I was a member of the Professional Football Implementation Committee that developed and established the policies and the structures for the takeoff and running of the professional league in Nigeria. The committee designed a business template for football that other sports could take pages from as they all began the transition from amateur to professional status. This was the essential transition that would kick start an authentic football (and sports) industry in Nigeria.
That was in 1990.
The committee, mostly funded by the chairman, late Industrialist, Chief Nathaniel Idowu, did the greater part of their research, planning and scripting of the guidelines for running the professional league in the office of the English FA in London, using the English Premier League as a working model.
Engineer Remi Asuni and POC Achebe were the main architects, the rest of us added our understanding of the peculiarities of the local Nigerian situation, to produce a visionary and simple document, which, if well implemented, would create a functional and viable professional league of business-oriented clubs that would fuel a very successful football industry.
The projection was that within 10 years there would be a full-blown professional league birthing a football industry that will catalyse the growth of a sports industry in Nigeria. In 10 years local players would no longer need to seek greener pastures in mushroom leagues abroad in countries even poorer than Nigeria in every way. Nigerian football would be on global television, almost as beautiful to watch as any league in Europe or South America. Foreign players would be attracted to the country’s league by the incentives that clubs would offer. And so on. Those were the dreams.
The basic ingredients needed to achieve these were on ground already – exceptionally gifted local players, a great national economy to fuel the industry, very big local clubs with a large and passionate followership of the clubs and the game. Everything was there on ground except excellent football fields to play on, and the will to follow the guidelines as laid out by the league board to run the clubs as business concerns.
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The ownership structure of most of the clubs made things difficult. Governments owned them. They were, therefore, not designed for corporate business, which is what the clubs needed.
Local clubs needed to grow into mega clubs, and there were quite a few at that time that had all the basic ingredients for that transition but were hurdled by the structure of their ownership, and not having enough guidance in terms of information and education on how to go about converting government-owned clubs to business entities. The situation only needed a little tweaking of the subsisting mentality, a new control structure, clear responsibilities, set goals, a clearer vision of the future, and a simple road map to a proper football business organisation.
The success of football clubs would drive the success of the professional body responsible for organising them – the Professional League Board (later, the LMC).
But it should have a matter of the dog (the clubs) wagging their tails (the board), and not the tails wagging the dogs, as is the case now under the present operating structure. The clubs should own the board that organised them, and they should be doing so well as businesses that they would ‘feed’ the professional league board and make it stronger and better to deliver on its management role.
The board was not meant to be making money and sharing it to the clubs at their discretion and as handouts, paying themselves outrageous wages and emoluments that make them benefit more than the owners. All are staff, supervisors and managers of the league.
The success of the clubs was to be the key to the success of the football industry in our projections 30 years ago. And the success of the clubs was not dependent at all on the League board. The clubs were entirely separate entities and outside of the football field and technical matters, they had no business with the league board or the football federation.
Understanding this does not require rocket science. The examples we see everyday in the well-established football cultures in the world are a clear indication of what works and would work even for Nigeria with its special peculiarities in history, culture, manpower, philosophy and national economy.
The formulae for success that we established in 1990 were so simple that they were too good to be true – empowering the local clubs to become businesses and to succeed – that clubs took them for granted, circumvented the guidelines and ran their affairs along the same old familiar lines, pinning their fortunes to the apron of the League board. More recently the board has metamorphosed into a new body, the LMC, a private enterprise whose creation promised a great deal, but continues to deliver mostly in promise and in words. The LMC inadvertently took most responsibility away from clubs to become independent businesses, and now burdens itself with responsibility to make the clubs viable through the limited sponsorships it attracts to the league. It is a body whose ownership, powers, roles and responsibilities are still shrouded in secrecy. The clubs should own it, but don’t. Those who hold its shares in truth do not render accounts to it. The big question is this: Who should own the LMC if its purpose is to manage the professional league of clubs? It is important to do a forensic of its ownership structure and x-ray its powers.
Like all the other football leagues in the world, the greatest source of revenue remains television. Without television no league can succeed as a big business. This aspect is the one area where clubs and the professional league board must come together and work out an arrangement that makes the clubs the greater beneficiary of the revenue derivable from TV and all the other league sponsorships. The board cannot dictate to the clubs. The clubs will decide amongst themselves and with the advise of the board how best to share this essential revenue.
Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have a good television coverage culture, with their bad pitches, limited capacity to cover matches, and insecurity in some parts of the country. That’s why its league is not attracting the kind of revenue Nigerian football should command in the global space. So, selling the league has become a huge challenge for the LMC.
The clubs, therefore, must return to their primary source of revenue, running their own businesses. That’s where information and education are critical.
The clubs were to be registered as corporate entities. They were to engage in businesses using the image, name and infrastructure of the clubs and its players. They must generate revenue from several sources in order to grow and run their football clubs.
Each club would create it’s own business stream but mostly in the leisure, tourism, travel, entertainment and hospitality sub-sectors, building a huge market base of followers, clients, sponsors, patrons and subscribers.
It is important that each club should take a business course on Ajax Amsterdam FC and its Arena. It is a great case study for guidance into the business of club football.
The club is a city-club owned by the inhabitants of the city of Amsterdam. The people of the city subscribe to the club as fans and shareholders. They built and own their stadium, along with private investors and sponsors, and its various facilities and infrastructure for sports and business. Within the Arena complex (and even outside its immediate orbit) they run a money-making machine of small and big businesses that keep the facility running and making money 7 days a week, all-year round. The football played once every two weeks at the Arena is the least activity within the complex. Its match tickets attract the most audience to the facility but earns only a small fraction of the overall revenue and profit. The greater revenue and profit come from estates, hotels, casinos, restaurants, eateries, conferences centres, paying visitors, theatres, merchandising, manufacturing, gaming centres, and so on and so forth, that are a part of this huge conglomerate.
That is the football business. Football clubs now run television and radio stations, football academies in foreign countries, transport businesses, publications, and so on and so forth. The football played on the field and the superstar players in the club are the ambassadors and facilitators of all these businesses.
To understand this is to understand where we are in Nigerian football 30 years after the professional league was established and why players are still slaves.
It is not the primary responsibility of the football federation or the professional league board to take care of the players in the Nigerian domestic professional league. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the clubs, period.
Since the clubs are not making money the way they should, the players become the victims. Since clubs are not running their affairs like proper businesses as they should, they cannot become successful and take care of their players.
Clubs have to wake up to the reality that they are solely responsible for the poverty and enslavement of Nigerian players in the domestic leagues.
They must take the guidelines that instructs them to be private corporate entities establishing businesses outside of just playing football and waiting for allocations, seriously.
This enslavement must stop. For 30 years it has sustained. Some things need to change and must change.
In summary, no club is being run properly as a business as described above. No club has a stream of revenue generating arms. No club is into lucrative businesses like estates, oil and gas, communications, production, hospitality, media, and so on, all aside from football.
In 30 years, it is hard to find even a single club that can claim to be a successful business entity. Most do not even do any business. With only a few exceptions, most are professional clubs only in name.
Several clubs have the potential but have been prevaricating and hesitating to go the whole hog and plunge into the world of investments, turning their gold mines into good fortune. Many existing clubs have great potential to become mega clubs, do good and establish successful businesses.
The way the LMC has gone about it so far has not succeeded in making the clubs act as they should. There is a need for a new way of achieving that objective.
Football in Nigeria is slave labour. The players at home, on the average, must be earning some of the least wages of footballers in the world. That speaks volumes.
Attention should, therefore, now be on the clubs, henceforth, with the LMC and private business consultants guiding them carefully and respectfully through the maze of the business world. There are present clubs that can become mega clubs and assume their roles and responsibilities in the development of an authentic football industry, and by extension, a Sports Industry in Nigeria, where footballers would be kings and not slaves!
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