The current pandemic has affected all areas of life and the sporting world is no exception. Football, being one of the most popular sports, has felt the effects of social distancing and travel bans more keenly than most.
Football teams have had to adjust tremendously in structural, training, and business strategies. For example, “working from home” was left in the hands of the individual players, who had to take the necessary measures and stay physically fit. Other teams have taken extra measures to engage their players through video conferencing and webinars to monitor their progress and mental wellness. Social media platforms have become essential as the only way fans can engage and connect with their favorite teams, who have to go the extra mile to create content or replay past games and events that will keep their followers entertained.
Football is a multi-billion-dollar industry with probably millions of people, especially talented youths, making a living out of it. Many other people benefit from either business transactions in the industry or other connections. These others include the families of footballers, the beneficiaries of different charity programs ran by football teams and footballers, and the community that gets proper infrastructure due to football events and activities. With this in mind, we can understand why the football industry is worth billions of dollars, why players are paid huge sums of money as salaries and transfer fees, and finally, why football is referred to as the “world’s game”.
I followed the changes following the pandemic and how they have affected normal activities starting with the halt of live games.
Football clubs make money because they play on the field to entertain fans and to compete for a prize. The lack of live matches means fewer revenues and less relevance. Therefore, clubs have had to go back to the drawing board and think of a strategy to either generate revenue in the current situation or save money to avoid making losses. The most obvious strategy, and the one that was employed by many clubs around the world, was to ask players to give up a percentage of their normal salaries. In Europe, this strategy was approached with much caution due to the sophisticated player contracts and the legal issues involved. But let us turn our attention to my motherland, Africa.
Africa is regarded as a goldmine for football talent. Football agents from top clubs flock to the continent searching for its stars. Their job is usually very easy as they are always spoilt for choice. But even with the rich talent we have, and all the attention we get from the football giants in Europe, the African football industry is struggling. Only a handful of the leagues in Africa can sustain themselves and provide a meaningful livelihood for the youths across the continent. Many African clubs, even in the top leagues, do not have financial freedom.
So we are struggling, but with all the talent and brains, we ought to be somewhere on the map. Although not at the level of Europe or other continents, Africa’s football industry can be much better than it is now.
Recently, I felt quite hurt by the stringent measures taken by many clubs. In my home country, Kenya, more than half of the topflight clubs suspended salaries for their players after the Coronavirus pandemic hit. I’m not blaming the management of these clubs. Maybe they are not able to sustain the salaries; or they have plans for the future, or maybe it is a decision of the sponsors, considering that many clubs are owned by corporate companies (another unfortunate model employed in African football).
But what happens to the players who must live and provide for their families, and why do they have to live with uncertainty every time financial decisions are made? The answer is simple: African clubs do not make as much money as they should; they are not as enthusiastic as those in other regions of the world.
Look at the world’s richest football league, the English Premier League. More specifically, let us focus on broadcasting and media rights. The premier league clubs get a chunk of their annual revenues from broadcasting rights. Two local channels (BT sports and Sky sports) and more than 30 international channels pay huge sums of money to air English top tier matches. The interesting part is the structure of payment, which is well planned and thought through to enable each team to get a fair piece of the cake.
First, each team gets an equal amount from the Premier League referred to as “equal share”. Then we have the “facility fee” which is paid out to teams according to the number of live matches broadcast in the entire season. Thirdly, they have the “merit fee”, which is distributed according to the position of each team in the league table after the season is concluded.
Next, they have the “international TV rights” coming from broadcasting of Premier League matches by channels outside of the UK. Lastly, there are the “central commercial revenues” shared equally, and this is money generated from advertisements and promotions in the entire league.
In the season 2018-2019 Huddersfield received the least amount, which still amounted to approximately £96,000,000. Remember, clubs also have their commercial revenues like ticket sales, merchandise, transfer fees, image rights, sponsorships, and many others. La Liga in Spain has a slightly different structure but still makes a lot.
If this is the ideal scenario, if every league is racing to beat the premier league in terms of revenues, then it means Africa has not taken off yet. With the current operations and practices in African football, those figures will take us ages to realize. We cannot be compared with the European football market, neither can we commercialize our football industry like theirs immediately, but we can start.
Several leagues and clubs are making an effort. Al Ahly SC of Egypt, for example, has a TV channel called Al Ahly TV that airs the club’s matches and bought rights for showing English Premier league matches one hour after they commence. And we all know how the football league in South Africa is developing into a multi-million industry and attracting the corporate world to invest in their league. But still more must be done. African football leagues and clubs need to be aggressive to commercialize the industry and take it to the next level.
When I ask people why European football is so popular in Africa, why we drop everything in our schedule to watch those big teams in Europe, I get answers pointing to infrastructure, quality, entertainment, flashiness and so on. I agree with all these answers, but in my opinion these are not the reasons why we chose European football over ours. We have some good stadiums in Africa, though not as good as the ones in the Western world; we do have quality talent, we can shoot high-quality live matches, our football is entertaining at times, and we do have some local fans who would love to watch local games not only in the stadium but on TV.
The main reason people watch a lot of European football is because it is highly available. No one ever struggles to watch a premier league match or a Bundesliga match or any other top league game. They are always there and easily accessible. Markets are flooded with jerseys from various teams, corner to corner. The European leagues have a massive presence on social media with up-to-date information about the matches and the players. They trigger people’s passion for football. They use the “you want it, you get it” approach.
Why would thousands of fans, after watching a thrilling El Classico match (Real Madrid Vs Barcelona) stay up late to follow a Levante Vs Granada game (with much respect to these teams)? Or why would fans after watching a heavy London derby of Arsenal vs Tottenham still sacrifice their sleep to watch a Sheffield vs Aston Villa game? It’s because people want to watch football. The “get it when you want it” approach has worked for the Western world and it is evident that’s the reason they are so successful; they have a following and they are able to monetize that.
African clubs are not far off. They can catch up and consolidate their following. In Kenya, it is close to impossible for a fan to watch a local game unless they go to the stadium. I remember sitting in an IT class and the lecturer taught us about the “two-click rule”. If a user in a system must go through more than two steps to get information, then the system is not user friendly. If fans must search everywhere for local games, when they cannot watch the matches from their comfort zone, they will look for the available alternative. They do get the alternative in the top leagues of the world which, though expensive, will always be available for them anytime.
Many say we are short of resources. I say we start and get them as we move. Yes, we have solutions for connecting with our fans, creating a following, and building a brand. We cannot get the big broadcasting rights like European clubs; we cannot be on the same commercial level, but if we start small and use the basics at our doorsteps, we can grow big in no time. Africa will be a giant in football.
I’ve focused a lot on the financial side of football, which is the aspect I’m most conversant with. However, I must emphasise that it is not all about the money. It’s about avoiding something similar to brain drain, where we lose talented and skilled people to foreign countries, only because they feel their talent is wasted should they stay back home.
If football thrives in Africa as a valued and readily available form of entertainment, as well as a profession through which someone can sustain his family and build his community, then it will no longer be looked at merely as a springboard to greener pastures in Europe. African footballers will be proud to play for Africa, in Africa, and to entertain the world from Africa.