Naija Super 8: Domestic Football’s Hope of Revival

Folakunmi Lawal

Before last Sunday, most fans of domestic football would struggle to recall the last time they saw a match venue turn into a ferocious cauldron of intimidating noise. That was what Lagos’ Mobolaji Johnson Arena became when Remo Stars of Ikenne faced Sporting Lagos in the final of the inaugural Naija Super 8 pre-season football competition organised by Flykite Productions. Vuvuzelas wailed non-stop, as stands throbbed with rock concert-level hysteria. The intense fan fever, more appropriately, was El Clasico standard. It was unreal-to me and others watching at the venue or on television.

Nobody, I believe, thought a match between two domestic teams could draw a capacity crowd of baying fans. The fan attendance was not unprecedented if one remembers the passionate following domestic club football commanded in the 70s and 80s. Back then, I frequented the Obafemi Awolowo Stadium (née Liberty Stadium) to watch games, partly because I lived some 10 minutes away from there.

But it was something that we thought we would no longer see. Again. Decades of fan apathy, induced by acute lack of excitement and everything in between, had rendered  match venues credible imitations of fairly unruly libraries. While the febrile atmosphere was a thing back then, football had not the appetite for glitz it now has. These days, it is showbiz and Flykite Productions, which I recently discovered have been successful with GOtv Boxing Night, produced a closing ceremony of immodest glamour: lavish firework display, tasty-looking stage, cheerleaders and electric live musical performances by Portable, Seyi Vibez and Pheelz.

A mix of football and music, something the organisers have been doing with boxing, as I saw online. Every matchday of the competition had musical performances. No surprises, therefore, that the fans were in seventh heaven. But it is safe to say it had been coming. The organisers, from the start, stated the primary objective of Naija Super 8 was the revival of fan affection for domestic football to get back bums on stadium seats. I think that unlike other football organisers in the country, they were aware that football without fans, however captivating, is the same as having a top-tier orchestra perform to an empty hall.

So, they decided on fan engagement and I think with that, they were on to a winner. The fans voted for the 12 teams that participated in the qualifying tournament, which was held at the Eket Township Stadium last month. A 41-club list was offered to the fans for the voting process, authenticated by top-flight audit firm, Deloitte. Two clubs with the highest vote tallies per geo-political zone went into the qualifying phase, at which they had to play each other to determine the zonal representatives at the finals in Lagos. Of the 12 teams, six got eliminated in Eket, where fans defied back-to-back heavy rains to watch football and live musical performances.

The six clubs that qualified from Eket were joined by two wildcard entrants-Sporting Lagos, the eventual winners, and Akwa United, who fell in the semi-final. I would think that fan involvement was a big part of what convinced the corporate world that Naija Super 8 was something it should invest time and money in. In the line-up were MultiChoice Nigeria, partners to Flykite Productions; Hero Lager, MTN, DStv, GOtv, Moniepoint, Pepsi and Custodian Assurance Plc, all sponsors. There was also SuperSport, the broadcast sponsors, who beamed every game of the qualifiers and finals live to continent-wide audiences. The promise of more eyeballs via television, no debate, was part of the attraction for sponsors.

But the property, Naija Super 8, still had to be deemed good to attract the support it got. It was impressive and, importantly, had been like none before because it was fan-centred. That was new thinking, which I believe football in Nigeria needs. It may appear little, but one of the things that suggest to me that the organisers were intentional in their design was to have insurance cover for about 600 participants at Naija Super 8. That, for me, spoke of a lack of appetite for the “anyhowness” that characterises the organisation of domestic game.

With sponsorship support, the competition delivered munificent monetary rewards and welfare packages to participating clubs. Every club that got into the finals in Lagos earned N3 million per match at the group phase. The last four (semi-finalists) earned an additional N3million. Runners-up, Remo Stars in this case, earned N9 million for that single match, while the winners trousered N25 million. There were other incentives. Participating clubs received money for jersey production to the procurement of seven sets of fit-for-purpose kits, fan support fund to enable them bring their supporters’ clubs as well as for transportation, accommodation and feeding. That was for Lagos. Teams that played in Eket were accommodated, fed and transported to and fro at the organisers’ expense.

There have been long and loud complaints that corporate Nigeria is averse to local football, something Naija Super 8 has punctured. On the evidence of Naija Super 8, what I think corporate organisations are averse to are plans lacking in originality and clarity as well poor corporate governance by sponsorship-seeking organisers-government and private, which do not help the process of persuading sponsors. From where I sit, we need more of Naija Super 8, whether by Flykite or other organisers. We also need to find a way to graft what the organisers have done into the organisation of our leagues.

After Sunday’s closing ceremony, social media users gushed, rightly. Many called, in excitement, for the elite division of the Nigerian league to be handed to Naija Super 8 organisers. Hard to blame them. Naija Super 8 was inebriating and they are keen to have more of whatever produced the thrill-on a more regular basis. I doubt the workability of that, but I am willing to have it tested. Hope is revived, however faintly. Thumbs up to the organisers, partners and sponsors. May Naija Super 8 live long! Hope is revived, however faintly. 

Lawal writes from Lagos

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