Football clubs, business and government are on my mind.
Many people, even within the sport sector, have been advocating that for the sports industry and sports to grow in Nigeria, States and the Federal governments must keep-off the running of sports.
I am of a slightly different opinion.
In Nigeria, as in most parts of Africa, government and sports have always been together in an undefined but necessary relationship that has sustained sports. The relationship may not have been the best and may not have helped to develop the industry as quickly and as profitably as several stakeholders believe is possible using the immense power and followership of sports, particularly football, but it has surely sustained sports.
My four decades of direct personal experiences within the system, makes me conclude that for the foreseeable future football, governments and business must go together, hand in hand, for the sports business to sprout and take a firm hold.
I observe that the call for governments, state and federal, to hands off the running of sports in the country is not backed by empirical evidence.
So, I want to look at the sector subjectively too, but through the lens of football.
The Nigerian environment may be peculiar.
Through the years, football clubs as successful businesses concerns have failed. That should provide an indication that something is not right with the present way of running things, and that the whole matter requires some deeper and more critical thinking beyond the chorus of empty, clarion calls.
Rather than delve into abstract theories and using examples from environments and cultures like the USA and the UK that are completely different from Nigeria’s to drive the argument for governments’ divorce from clubs, I want to use my experiences in one of the most popular football clubs in the country, a club that should ordinarily attract unprecedented followership and business, to wade through the labyrinthine perspectives that stand as obstacles for a different school of thought.
As there is no law that forbids any other individual or organization from setting up private clubs and running them to achieve what State governments have failed to do, I ask – what stops those that canvas for government’s divestment to set up their own and be successful so that they can be the new light?
The story at the end of the day is that several such private clubs were set up in the past. Every single one of them failed to become a successful venture. Name them, they all ‘died’ after a few years.
Beyond Ibadan and Shooting Stars SC, in other parts of the country, individuals set up private clubs. They include Abiola Babes FC, Alyufsalam Rocks, Raccah Rovers, Ranchers Bees, Asaba Textiles, etc. They all went onto extinction under the pressure of unidirectional funding – down a drain pipe. None could survive as a business, making profit to sustain itself.
Even Abiola Babes FC, owned and funded by the richest man in Africa in his time, had to be disbanded after serving its other political objective of promoting the man in African football. The same thing happened to Leventis United FC and even Stationary Stores Football Club. They were financially asphyxiated.
Without the power to attract massive followership as a result of their different kind of ownership structure, other clubs owned and funded by parastatals of the federal government also folded up – NEPA, Airways, P and T, Super Two, and so on and so forth.
The only clubs that have survived the Nigerian environment through decades in the country are the football clubs owned by State governments. That tells us something.
They have survived because, in every case, successive governments, even without understanding why they must do so, continued to put money into the venture that does not yield any financial dividends, and, yet, must continue to be funded. There is an inherent power within the clubs that makes it impossible for State governments to discontinue funding them. That is the power that must be identified and harnessed to fuel a feasible and authentic revolution in the business of football, and by extension, other sports, in Nigeria.
Bendel Insurance, Sharks of Port Harcourt, Kano Pillars, Shooting Stars, Enugu Rangers – it is a long list of these ‘perpetual’ clubs. They continue to exist despite the clarion calls by some stakeholders for the State governments to hands off their running and to allow private investors to take them over and start to run them professionally and profitably.
I once sat with a Governor of a State and listened to him lament the huge expenditure his government was ‘wasting’ on a football club that he did not identify with, had no sympathy for, would never be attracted to its matches for fear of being harassed by fanatical fans of the club should the team lose a match, and saw only as a financial burden and a drain pipe for his government. I asked him why he simply did not surrender the club to private ownership. He assured me he had tried to do so several times, and failed.
He had invited ‘experts’ to help sell the club, or to invest in it and take it over, to put it on the Nigerian stock exchange, to get private indigenes of the State to subscribe to it and take it over, and so on. Everything he tried failed, yet he could not get rid of the club because of its deep rooted ties to the people of the State and even beyond.
Most of the clubs funded by State governments are like that, more than mere clubs! From their genesis and history, they were founded on the basis of ethnic, cultural or even political agitations that sustain even till this day.
Rangers International was founded by the Igbo after the Civil War to achieve on the football field what they could not achieve on the battle field – a fast track to reabsorbing the Igbo into the mainstream of Nigerian life without the tag of a defeated army. The club ruled Nigerian football and extinguished any such thought.
The birth and rise of Rangers International kick-started a cultural and ethnic revolution that birthed Shooting Stars Football Club in Yorubaland, Raccah Rovers in Northern Nigeria, and, later, Bendel Insurance in the Midwest, Sharks FC and Calabar Rovers in the South-South, BCC Lions and Plateau United in the heart of the middle belt, and so on and so forth.
All these clubs had political, ethnic, cultural or nationalistic colourations.
Such clubs do not die. The State governments that gave rise to them found out they cannot simply hands-off them. The price for doing so would be downright catastrophic. Some Governors could actually lose elections or a huge chunk of political followership in the States.
So, if, as I have shown, these powerful clubs will continue to survive and will be funded by State governments, attitudes must change with fresh understanding about the relationship that must exist to help the clubs to eventually become profitable businesses.
Once again, State governments cannot simply wash their hands off the clubs established by them because, in reality, the clubs, funded with State money belong to the people of the States.
Every citizen of the State becomes a part owner and a stakeholder.
So, instead of City clubs that exist in some other places, Nigeria’s could be State Clubs. The foundations exist already. The main challenge is that the people do not presently see it that way and do not have the right attitudes to deal with the clubs.
In a new dispensation, States and the citizens would willingly embrace the idea of funding their clubs until the power of followership and patronage of the clubs’ programs and activities, even beyond the football game itself, become entrenched and large enough to attract external marketing opportunities and other social and commercial activities that will power the club’s turn around as cash cows and profitable businesses.
But this also can only be possible if the government allows experts and good corporate governance to take over in the running of the clubs. Governments must remove political considerations that diminish the influence of professionalism.
They must start to see football clubs as major social and economic contributors and allow professionals in the various arms of the industry to take charge.
This will encourage rich investors from home and abroad to come, invest and take the clubs beyond mere football playing entities, and build new outlets and activities that will yield additional revenue to the clubs using the power of their followership.