The Nigerian Professional Football League begins the 2018 season this weekend without any major sponsors. Despite years of hard work to keep the league alive with lean resources, the expected sponsorship windfall has failed to materialize. It costs hundreds of millions, even billions, to run the league, so how do we expect success without quality sponsorship support? Nigerian brands like everyone else are struggling to meet their targets under the harsh economic realities we face, yet, rather than support the domestic league and create jobs and wealth locally they have continued to spend their dwindling resources on further entrenching the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League in Nigeria – feeding the already fat Europeans while deepening poverty in our country. What I find incredibly surprising is how these brands cannot understand that they kill their own businesses doing this.

N igerians have probably blown over one trillion naira on the European game over the last 20 years, money that when it leaves our shores never comes back. Even as broke as we are now, in 2018 we will blow at least a further N50b. The sub-saharan broadcaster currently pays 84m pounds (N40.9b) annually for the EPL TV rights. Nigeria probably accounts for half its revenue projections, which would mean, plus profits, an amount in excess of N20b. Add the vast sums we spend travelling to the UK to watch live games and buy merchandise. Captains of industry who should be concerned about the capital flight and top political leaders who should worry about creating value for the electorate, are the ones in the vanguard of this detrimental culture. A few fly in their private jets to watch EPL games live, while some others join resources to charter planes. Some fly first class in commercial airlines, many fly business class and thousands fly economy to watch these games. If 25,000 trips are done yearly with an average of 2,000 pounds spent, that is a further 50m pounds (N24b) out of our economy to the UK.
Then there are those who do not travel but order club items online or buy directly from retailers across Nigeria. That is probably another N3b-N5b industry. Then add the billions some of our brands spend to bring us the games. Some even sign direct sponsorship contracts with EPL and other European clubs. That is likely another N5b taken out of our economy. By the time you add the UEFA Champions League spend for rights, advertising and tourism, we would be way over N50b. This is a joke, and it is why we are seen as a basket case around the world. Chances are that of every N100 we make in Nigeria, N70 finds its way overseas under different guises, football being just one of them.
No nation can survive, let alone prosper, that way. How does it make sense that Arsenal FC of London has more fans in Lagos than in the entire UK?! How does it make sense that outside London, Third-World Lagos is the city where the most Arsenal jerseys are sold – not wealthy cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, New York, Berlin?! How does it make sense that fans die in Nigeria defending the honour of their foreign clubs?!
If we continue to invest in other people and economies and not our own, we will continue to be poor however much we pray and whoever the leaders we elect into public office. Just to underline the poverty in our minds, China currently pays just 13m pounds to watch the EPL. For some perspective, sub-saharan Africa is the poorest region in the world, while China is the second largest economy in the world. The Chinese also love football and have a larger population than the entire Africa, yet they pay six times less to watch the EPL than us in sub-saharan Africa.
Of all the sponsors perpetuating the European game in Nigeria, the ones I find most frustrating are the banks. Banks are supposed to understand the way money works, but sub-saharan banks appear a different breed. Around the world banks are leading sponsors of domestic sports, it makes easy sense. All the money generated from sports ends up in banks. When people travel around the country, when lawyers negotiate business deals for clubs and players, when architects and builders upgrade infrastructure or build new ones, when medical practitioners manage the health of stars, when hotels accommodate visitors from other cities in town to support their clubs or favourite stars, when farmers increase sales to food vendors as fans celebrate, when retailers sell club merchandise, when advertising agencies get briefs to build sports brands, the list goes on, all the money ends up in banks.
In South Africa, for instance, ABSA bank has sponsored the Premier Soccer League for ten years, and recently signed a five-year extension of the contract. In Nigeria, rather than build our local sports, our banks splash the scarce resources they (we) have on the European game, under the guise that they are reaching more eyeballs. As I have asked many times here, are they not aware that many of the eyeballs in Nigeria have lost their jobs, or had their salaries slashed, or have not been paid for months, meaning many cannot even take action if they find the advertisers’ proposition interesting?
One day we will wise up to how the world really works. Meanwhile high fives to the League Management Company for keeping the league running even in the face of scant sponsorship. They must however engage society more to succeed. They must also work more with key professional bodies to help sell the message that football is a multi-billion naira industry from which every professional benefits handsomely.