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At the start of the decade, league football in Nigeria found itself at a crossroads

fter a landmark court ruling in 2010 threw the Premier League into a state of chaos, an Interim Management Committee (IMC) was set up by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and tasked with reforming the league. It set about incorporating an independent administrative body and thus, in November 2012, the League Management Company (LMC) was born. The new body immediately went about the task of restructuring the league and has since then been in charge of its affairs.

However, despite an unbroken seven-year period since incorporation, the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) – under the auspices of the LMC – has failed to live up to its fullest potential and remains mired in incompetence and uncertainty. Concerns like stadium violence, poor welfare for players and match officials, an arbitrary football calendar, and fiscal corruption have not only stripped the league of colour and value, but have over time driven away sponsors and investors.

These have added up to a league that is professional in name alone. Even worse, those saddled with the responsibility of overseeing the league have been found wanting both administratively and in terms of basic accountability: despite being contacted, LMC Chairman Shehu Dikko has declined to comment on the concerns above, in much the same way that he does not seem to have the answers to the league’s many ills either.
 

MEDIA BLACKOUT

One of the issues that has plagued the league has been the inability of its organisers to hammer out a working broadcast strategy, a failing that has impeded not only its commercial potential, but its sporting progress.

In August 2013, the LMC announced it had signed a four-year television rights deal with satellite broadcaster Supersport from 2015 to 2019. The deal was reported to be worth $34m, of which Supersport paid a two-year advance of $4m as a sweetener to fund the running of the league. 

In 2017 though, two years shy of the expiration of the contract, Supersport announced it was pulling out of the agreement, ostensibly as a consequence of the prevailing economic situation in the country. The naira suffering against the dollar, combined with the absence of return on investment – the LMC were apparently not doing enough to market the league and drive viewership – meant it was not expedient for the partnership to continue. 

Since then, there have been a number of attempts aimed at getting the league back on screens, but despite grandiose announcements, none has culminated in anything concrete.

In November 2019, a flicker of light appeared to shine in the form of digital broadcaster Next TV, with whom the LMC auspiciously announced it had reached a joint venture agreement to the tune of $225m for a five-year period. “We are doing something that has never been done in Nigeria before,” said Dikko, “but it is a model that has worked and is still working elsewhere.”

Shehu Dikko

Per the terms, both parties would collaborate in terms of production, sales, distribution and commercialisation of content, with the live games broadcast first via OTT (Over The Top) transmission and subsequently made available to terrestrial and cable channels interested in purchasing rights.

However, despite the initial fanfare, there has to date been nothing concrete on the ground in terms of execution. Even more jarring is the absence of any form of accounting as concerns the financial aspects of the Next TV deal. In April 2020, Dikko blamed the lack of activation on the absence of production equipment (a curious explanation), claimed the LMC was still “working on getting the equipment” and stated that a mobile application had already been built for OTT transmission, implying the agreement was still in effect.

It came as a surprise then when, in early September 2020, yet another long-term joint venture partnership was signed, this time with UK sports marketing company Redstrike, to create a new company called NPFL Marketing. To summarise the long-winded, confusing communique that accompanied the announcement, the LMC has effectively outsourced its marketing and media, with a new platform – NPFL.tv – to be created for the streaming of live league matches. According to Dikko, this collaboration is “exactly what Nigerian football needs”; he referred to it as “ground-breaking” and extolled Redstrike’s “technical ability to deliver NPFL.tv”. It is worth noting that domain name remains inactive to date, and there is as yet no mobile app despite the league being slated to resume on December 27, 2020.

It is as yet unclear what Redstrike is paying for this privilege, or what effect this partnership has on the previous one with Next TV. Beyond figures in the press and on paper, where has the $225m from the latter company gone, and does that agreement no longer stand? Indeed, there has been no explanation whatsoever, official or otherwise.

This has led to a threat of legal action, with Next TV demanding over $18m in damages from the LMC for breach of contract in a letter dated September 30, 2020. “By your wanton breach of the agreement between (the LMC) and our client,” the letter reads, “you have not only caused a reversal of the gains the country has made in the recent past in relation to the development of our football league and industry, you have also caused our client enormous damages”. The letter also confirmed that Next TV had made financial commitments toward “infrastructure, hardware and software, and non-refundable deposits”.

 

DECADE-LONG TITLE SPONSORSHIP DEBACLE

Another area where a lack of transparency has severely undermined the league is in title sponsorships.

In 2017, the LMC announced it was moving away from having a designated title sponsor for the league. This decision, following the end of its affiliation with Mobile phone operator Globacom in 2015 and the futility of its search for a replacement in the ensuing two years, was with a view to “going for multiple sponsors based on exclusive categories as well as strategic partner(s),” according to Dikko. “Even the EPL in England have now dropped Barclays which used to be their title sponsor,” he said.

Interestingly, despite citing the Premier League as a model and trumpeting the benefits of eschewing a title sponsor in favour of a divested portfolio, title sponsorship does not, in itself, preclude associate sponsorships, so this was simply another case of muddled communication and cart-before-horse on the part of the league administrators.

In truth, their decision probably had more to do with a lawsuit instituted by a certain Total Promotions Limited (TPL).

Five years prior, TPL (on behalf of South African multinational telecommunications giant MTN) outbid Globacom, the second national phone operator, for the right to title sponsorship of the NPFL (known, at the time, as the Nigeria Premier League) for four years.

It was, however, far from an amicable victory: in January 2011, the NPL Congress, backed by the National Sports Commission (NSC), called for a fresh round of bidding, and TPL dragged both parties – as well as the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) – before the Federal High Court. What followed was a protracted legal tussle that lasted two years. During this period, not only was the league without a title sponsor, but its administration passed onto the newly-incorporated LMC.

For MTN, it was a case of deja vu.

Back in May 2003, MTN said the country’s football authority (then NFA) had accepted its offer of $2 million, spread over a four-year period, to sponsor the premier league.

“It is my pleasure to announce that the NFA has accepted our offer… (and) this is a turning point in the history of Nigerian sports,” then MTN chief executive officer Adrian Wood told reporters in Lagos. MTN said it planned to spend an additional $5million on promotional programmes associated with the premier league. But Globacom fired back, maintaining it had an existing contract with the NFA as the premier league sponsors.

Enyimba Usman Abd

Once the dust settled following the intervention of the country’s government, the local operators only won the battle but not the war.

As it was in 2003, so it was again in 2013. Erstwhile Sports Minister Bolaji Abdullahi, through a process of mediation between the feuding parties, eked out a Memorandum of Understanding between them in March: the title sponsorship would pass to Globacom, who would pay an undisclosed sum (later revealed to be N100 million) to TPL to cede the rights.

In May 2013, the LMC signed a title sponsorship agreement with Globacom for three years (2012/13 to 2014/15) to the tune of approximately $11.8m. In the same year, the LMC received a pay-out of $3.4m, from which it paid out $1.2m to the NPFL’s 20 clubs on a pro rata basis.

However, by mid-June, TPL repudiated the agreement in the MOU, claiming they had not received the agreed settlement and accusing the LMC of subterfuge in signing with and announcing Globacom as the new title sponsor. This sparked yet more litigation, carrying on through to 2015 when Globacom elected not to renew its sponsorship with the LMC.

The league administrator held preliminary talks with both Zenith Bank and Etisalat (now 9mobile), but with TPL publicly threatening to join any new title sponsor in the lawsuit, both companies ultimately developed cold feet.

The current attempt at a divestiture of the league’s sponsorship can, therefore, be seen for what it is: a disingenuous attempt at a workaround for a situation that remains a matter of jurisprudence.
 

LACK OF TRANSPARENCY PRESAGES BLEAK OUTLOOK 

Under Dikko, there are two clear failings: an inability to attract an appropriate scale of investment, but also a lack of accountability in the deals that are secured. The league has, in fact, attracted some sizeable sponsorships, but they do not trickle down to the clubs under their purview, who are still dependent of their respective state governments for sustenance.

This, in a way, is the crux of the problem, and the major area in which change can be driven. It may very well be necessary for state governments to surrender their interests in club football permanently, as under their purview, the clubs are more political tools than proper concerns, and are as such underfunded. A hard reset in this manner would force the LMC to buckle up, aware of their wider responsibility to the league, and would also serve as a driver for probity.

However, achieving this would require a deep rethink of the wider sports policy in Nigeria, notably in terms of the procedure by which leadership positions are decided, as well as a clear delineation of targets and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

The LMC’s governance of the league also leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, in light of poor welfare for match officials, match-fixing is a spectre that cannot be escaped. Similarly, there is a lack of will (or even moral standing, as clubs have not received any prize money since 2016, when Rangers International won the NPFL under Imama Amapakabo) when it comes to mandating security measures to stamp out violence in stadiums and in punishing misconduct and unsporting behaviour on the part of the clubs; and even in terms of club licensing, which is only now being enforced by the intervention of the sports ministry, despite being a part of the LMC’s statutes for many years.

Instead, under the current leadership of the LMC, a rampant culture of corruption and mismanagement continues to severely cripple football on the local scene.

Ultimately, until there exists the political will to stridently make a statement (or scapegoat) out of someone at the helm of affairs, these issues will likely persist.

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December 22, 2020
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