Agege made Nigerian football history two weeks ago when it hosted the Aiteo Cup (Federation Cup) final for the first time ever. This enduring competition, with roots stretching back to 1942, has been won 76 times; the latest champions being Akwa United who defeated Niger Tornadoes 3:2 on penalties to claim the crown. It was a great day for the Lagos suburb which has seen plenty of football, but nothing quite on this scale. Among their august guests were two Governors, leaders of Nigerian football, the president of the Ghana FA, Kwesi Nyantakyi, and CAF president Ahmad Ahmad.
As is customary on this column, I am going to be focusing on the little things that make sports a huge economic and socio-cultural driver in nations, and why the failure of countries like Nigeria to prioritise the industry has left us far worse for wear. I also want to draw attention to the laudable sponsorship of the competition by the Aiteo Group and why other big Nigerian companies should do likewise.
Whether the final deserved a grander stage is probably a good debate to have. Those who look at sports largely as big business would probably have preferred a bigger, more iconic stadium; while those who want to make a socio-cultural argument would welcome the beauty of playing the final in the 4,000-capacity stadium in this lower income community.
Whatâ€™s the difference? Hosting the game at a venue like the Abuja Stadium, assuming the necessary repairs are done, would certainly have given the final a grander stage; ensured better gate receipts; painted a richer picture of the countryâ€™s sporting facilities; and made for better TV content. Playing in Agege however took the game to the doorsteps of the common folk who are the vast majority in our country. Domestic football needs to capture the imagination of these fans, especially the young among them, many of whom need inspiration to dream bigger, work harder and break free from a debilitating cycle of unprotected sex, drugs, crime and street living.
Whatever picture you have in your head, the Aiteo Cup final delivered the kind of good that sports can give our country on a more consistent, and more far-reaching, basis. With an estimated population of 192m people today, and projections of 398m people by 2050, Nigeria desperately needs to engage its people in a productive way. Sports have almost infinite powers to do this, but we all seem to be waiting for government to shoulder the responsibility alone. So, rather than investing their profits in creating real value within, big Nigerian brands continue to entrench the culture of foreign sports by throwing money at the likes of the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.
That is why corporate giants like Aiteo must be celebrated. A hefty N2.5b deal means that, if the Nigerian Football Federation plays its part, the menâ€™s and womenâ€™s competition will run smoothly for the next five years. And, this is only part of an expanding bouquet of sponsorships that includes paying the wages of national team coaches and sponsoring the CAF Awards Gala. This investment in the local game, beyond the assurance of thousands of fresh jobs across the country, would lead to the positive engagement of millions young people.
Imagine more Nigerian companies are as bold in supporting our sports? For some perspective, South African companies invested about R9b (N243b) in sports sponsorship in 2016, yet we see them as our direct competitors. The results are clear to see on the international stage where South Africa shines in various sports and Nigeria is largely in the shadows.
The Aiteo Cup final itself was a poor advertisement for Nigerian football. It was a scoreless dour-fest that was fittingly decided by one of the poorest penalty shootouts youâ€™d ever see. Many Nigerian sponsors would probably have watched the game and concluded: â€œsee why we donâ€™t sponsor local football?â€ But how does that solve the problem? Even worse, how does sponsoring European football and creating jobs in Europe while deepening poverty at home, help? We must learn to be builders and realise that building is dirty work that takes time. We must also all get involved in building the kind of success we crave as a society.
I believe getting involved in domestic sports has been great for Aiteo. A cursory study would reveal that awareness for their brand, and interest in their organisation, have spiked as a result of this. More Nigerian business giants should join the investment in local sports for their own survival. Sports administrators must also find innovative ways to deliver the right value to the few sponsors that come their way. All too often sponsorships donâ€™t last as sponsors come off not feeling the value.
Sports administrators also need to do more to win fans beyond the bare responsibility of playing the games. To enchant their publics today brands globally are thinking more about â€˜matteringâ€™ in their lives rather than â€˜marketingâ€™ to them. Imagine the Aiteo Cup champions visiting one or two of our IDP camps and playing morale-boosting knockabout games with these victims who need some empathy and inspiration? Wouldnâ€™t an initiative like this generate positive post-event buzz and help plant our local sports icons in the hearts of everyone?
There are many great things sports do for countries. Leading nations invest heavily in the industry as a tool to inspire their people to aim for more; to create a sense of camaraderie and unity; and to help ingrain a culture of discipline and healthy living. Nigeria needs to do same. On their part, big Nigerian brands should not wait for government before investing in the creation of a healthier and wealthier Nigeria in which their businesses would fare so much better than today. That is why the Aiteo way is the right way.