Enefiok Udo-Obong

GOLDMINE BY Enefiok Udo Obong

The topsy-turvy scheduling of the National Sports Festival has brought into the forefront the lack or organizational planning of sports bodies in Nigeria. The event initially planned for March 2020 has seen the dates moved from then to September, then November, then January, then February and now April (or is it indefinitely?). The Nigerian National Sports Festival was designed to be a biennial multi-sport event organized by the Federal Government of Nigeria through the National Sports Commission (Or Ministry of Sports-depending on the nomenclature of the day) for athletes from the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.

Started and staged in 1973 at the National Stadium, Surulere in Lagos, the game was originally conceived as a “unifying tool” with the main purpose of promoting peace and cross-cultural affiliation in Nigeria after the Nigerian Civil War in 1970. Over the years, the purpose and relevance of the games have been debated and evolved, but one thing remains constant- It is loved by athletes. But there is always uncertainty over the festival. The dates are not cast in stone and political climate clearly dictates how and when it holds. If it had been consistent, we should have been preparing for the 24th edition instead of the 20th that Edo will host. Festival was missed in 1983, 1987, 1993, 1995, 2014 and 2016. The current Festival has been postponed so much that athletes have been demoralized. States have cancelled several camping, lost income while coaches are unable to plan to prepare their athletes. All these and more adversely affect the growth and marketability of the event.

While it is acknowledged that the pandemic played a role in the postponements, it is a general theme for sports in our country. We have no fixed calendar. We cannot plan or prepare adequately for events. Athletes, coaches, media and marketers are often left in the realm of the unknown. We set dates arbitrarily and events may not have start dates till a few days to its commencement.

If we look at sporting calendars worldwide it’s organized and fixed. In football, national leagues know their start and end dates, sometimes up to four years in advance. In tennis, the grand slams have their fixed days long before the previous edition ends. All the smaller competitions have their weeks of the year taken and thus sometimes it is very difficult to introduce new events because the whole weeks of the competitive season have been taken. It’s the same in whatever sports you look at. Formula 1, athletics, basketball, cricket etc. Their calendars are fixed. So it is very difficult and almost impossible to see postponements without a plausible cause.

Sports has become a big business in a global economy. Tournaments are followed by millions of people across the world. Teams make big investments in new players, stadia etc. Broadcast rights amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in some competitions. Countries and cities fight for the right to organize worldwide events such as the Olympics and the Football World Cup. Professional sport leagues involve millions of fans and significant investments in players, broadcast rights, merchandising, and advertising, facing challenging optimization problems. On the other side, amateur leagues involve less investments, but also require coordination and logistical efforts due to the large number of tournaments and competitors. Events also have to struggle for air time as the want viewing audience to grow exponentially. Organizers and sports bodies use different exact and approximate approaches, including integer programming, constraint programming, metaheuristics, and hybrid methods to schedule their events over the year to fix a unique time for it to maximize audience and fit what’s best in seasonal terms for the athletes to perform optimally.

So despite the pandemic, it was challenging to postpone the Olympics and set a new date. And almost immediately a new date was set once postponement was decided. This gives all parties time to plan and adjust. Postponement carries its own set of ramifications and it is already expected to add $2.7 billion to Japan’s costs as reported by Forbes Magazine. Most events were outrightly cancelled like the Wimbledon Tennis Grand slam because conditions for a new date were hard to meet. (Contracts agreed, weather, player preparedness, broadcast availability etc.) However, cancelling the Games outright—which has only happened three times, during World War I (1916) and World War II (1940, 1944)—would have “massive” ramifications for all the stakeholders involved, from governing bodies to athletes to sponsors to broadcasters.

The award to Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup proved controversial; Ex-FIFA President Joseph Blatter had said the tournament won’t take place in January or February, because it may clash with the 2022 Winter Olympics, while others expressed concerns over a November or December event, because it might clash with the Christmas season (even though Qatar is predominantly Muslim, the football players in the tournament are predominantly Christian). The Premier League voiced concern over moving the tournament to the northern hemisphere’s winter as it could interfere with the local leagues. FIFA executive committee member Theo Zwanziger said that awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar’s desert state was a “blatant mistake”, and that any potential shift to a winter event would be unmanageable due to the effect on major European domestic leagues. But it was agreed that the dates of the World Cup had to be changed from the usual June because of the extreme heat in Qatar at that time of the year. This was all planned as far back as 2013.

So while we can appreciate the web of intricacies in scheduling sports events, this is not available back home in Nigeria. We do lack a cyclic plan of sporting events where fans can plan ahead and look forward to. Many times the problems come from the uncertainty of hosting the events as organizers look for sponsors. That on its own is a different story but the fact that most sporting events in Nigeria wait for the financial support of the government, it is impossible to fix events and these events would continue to be moved for the political purposes of those in charge.

So while events independent of government interference like the Accessbank Lagos City Marathon, the Nigeria Sports Awards and a few others that always schedule their dates long in advance have recorded successes, they are the reasons why professionals should manage our sports events to avoid uncertainty for athletes, fans and sponsors alike. We need to hand the National Sports Festival to professionals to manage it like other similar competitions around the world.