The relatively new governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, is not your traditional politician. The 58-year-old made his name as a businessman playing the financial markets, before crossing over to politics. Hopefully this helps in the appreciation of my argument that Edo State should invest in bringing its once towering sports brands, Ogbe Hard Court and Bendel Insurance FC, back to life. Despite decades of neglect, both still rank among the best known brands in the entire country and should command a few billion naira in brand equity valuations. Bendel Insurance made their mark in football in the 70s to mid-80s, about the same time Ogbe Hard Court was arguably the most highly-rated tennis tournament in the country. The pair garnered a huge following back then when Nigerians passionately followed local sports. For my generation, who are now scattered around the planet, the sentiments linger. Though from Delta State, and the casualty of the decimation of this country into smaller, largely insolvent states, I still feel a deep connection to these brands.
Ogbe Hard Court inspired many tennis stars from Bendel to rule our local tournaments and represent Nigeria creditably on the international stage. Among these stars were the likes of Nduka Odizor, widely regarded as Nigeriaâ€™s greatest tennis player to date, Veronica Oyibokia and David Imonitie. The exploits of Bendel Insurance remain the stuff of legend. Who can forget the Kadiri Ikhanas, the Felix Agbonifos, and the Henry Ogboes. These successes firmly planted Benin City in the national news for the right reasons: from secondary school competitions, through tertiary competitions, state and national competitions, the state, along with its Delta half, dominated or held its own against the best in the country.
Those days may be long gone, but great brands hardly die easy. Even with successive administrations ignoring sports because of a failure to grasp the economic and socio-cultural value of the industry, a mention of any of these brands today still evokes deep nostalgic trips back in time. Few can doubt that the state would have lost plenty in financial and cultural terms by failing to leverage on these famous brands. Their slide into coma and the rise of foreign sports on our television, has done immeasurable damage to our country. However governor Obaseki has the power to change things, and the training to understand the economic and cultural benefits of this.
The rewards will be huge. I understand that as a businessman Obaseki may want to fully turn sports over to private business people, but that may not be the solution, especially in a country where we do not have tried and tested sports management companies. What should happen instead is a transparent partnership between the state and the private sector. For sports to be successful, facilities have to be brought up to decent contemporary standards and only the government can fund these, as Lagos State is beginning to do today. If Edo finds the right private sector partners, their investments will be repaid several times over. Even in the United States where there is no sports ministry and the industry is largely run as private enterprise, public sector infrastructural funding is still huge.
So how can sports and the revival of Bendel Insurance and Ogbe Hard Court benefit Edo State? Let us look at the economic picture first. Imagine tens of thousands of people visiting Benin City every year to experience quality sports, imagine the boost to business for hotels, bars, local transportation, healthcare (sports medicine), eateries, suppliers of sports facilities, media, and tourism, as Benin City remains one of the best examples of Nigeriaâ€™s rich history and culture. Then add sponsorship and other forms of commerce. When they return to the top-flight, Bendel Insurance is a brand that can attract Nigerians in the diaspora. This can translate to a rich market for merchandising and broadcast rights. It all depends on the game you want to play. There is also more money in African football these days, with the CAF Champions League winners pocketing $2,500,000. Think about new jobs that will be created, boosting employment and disposable income as well as the stateâ€™s IGR. The club can also make a lot of money grooming and selling players to clubs around the world.
Socio-culturally our young are in dire need of quality Nigerian heroes. Growing up our heroes were the Odizors and Kadiri Ikhanas. Who can forget the fever that gripped this nation when Odizor reached the last 16 of Wimbledon in 1984? Who can forget the Bendel Insurance heroes that crushed Rangers 3:0 in the 1978 Challenge Cup finals? Today, the heroes our children have are foreign. An Edo teenage boy may not know one player in Bendel Insurance but can name half the Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea squad. People miss the cultural damage this inflicts. Today we have a generation of young people who know little or care little about this country, and think they have to be western wannabes to matter, and these are our leaders of tomorrow.
Sports also give cities character, the kind that Benin City needs to fight a lingering negative reputation for kidnappings, prostitution and student cult violence among others. These brands would serve to promote the state across the world. The culturally rich Benin City has for too long been in the shadows in Nigeria, and sports offer the one platform to bring it back to the center of national discourse. In addition, sports are a wonderful way to promote camaraderie and unify people. Edo, like most Nigerian states, needs this.
The way forward is not just to play in sports as a social empowerment tool, but to play big as a huge business opportunity. We are talking of a global industry whose earnings were projected to reach $143b in 2015, according to global giants PwC. The challenge for the governor though will be to get the right management team for these brands in a country where political and clannish considerations are placed way ahead of competence and the greater good. For one, civil servants should not run sports.
Ours is still a culture where local sportspeople enjoy little respect. I imagine it would be a no-no for a â€œnot-very-educatedâ€ sportsman to earn more than a permanent secretary, yet we live in a world were Brazilian player Neymar earns 515,000 GBP per week, which is probably more money than many PHDs would earn in a lifetime.
A state investing in sports should however not mean free money to political jobbers and mercenary dealmakers as seems to be the case in many state-run sports businesses in this country today. That is why governor Obaseki needs a crack team comprising savvy financial, marketing and sports executives. Beyond assembling this team must be a sound business plan drawn up by the likes of PwC, McKinsey & Co etc. (expensive stuff) that becomes not just a guide on how to turn these brands into big money spinners, but a leverage with top local and foreign business partners and major sponsors. Nothing, for instance, says Bendel Insurance cannot have a long-term strategic partnership with a top English club like Tottenham or Chelsea. It would probably cost a fortune to prepare the groundwork, but with good funding and close scrutiny, over a five to ten-year period, Benin City would be at the heart of Nigerian sports once again, while the economics would make any man of finance sleep easy.