Nigerian Companies Exploiting Domestic Passion to Promote Foreign Football

THERE is really a thin line between sponsorship and what today some organizations choose to call Corporate Social Investment (CSI), which hitherto went as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). In times past, corporate bodies got involved in CSR initiatives that only returned goodwill, which, of course, is expected long term to translate to loyalty and affinity but over time, it began to emerge that organizations were dubbing their commercial sponsorship activities as CSR.   

  Sponsorship by simple definition is understood to be a form of marketing in which a corporation pays for all or some of the costs associated with a project or programme in exchange for some rights, which may include the use of such rights for commercial returns. Therein lies the difference as one purely seeks to extract goodwill whilst the other may in addition to goodwill, exploit commercial benefits.

  The commercial objective of corporate involvement in sponsorship was aptly captured in a speech by Mr. Peter Amangbo, the Managing Director of Zenith Bank, during his interactions with the leadership of the Nigeria Football Federation recently. He had said, “You are on the right path, with your attitude, determination and openness of mind. Once people see transparency, they will want to identify with you. Companies support sports in order to derive value. Football is big business and millions of people can be employed across the several value chains.”   

  Fortunately, he also underlined the point that when properly positioned and supported, football can empower a lot more people than it is presently doing in Nigeria.

   Unfortunately also, football is yet to attract the right corporate support despite strides made in the competitive field by the clubs and national teams. It has rather been a situation where the corporate organizations make huge billions of naira in Nigeria and deploy same to support foreign football. It has to be agreed that over the years, there may have been poor articulation of football administrative agenda to provide the business parameters for corporate bodies to key into. Yet, there is a case to be made that as Nigerian businesses, they have also failed to be part of the building process, which at the end will serve to provide the enabling environment for football and trade to thrive.

  Regeneration is a vital activity for life and this obviously is the objective for creating succession lines and plans. Quality and overall improvement means that we evolve better ways of doing things or creating value, which results in capacity building and development.    

  In human society and in business, there is always need for education and leadership training – to regenerate doctors, lawyers, engineers and, so too, sportsmen, as by the nature of things, each generation of sportsmen will get old and weak and new athletes will have to take over.

   When applied to football, it explains the inclusion of sports and physical education in primary and secondary schools curricula, which ensured a steady stream of sportsmen and women to represent the country. The strategy was further elevated with the institutionalization of the National Academicals programme, which produced the likes of Henry Nwosu, Stephen Keshi and many such players and athletes that became ‘Reliables’ in the national teams.

   It is difficult to determine when and why youth development was de-prioritized and focus switched to international competitions leading to a disconnect between retiring players and new talents for replenishment. The phrase “tired legs” was consequently crept into our football lexicon.

   Nigerians’ huge passion for football is matched by a commensurate pull of potential talents and with the rising economy of international football, youngsters were inspired, even in desperation, to seek career in football albeit without sustained structure and dynamics for youth development to enable them hone their skills and achieve their potentials. It was perhaps to fill this gap that we saw a proliferation of football academies, albeit without proper organization and curricula.

   Sadly, the years have shown that, apart from a few, the academies have largely been a farce with proprietors and unlicensed football agents, managers and scouts focusing more on raising players for quick sales to obscure clubs overseas and with the incidence of cost mostly transferred to the youngsters and their parents. The desperation and the unprofessional route to the overseas clubs have also rendered Nigerian youngsters stranded in various countries with most abandoning their dreams for football and picking up menial jobs and vices for survival.

   A twist to this malady was arrived when some corporate organizations rather than work with relevant agencies such as the state football associations elected to promote talent hunt programs with veiled promises of discovering and nurturing of players to service domestic clubs, the national teams and the career interest of the youngsters. 

  There was the defunct Oceanic Bank Talent Hunt with John Fashanu in 2008, which had promised a big deal in producing and nurturing talents through the programme. The bank may have reaped millions of naira through scratch cards from hundreds of thousands of aspiring young players but at the end, the whole programme turned out to be a mere entertainment, aptly tagged, ‘Soccer Reality TV Show.’ The winners were awarded prizes in cash, cars and bank jobs but none of the so discovered players are anywhere near the horizon of serious football.

   The show continued in 2009 with Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha replacing Fashanu but the question to ask is: where are the likes of Eric Defugha, one of the top winners, and Osi Isoa David, the MVP in 2009? Are they playing football anywhere now? 

  The Glo Football Academy was the next and participants, who applied via SMS, were screened at various locations in West Africa by coaches and ex-footballers and thirty-three “identified talents” were brought into an academy for five weeks for further coaching.  Out of the 33, 16 were finally selected as winners and awarded cash, cars and an opportunity to attend the Manchester United football Schools in the UK for a few weeks.

  While the package looked great, it can also be seen that the real objective was to achieve marketing communication and commercial penetration more than to discover and nurture players. Like the Oceanic hunt, the activities of the academy is recorded and produced for a Reality TV Show airing on various national TV networks and, in the final analysis, it did not matter if the participants returned home to other things other than football.

   In 2008, MTN came up with the Lagos Street Soccer Project.  Teams have to pay N5000 registration fee to participate and thousands of teams sprang up from all corners of Lagos. The challenge also provided “corner betting” charged on SMS for fans to predict and win on the matches, and thousands of street fans betted in support of their street teams. The winners of the championship stood to go home with cash prizes ranging from N1 million to N5 million, for the champions, and all expense paid trip to places like Dubai, South Africa, Ghana, Gambia, for the different classes.

  While the company connected with the bulging youth population in Lagos, it is doubtful if the promise of raising players for Nigerian football was achieved beyond the sweet sensations of the street soccer. For instance, the players of ABS Street, 2013 winners, the likes of Captain Yusuf Adigun and Uzor Okoro, do not seem to be heading for any career in football. Same is the situation of players of Koilo 2 Street and Capt Niyi Owolabi, winners of the 2014 edition. 

  Curiously, the Street Soccer Show is run under the belt of the Lagos State Sports Ministry with very minimal involvement, if at all, of the Lagos State Football Association. This speaks volumes about the content, direction and total focus of the project.

  Realizing the great platform the huge interest in football provides for marketing penetration of communities, it was no surprise that a multiplicity of brands adopted the strategy in different ways. The Airtel Rising Star will enter its fifth season in 2015. In 2014, the programme expected an entry of about 63,000 young Nigerians through SMS cost at N100 and the company apparently provides additional funding to make up for the gap in subscription. The project plan was to select the best participants into a team for further training under coaches from reputable foreign clubs.

  While, like the others, the project provides engagement for coaches and retired players, it is to be examined if the approach and funding genuinely addresses the local need of Nigerian youth football development. While the organizers may point to a number of players in the junior national teams, like Musa Mohammed Shehu, Captain of the 2013 Golden Eaglets; Zahradden Bello and Al Hassan Ibrahim Abdullahi- of the 2012 U17; Muri Lawal of Sunshine Stars FC Akure and Josephine Mathias of the Falconets, as products of the project, it is a known fact that such players have been tutored and raised by coaches in their local areas and that they only happened to have attended the Airtel programme at some point.

 These organizations were not set up nor equipped to run technical program for football development. For the purpose of sincere corporate social responsibility, these brands were expected to sponsor programmes of the National Football Federation and/or state FAs for youth football development, or partner with football and league clubs to establish and fund feeder teams in a well programmed, organized and purposeful football environment.

   Cumulatively, the amount of funds being expended on the talent hunts by these brands are in hundreds of millions but it is obvious that these funds are not being properly, constructively and genuinely spent for football as much as they are being channeled for publicity and media for marketing communication of the brands. Then we also have corporate organizations, which claim to be so interested in the development of Nigerian football but are very involved in the diversion of public interest from our domestic football in favour of foreign clubs and leagues.

  There are countless promotional packages diverting and connecting Nigerian fans to foreign clubs, with huge funds being paid to the foreign clubs as partnership rights while the domestic league clubs continue to suffocate under the weight of these promotions.

   We have Etisalat and its partnership with Barcelona FC. The Etisalat Group signed a four-year partnership agreement in 2009 with FC Barcelona as “Official International Partner” and this was extended to Nigeria in 2011. The deal involves the promotion of Barcelona FC, to secure and expand the fan base of the club in our country while the company enjoys rights of association with the club to promote its business.

  The company thereafter instituted what it calls Etisalat FC Barcelona U-17 Schools Championship. The 5-aside tourney started in 2013 involved 16 schools in Lagos with winners awarded cash prizes of between N500, 000 and N750, 000, while the champion is given a trip to Dubai for a friendly game.

  Great as the idea of funding a schools competition and the opportunity for the youngsters to travel to Dubai are, there is much damage in penetrating our schools and capturing young minds in school as Barcelona fans, with total disregard for the need to support the growth and promote the image and identity of domestic clubs for the acceptance and followership of our home fans.

  With these big organizations deploying their huge capitals, huge media funding and huge publicity mechanics to drive the traffic to foreign clubs, it is doubtful if the football establishment in Nigeria can ever stand the challenge of securing its fan base to support and sustain the domestic game.

  While it is conceded that the companies are out to make profit and may be in their right to do anything to attract customers, the concept of social responsibility indicates for companies to genuinely focus, support and protect their operating environments for the sustenance and progress of the society. What obtains now is crass destruction, erosion of fan base and clobbering of the domestic football, the clubs and professional leagues and may well be better described as “Corporate Social Irresponsibility.”

 • Edoreh is a Lagos-based sports journalist.

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