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A Journey Through African Football Part III: Commercialization in Africa

African football

Photo: Shaffih Dauda

Football is part and parcel of African identity but this has been forged under tumultuous circumstances. This is the last of KingFut’s three-part series that delves inside the love story between and football. Enjoy the read and be sure to leave your comments below.

If you missed the earlier parts of our journey, here are the previous instalments for your pleasure. Catch up with us

Part I: The origins of football in Africa and its role in the struggle against colonial rule

Part II: The death of domestic leagues in Africa

In the last decade or so, we have been inundated by the narrative of ‘ Rising’. Whether you buy into this or hold reservations, something happened in this same period unlike it has ever happened before. South won the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. They beat a pool made exclusively of African bids.

During that time there practically only two bids; South Africa and Morocco. Egypt, ultimately, got no votes in the 2004 selection of the host while Libya was disqualified after their joint bid with Tunisia fell through. A lot has changed since then, We now live in a world where Equatorial Guinea can step in as an emergency host of the Africa Cup of Nation, on short notice.

Photo: Gallo Images/Getty Images

What has happened in that space of time is that has come to embrace commercialisation. First, let us get it out of the way that any remaining aspect of the “good old days” of football have to cede to the present and the future- commercialisation. You have already read about the failings of public-funded or community football here in Africa. We do have the vestiges of these failed experiments in community football clubs.

They are our darling clubs in Africa but they reveal a few reasons why our football keeps lagging behind. Almost all of them are held back by politicization of club administration. They lack accountability in their finances and prioritize sustainability over profitability.

But even in the face of these inadequacies, more money keeps flowing into African football as it should. After all, like in everything, Africa is the last frontier. The sports industries of other continents are much more mature. They do not have as much room for growth when compared to Africa. Therefore, it is plausible that by the flow of time alone, Pele’s prediction of an African World Cup winner will be realized, but let us not get ahead of ourselves.

We are still only starting to exploit football as an economic activity. To grasp just how far behind we are, you should be aware that the football industry generates $28 billion in revenue. $22 billion of this is from Europe alone. Africa trails all other confederations with the exception of Oceania. That region where New Zealand is a powerhouse. The good news is that our continent keeps recording little victories that will ultimately add up to something great.

Sponsorship, which is the fastest growing segment of football revenue globally, keeps piling up in Africa. It has become the norm to see side-pitch advertising boards in fixtures of the region. This was not the case only a few years back. Firms, in and out of Africa, are beginning to appreciate the value of building partnerships with associations, club and fans in the continent. It is not quite as sophisticated as in the case of one Manchester United Football Club, but they have discovered that they can increase brand awareness or drive sales up through these partnerships. The new partnership between and a major oil company has been the biggest win in this area. The deal will see cash prizes increased for a host of CAF competitions. It’s important that this type of commercial revenue continue being exploited since the other avenues are proving difficult to exploit.

One of these is gate collection. In truth, the revenue from this is negligible for most of African football, its deprivation has had adverse effects, though, in regions where a lot of  money has historically been raised from ticket sales; Egypt and Tunisia are such places. After the Arab spring, and the tragedy in Port Said, it’s not been a coincidence that, increasingly, the leading lights of domestic league football in Africa keep losing players to Europe and the Gulf. The positive effects that this may bring notwithstanding.

Those events forced authorities to either ban fans completely or limit the numbers allowed to attend matches. It is true that these countries have developed their football just enough to deal with this conundrum but the harm is felt all the same.

The other avenue is from broadcast. The good news is that African football is on TV and it’s being broadcasted by African media. For example, seven African leagues are broadcasted at the continental platform by a South African pay TV company. Unfortunately, there’s plenty going against growth of African football on TV that radical ideas may be needed in the near future to stem the tide.

For one, the broadcast is competing against European football that is ever seeking new regions to colonize. Today it’s the Asians but tomorrow, when the hyped African middle class is competitive at the global level, it will be Africa. What is shocking is that even at this nascent stage of being exploited, the mind of the African fan seems to have been completely captured by European football. It’s nascent because, within our time frame, we have only seen European clubs come to Africa to play in Egypt, South Africa or the Maghreb. That is a total of five countries, where ironically the domestic leagues are strongest.

It’s worrying. African football can’t go toe-to-toe with Europe. Already, broadcast in our continent has to schedule well to avoid collision with key European fixtures. Even CAF itself has to host its cash cow, Africa Cup of Nations, every other year to generate meaningful revenue. Do not forget that the AFCON recently shifted to odd years to avoid being overshadowed.

Broadcast is a formidable marketing tool for football. It is for this reason that the continent must review its ideas of improving this industry. Inevitably, when broadcast deals in Europe plateau they will show more aggressiveness in exploiting the overseas deals. The right direction for Africa will be to insulate itself like China is trying, and of course the US accomplished, by building an industry focused onto itself.

We are already witnessing steps in this direction. CAF’s call for the implementation of club licensing standards has gotten louder and they finally expanded the CAF Champions League and the CAF Confederations Cup. Infrastructure is also improving. Disregard the fact that they are cavernous bowls with running tracks. Yes, some people may have reservations on China’s scheme of building stadia on the continent in exchange for “things” but the end justifies the means, no? Chinese stadium diplomacy has been behind five of the last six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. We remain grateful.

Still, it is far from a job well done. At the moment the continent is obsessing over transfer of players to Europe, this is old news. Former CAF president, Yidnekachew Tessema already warned about Africa “remaining the eternal suppliers of raw materials to the premium countries.” Another misdirection of focus is the fight for two spots in an expanded World Cup. Is it really a win for two more teams devoid of chemistry, with a foreign coach at the helm, to go celebrate a round of 16 finish?

I have dedicated part of my time in this bad world to following African football. From CECAFA to WAFU, COSAFA to UNAF & even the forgotten UNIFFAC.

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