As the broke government of President Muhammadu Buhari tackles the monumental challenge of diversifying the stricken economy and creating new jobs, I hope it realises that the sports provides a huge opportunity. The right investment in sports is perhaps the easiest way to create tens of thousands of new direct jobs in the industry, as well as to impact job creation in other sectors of the economy. Nigerians love sports and unlike the energy, petroleum and solid minerals sectors where you require highly specialised qualifications and deep pockets to compete, sports is the one industry where even the dirt poor have a chance to excel in once they find sufficient inspiration to do so. It is also an industry where businesses do not necessarily require gigantic investments in specialised knowledge to start.
Sports would create jobs in schools, professional sports, entertainment, agriculture, tourism, transportation, food and beverages, media, medical science, architecture, construction, legal services, etc. Take the American Super Bowl Sunday for instance, it is the second largest food consumption day in the United States. It is estimated that 1.25b chicken wings are consumed across the country on the day, in addition to 12.5m pizzas, 11m pounds of chips, 2.5m pounds of nuts, 30m pounds of snacks, 50m cases of beer, and $12.5b worth of merchandise. That is a lot of patronage across different sectors of the US economy. Imagine we had one day in this country when all Nigerians unite around one major sporting event headlined by Nigerians, with a monster prize at stake, and think what this does for our economy
The youth and sports ministry got a vote of about N70b in the 2016 budget which means the government is ready to back sports to some degree, but one has to be clear as to whether this is because we are in an Olympic year and our national male and female football teams will be involved in crucial continental and global qualifiers. If that is the case then there is little financial returns on the investment to be expected. Otherwise if it is Father Government business as usual the money disappears into project that lack regular competitions to sustain them.
The tack I would like to propose however, is one that would see government basically both partner and empower the private sector to take over the sports industry and run it like the business it should be. A good local example today is the League Management Company which runs the Nigerian Professional Football League, and to the best of my knowledge, operates with zero financial input from the government. What the government must then do is identify new consortiums like the LMC for other sports such that they are run as businesses without government draining scarce tax payers resources on them.
That in reality however can only be a mid-term target rather than a short-term one. What the government must do now is to utilize its funds to partner serious private consortiums who will then be expected to buy out the government by simply repaying the value of the governments investments over the initial five-year period. This way over five years the government would have created hundreds of thousands of new sports-related jobs across the country for virtually nothing as they get all their investments back.
Government cannot run sports competitively and must set a target for scaling back its involvement, but not without helping the private sector take charge. The Americans, who are the world most successful sports nation have no ministry of sports. The business is basically left in the hands of profit and non-profit entities who run sports from the grassroots to the level of professional sports. The thing with the industry in the USA however is that at the top of every sport the best professionals are hugely rewarded. This then creates a pool of dream athletes that inspires, in many cases, a global following. It also ensures that those at the embryonic stages of their careers aspire to such lofty lifestyles. People know that if they become one of the best in their sport they would become rich and famous. In Nigeria that lure does not exist, a career in any sport is almost guaranteed poverty unless you are one of a tiny few who manage to go overseas to ply your trade.
If I had to run a sports fund in Nigeria today, my number one goal would be to create hundreds of local millionaire sports stars. They are the business, the ones who attract the fans, the media and the sponsors. In other climes these stars are revered for a reason, because they can make or break any sport. Michael Jordan took the NBA global, Tiger Woods was so influential he created what was described as a false economy for Golf. You do not get this stars simply from their raw abilities, they have to have the paraphernalia of office that makes them models that society aspires to emulate.
With that in mind, I would look to identify sports were Nigerians are particularly good or have the potential to excel in. Football already leads the way and would require just a little support from government to fast-track its success. There are other sports that Nigerians can excel at and resultantly attract fans and sponsors at home and from abroad. Swimming, athletics, tennis and basketball are just examples of sports that can grow very quickly if handed the right support. These are sports that should then be turned over to private sector players who, initially working with government, can then make businesses of them.
Let’s take swimming for instance and imagine we create two major annual events at which the champions get paid as much as N5m-N10m. We can then create 10 min-tournaments at which champions get paid N1m-N2m. It means professional swimmers can compete every month of the year in probably 12 states of the country. Not only will millionaire swimmers be created, they can then afford whatever they need to focus entirely on developing themselves ahead of the next tournament. This would see the level of competition dramatically increase with each new tournament. We will also then have a new generation of swimmers aspiring to become the next big acts in the sport. Across the country, investors looking to cash in on the development will stop the current trend of seeing a block of four flat as the go-to investment and start building sports facilities through which the young Nigerians will be trained to take advantage of the new opportunities in sports. There will then be good incentive for children in schools to take the sport seriously and for parents to support their wards. This would significantly reduce the current outlook for most of our youths who apart from formal education just waste away on our streets or take to crime in their productive years.
This can be replicated in different sports and across different states of the country. If sports grows there will be a boom in the sports kit industry and we should then see major players like Adidas, Nike, Puma etc increase their investments and sponsorships in Nigerian sports, especially as a growing number of better paid industry players leads to better patronage for their products. We should also then be in a better position to attract big spenders like Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airlines, Qatar Foundation, etc.
More jobs will be created in the media to cover multiple stars and events, there will be openings in sports medicine, states will benefit from investments and patronage that come their way from travelling sports persons, new constructions and maintenance will be great for architects and builders, player representations will be openings for lawyers and agents, sports education will be fantastic for coaches, educators, schools, while fans refreshments and entertainment would drive up demands for our agricultural produce as well as local entertainers.
Sports is so important to the GDP that countries like China and the UAE are investing billions of dollars to prop up their own industries. In recent times the Chinese government has provided the backing for investors as they aim to grow their football leagues. Investors in the UAE, with a population of approximately ten million people, have spent hugely to develop their own sports, and we in Nigeria must do the same.
By my reckoning, the investment of a total of N40b annually in five key sports would be enough for the government to create five thriving sports, open up at least 500,000 new direct and ancillary jobs, birth at least a thousand new local millionaire sportsmen and engender foreign investments. The key thing though is to run this transparently and meritoriously. Ultimately the government would have achieved all these and technically not spent a kobo as they would have been bought out by their private partners and would have their N200b back in the Central Bank of Nigeria.