The Nigerian Professional Football League season draws to a close today with a first-time champion guaranteed to emerge. After 37 grueling games, the shootout for the crown is between Plateau United and MFM FC. Just one point separates the two sides, so this is far from decided. On paper Plateau have the advantage as they host off-colour defending champions Rangers, while MFM travel to mid-table El-Kanemi. If there was ever a time the church-owned MFM needed fire and miracles from the heavens, now is that time. Not only do they have to beat El-Kanemi away, they would need Rangers to do them a favour by getting a result in Jos. Many would probably say Plateau deserve the title after leading topping the table for much of the season, but MFM, who ironically barely survived relegation in their maiden appearance in the top-flight last season, have had a brilliant season themselves. May the best team win.

OLD PROBLEMS

Poor sponsorship – clearly, poor sponsorship remains a sad problem despite the stability and improvement the league has enjoyed in recent years. Star Lager remains the one big local brand behind the league, while TV broadcaster Supersport, who have been a heavy financial backer of the NPFL in recent years, have opted to scale down their role. Most of our other big brands involved in football still rather sponsor the English Premier League, even at a time of economic recession when we desperately need to build local industry. Somebody needs to tell our captains of industry that that is an illogical business strategy that will only serve to shrink their own businesses over time. Go figure.

Poor remunerations – listening to the legendary Etim Esin on radio this week, he spoke about how as a player in the local league in 1987 he was given a 505 Evolution with full options (then a favourite of society’s rich) as part of his package by his club. At the time he was only a teenager. 30 years on and the league has gone backwards in terms of remunerating players. I have always argued that this needs to change because without good player wages the league would be starved of the stars it needs to pull in large crowds.

Sparse crowds – while the football quality is clearly improving, sparsely-filled stadiums remain demotivating for players, fans and sponsors. There needs to be carefully orchestrated programs that ensure the league is woven into the lifestyles of fans such that it becomes a part of them and not just a nationalistic duty.

Staff turnover – the turnover of players and coaches is still a huge worry. Players also disappearing midseason to scout for contracts overseas must be discouraged. The league must do more to protect coaches from trigger-happy egocentric administrators who dish out all sorts of incredulous ultimatums to coaches whenever results don’t go their way. The League Management Company should make it standard for coaches to have tough severance packages in their contracts.

Unpaid wages – the problem of unpaid wages remains a huge one for the league. Ahead of this weekend players of Shooting Stars went on strike to demand that their outstanding wages be paid. While there has been some improvement from last season, this remains an sore point that diminishes the progress the league is making.

Poor officiating – this above all else this is probably the biggest problem the league has. This affects the integrity of the league and negatively impacts everyone from players to fans and sponsors. Of particular concern is that there are still unacceptably few away wins. Many blame officiating, with some saying this creates a mentality problem for traveling teams who see away games as almost unwinnable. The LMC must reserve the stiffest sanctions for erring referees.

BRIGHT FUTURE

Stability – in spite of the above problems, it is clear there are many positives. Top on my list is the stability in the league. The fixtures were handled smoothly and there were comparatively fewer controversies. Even when there was a problem with the broadcast company and many feared that this would disrupt the games, the LMC marched ahead seamlessly.

TV content – in the new season, and as a fallout of the problems with Supersport, the league is in the process of setting up its own TV production arm to record its games. This is the practice in the most advanced parts of the world because TV content drives sports revenues. Total control of the production of the content is critical to the financial success of the league.

The game – the quality of the football has also been on the up. Who can forget the stunning goal scored by MFM’s Sikiru Olatunbosun against Rangers? The footage went viral around the world and was even named the CNN Goal of the Week. More players also had goals that would look stunning wherever they are scored in the world.

Lai Mohammed – I think the most significant contribution to the future of our league came from the minister of youth and culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed recently. His stance that local brands sponsoring foreign leagues and clubs should be made to pay a 30% tax on their sponsorship fee for the development of the local league is bang on the money.

Leadership – in spite of the numerous odds they have faced, the LMC leadership of Alhaji Shehu Dikko, ably supported by Honourable Nduka Irabor, continues to keep the league on an upward trajectory. These guys are far from perfect, but increasingly they have more among us believing again that it is only a matter of time before the league returns to the heights it reached in the 70s and 80s.

Media – the media looks to be waking up to its responsibility to promote the league. There are many more stories about the NPFL in our newspapers, television and radio sports programmes as well as on social media. You suspect that this has more to do with the stability and consistency in the league than a matter of enlightened self-interest. There is still way too much focus on European football and many times these stories dwarf the local news. But there is progress, and long may it reign.