Op-Ed: Sports as a business and a brand in Africa

By Victor Oladokun, Director of Communication and External Relations at the African Development Bank.

At the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, the visual imagery of  almost empty stadiums is a powerful narrative. But not the kind that African sports, African football, or corporate sponsors deserve.

The empty seat syndrome in suggests
that football fans are voting with their feet, or better still with their
backsides. Fans are choosing not to watch live football events, and instead are
opting in increasing numbers  for the
‘intimacy’ of their crystal clear digital flat TV screens, or not all.

Before Egypt’s stunning 0-1 loss to South
Africa in the round of 16, the host country was the only team able to attract
70,000 fans. Other than when Mo Salah and the Pharaohs have been on the field,
most stadia across Egypt have at best attracted an average of 5,000 to 7,000

Official broadcast camera crews have done a
creative job minimizing the visual gaps of empty seats. But wide camera angles
reveal the obvious … a lack of attendance and public enthusiasm, in spite of
the presence of some of the biggest names in world football on the field.

In European football leagues, where many of
the stars in Egypt ply their trade, fans pay mega bucks to see the likes of
John Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Sadio Mane, Ryahd Mahrez, Nicolas Pépé, Wilfred,
Zaha, and Kalidou Koulibaly.

Which is why the empty seats in Egypt are
both stunning.

Admittedly, Egypt bailed CAF out and should
receive well-deserved credit for coming to the rescue and hosting the African
Cup of Nations, with barely 6 months notice, when the original hosts were
sanctioned due to shoddy preparations.

Nevertheless, the lack of attendance in
Egypt speaks volumes high ticket costs; the timing of matches bang in the
middle of work days; the difficulties faced by national team supporters in
obtaining entry visas to Egypt; and challenges with the Confederation of
African Football’s complicated online ticket purchasing system. 

It should not be so. This after all, is the
most important event in Africa’s sports calendar. At least, it used to be
before England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and
Germany’s Bundesliga captured our collective imaginations.

The end result is that where once 30,000 to
70,000 fans a week watched highly competitive domestic football leagues across
Africa, the empty seat syndrome has been 
the norm for almost two decades. It is not unusual to have less than a
thousand fans in a stadium that seats 30,000.

The lack of fan attendance has obvious
economic and financial implications across the sports value chain for team
owners, sports federations and confederations, players, sponsors, advertising
and marketing agencies, merchandisers, vendors, and local communities who once
counted on fan attendance to boost fledgling economies.

What’s responsible for the increasing
slide in fan attendance?

1. Poor facilities

2. High ticket costs

3. A lack of reliable transportation
to and from venues.
As well as sufficient and secure parking.

4. Increasingly crude behavior and violence
at event locations.

5. Technology. Mobile phones
and Apps that carry events live as well as a plethora of entertainment
alternatives. In other words, once big events are no longer the main gigs in

So, what can be done to reverse the
trend? Here are 5 quick suggestions.

1. It can no longer be business as
Africa must run sports as a professional business. This includes
the right infrastructure, training facilities, attractive pay scales for
professional athletes who now consider anything less than a European league
appearance, a professional failure.

Regrettably, as with Africa’s overall
propensity to simply export raw materials instead of adding value to what we
produce, we are doing the same with football and many other sports. Africa has
a tremendous abundance of potential talent that for the most part (with the
exception of South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia) we add little or no value to.
Instead, millions of genetically blessed athletes are simply waiting or begging
to be ‘found’ on the cheap by European and American sports teams. Why? Simply
because we fail to see diamonds in the rough and because we are unable to add
value to the potential of what for now seems to be rough stones.

2. Modern and professionally
maintained facilities:
In sizzling hot Africa, we must invest in
covered stadia. When I can sit in front of my big screen TV in my air
conditioned living room, why would I want to subject myself to temperatures
that I swear have gone up a number of notches in recent years?

3. Sport is a spectacle. This
includes everything including pre-event and half time entertainment to keep
fans with short attention spans upbeat and engaged.

4. Give back to the fans:
Essentially, engagement in the 21st century must change. Its time to give something
back to fans rather than fleecing them at every opportunity with sub-standard
services and products. It would seem to me that sports teams could offer
something as simple as raffle draws that reward fans with extra game tickets,
signed player jerseys, visits with select players, or products from local
sponsors. Professional marketing firms can come up with an endless list.

5. Make sports big and make it a
win-win proposition.

Real Madrid F.C. and Barcelona F.C. for
example, are not owned by a few rich individuals. Instead, they are owned and
supported by thousands of shareholders known as ‘socios.’ Across Africa,
it’s time to change the numbers game – in ownership, money, and attendance – by
giving fans a seat at the table.

These are just a few quick ideas. However,
the running of sports in general and football in particular as a business and a
brand proposition, will require honest analysis, political and financial will,
and a collective approach.

It must be if Africa is to unlock potential
and turn millions into billions.