Nigeria’s third indigenous sports betting, Surebet247, may be easily making N1 billion today, but 10 years ago, no bank was willing to lend it N1 million, although they knocked on every door. Ikenna Bede unravels how the company made it from a modest shop in Ajegunle, Lagos, to a much sought-after national brand
When inquired about the secret behind SureBet247, a prominent sports betting company that originated in a modest space in the Tolu area of Ajegunle, Lagos, a decade ago, cofounder of the indigenous sports betting company, Sheriff Olaniyan, responded with a smile, “It’s a bit of luck, but mighty hard work.”
Standing on the ground floor of the two-storey office space, the corporate headquarters of the company in Surulere, Lagos, he recollected his days of multitasking to meet customers’ demands to cut down on operational costs.
Growing from a team of barely half a dozen people playing jingles from the back of their car for publicity to putting up massive billboards, they’ve come a long way in securing market shares. Today, Olaniyan sits at the helm of affairs, coordinating a few dozen staff that report directly or indirectly. This scenario was one most of his friends didn’t envisage when the London returnee rolled up his sleeves to do the groundwork.
“There was no first job,” Olaniyan clarified his unemployment status following his return to Nigeria, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Ilorin. “At that time, we were seriously excited. It was hard. When I came back from the UK, I dumped all the UK paraphernalia off me: I had to go to Computer Village to carry printers and desktops on my shoulder, just to deliver.”
The idea of SureBet247 came at a time when existing operators like NairaBet and 1960Bet were predominantly online platforms. Recognising this gap in retail marketing, the team focused on the retail side of sports betting. This aggressive marketing regime bridged the gap between punters and operators by providing much-needed information and instructing them on the various ways to place bets other than wins, losses, and draws.
“My cousin was working with a guy called Dotun Adegbile. Adegbile was with 1960Bet, and then he left 1960Bet, and then we started our own, SureBet247. We were the number three industry founders in Nigeria. We felt, ‘Okay, we can duplicate this in the retail space as well’,” said Olaniyan. “We started that journey with research, calling the providers until we were able to start.”
Additionally, this marketing structure involved the onboarding of agents. This entailed organising seminars and workshops in prospective states they had hoped to break into: Oyo in the west and South-eastern states. But more crucial to retaining the loyalty of agents was the remuneration structure. This led to an expansion of the brand into a household name. But despite these regional growths, they, from time to time, hit a wall and resulted in seeking funds to bankroll the business.
“Honourable Akin Alabi, the owner of NairaBet, came from England as well to start the business. So, we felt, ‘Okay, at this point in our life, if we’re seeing this traction, how do we raise money? How do we go out there?’ Olaniyan said. “But trust me. We visited almost all the banks. They kept telling us it was not bankable. It is high risk. But it was hard to explain to them.
“In Europe, the gaming industry is bankable. You can use X assets or X process revenue to seek funds from the government. Bear in mind that the operators might not need money. They only want to have that access, especially on those days that you see crazy wins. You want to pay out this big win so that people will believe in your brand.”
He added, “There were many times I was supposed to be out of business. I had to pick up the phone, manage the providers and tell them we were expecting money. We were looking for N1 million then, that’s 10 years ago.”
Compared to the sports betting industry in other parts of the world, the Nigerian sports betting industry is still in its teething stages. This implies that it requires the support of software providers, odds providers, and payment processors, resulting in a huge chunk of its revenue, a figure Olaniyan estimates at €80,000, remitted on a monthly basis to these providers domiciled in Europe. In a nutshell, Nigerian operators are mere conduits between punters and service providers in Europe.
“This industry is over 75 years old in Europe, especially in the UK where gaming started. And if you look at that trajectory of people learning to code, making mistakes, refining it to date, the industry in Nigeria is just 10 years old,” Olaniyan explained. “It’s not something someone would just wake up one day, being a super-programmer, and quickly put everything together. We have minds that are working on this. We might not know them, but I am very sure they will soon be out there. It is doable, but it takes time.”
By standard practice, remittances to providers are paid in dollars or other foreign currency. Aside from providers gulping a huge portion of revenue, foreign exchange fluctuations exacerbate the situation. This problem led to an innovative move by the company to collaborate and install certain infrastructure.
“We realised building a platform is the way forward, and it took us two years, precisely, to go out, and find a suitable partner, that we are going to have our feed with them, we’re going to have what suits this particular country of ours, Nigeria. Most times, when Europeans bring their platforms to Nigeria, it’s totally not the same market,” Olaniyan noted. “So, we always take time to see what suits the people and what is economically good for us. We went out, and we were able to build a platform. Right now, we don’t rent a platform anymore, we own the platform ourselves. We only took a sportsbook, which is difficult to get in terms of people collecting data from different countries.”
Before SureBet247 attained the feat, Olaniyan disclosed that the company had maintained a reinvestment-oriented culture for growth.
“We were consistently reinvesting our money back into the business. Well, if you have to look at our turnover, our revenue was over N1bn as at that time, we were a living success story. And if you have to talk about milestones, every year is a different milestone,” Olaniyan stressed. “If you ask punters on the street, they will tell you, ‘Oh, we won N20 million.’ Our name becomes rhetorical, like, you want to go and bet, they would say, ‘I’m going to play SureBet’.”
With a strong stance on responsible gambling, protection of customer data and privacy, and adherence to statutory requirements of regulators, however, SureBet247’s growth trajectory was occasionally blemished with cases of non-payment of winnings. Olaniyan set the record straight, describing these cases as ‘arbitrage,’ whereby bettors spot a glitch in the system and use it to their advantage by betting when the game has ended and outcomes are known.
We had someone from Ibadan trying to sue the company. I think something funny also happened. We traced the backend, checked our data, saw the log, and there was no way we would pay. We showed them the backend, and at the end of the day, most of the time, they always accepted. It’s not that we don’t want to pay. You should ask the question about what was on their tickets, not that we don’t want to pay them. It’s a function of what happened at that time,” he explained.
As the jurisdiction wars between the national and state arms of gaming license commissions continue, with operators at their mercy, Olaniyan is hopeful for a favourable outcome to help streamline processes and collapse the multiple taxation channels into one. He, however, noted that other African countries present operators with unique challenges. So far, the company has had a presence in Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon, and Benin, where they operated for a while.
“So it’s not just peculiar to them,” Olaniyan said, explaining the challenges in other host African countries. “It is also happening in our own country, but I believe they are seriously working on it. We have the association of regulators now liaising with the federal authorities on how to share the revenue generated from these and how to licence new operators.”
By and large, Olaniyan believes he’s left an indelible mark in the annals of the Nigerian sports betting industry with a partnership that resulted in establishing the third sports betting brand in Nigeria, one that has endured the test of time amid harsh climes that obliterated other operators. While he sometimes thinks luck has a role in the rise of SureBet247, he maintains that when it comes to legacies, people “need to know that everything is hard work.”