out that they are overlooking struggling local football teams and opting to “sponsor” foreign clubs that are in fact richer than they (the Nigerian companies) are. The brands respond by insisting that they aren’t charities and that it’s potentially more profitable to associate with English club sides because they’re watched by millions of Nigerians- their potential customer base – on a regular basis; only a fraction of this number is really interested in the local league, so there’s probably little use sinking hard earned money into it.
These brands have a point. The NPFL is beset by a myriad of problems. Asides the uncertainty about it’s visibility potential, there’s also a dark cloud of corruption allegations constantly hanging over it. While speaking about the NPFL, Sports commentators make casual references to lurid tales of underhand dealings, including outright match-fixing. In 2016, telecommunications giant Globacom ended its long-running sponsorship of the league (worth about ₦8 billion); many at the time saw this as a damning testament to the perceived investor-unfriendly actions of the local football administration, and of the entire domestic sports system.
However, there’s recently been talk of a new example of how companies could invest in local sport, and get what they want out of it.
In April, Aiteo, a Nigerian energy conglomerate, signed a five-year deal worth ₦2.9 billion with football administrators for the Nigerian Federation Cup. Observers have noted that Aiteo, which was barely known outside of the energy industry, has had its brand thrust into the limelight as a result of this move. With every reference to the Federation Cup that comes up on radio and Television across the country or online outlets that reach global audiences, this company’s name gets mentioned at least a few times. Massive publicity.
Perhaps the lesson to be taken from Aiteo’s early stage success with its support for the Federation Cup is that businesses shouldn’t dismiss the idea of investing in local sports without really examining the possible gains they could derive from it. It’s true that local sports, like many other facets of our national experience, is a far cry from what it should be. But it’s not all bad. Excellent investment opportunities still exist in this sector.
The Federal Government- through the Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed -indicated in July that it would soon be compelling Nigerian businesses that sponsor foreign sports outfits to devote funds to local clubs as well. However, the success of any strategy aimed at boosting the profitability of sports in Nigeria lies ultimately with the media. If there’s greater coverage of the domestic leagues, more people could become interested in following them. Local businesses will surely follow suit. They always move in the direction that masses of people head for because they want to make customers out of the crowds (or a portion of them).