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The Rebirth of the Nigerian Premier League

Nigeria is a big footballing nation. After decades of mismanagement, its football governing body finally took a ‘big business’ approach to reforming the country’s premier league. This more conventional management and corporate structure has been a big determinant of the league’s recent success, says Promise Okwuchukwu.

For decades, the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), plagued by issues that ranged from a lack of accountability to unpaid salaries and corruption, drove the Nigerian Premier League – now the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) – into the ground. It even reached the point of being placed on suspension by the world football governing body, Federation Internationale Football de Association (FIFA).

The NPL is a notable organ in African football, even though little can be said of its administrative strength and influence. Match-day fixtures were uncertain and venues were frequently interrupted by thugs from the stands or the technical benches entering the field of play to influence match proceedings, which sometimes ended on a bloody note. Match participants and fans were potentially at risk owing to the lack of adequate security. As a result, the NPL was not taken seriously by enthusiasts and participants alike.

Most of its venues were unfit to host football matches. Club grounds had pitch surfaces that were not fit for play. The structures were dilapidated and some lacked the basic stadia necessities, such as floodlights, closed circuit television (CCTV) systems and adequate safety measures such as crowd-control wardens, police personnel and fire control services. Participating both on and off the field of play, whether as a player, administrator or enthusiast, meant that one had to have nerves of steel.

Furthermore, clubs were operated by state governments, leaving little room for competition or innovation. These underfunded governments had to sort out more pressing matters before the players’ meagre salary was even considered. Players would routinely be owed salaries for months, which sometimes culminated in strikes and boycotts.

Teams had to travel by road as airborne transport was not an option for an unprofitable league. Even historically famous teams like Enyimba, Kano Pillars and Rangers FC have been victims of highway misfortunes such as robbery and theft.

Nigerian fans ready to watch the match between the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire at Sekondi stadium on 21st January 2008. Photo by Oluniyi David Ajao

Players had to either juggle between football and other kinds of businesses or seek greener pastures elsewhere as the league could not meet their demands. These situations often told on players’ professional lives and affected the quality of the league as a whole.

The gains of privatisation

However, in 2013, there appeared a glimpse of hope for the league when the NFF commissioned a League Management Committee (LMC), headed by marketing and development strategy expert Shehu Dikko. The committee was determined to undertake the challenge of reorganising the topmost tier of professional football in Nigeria.

One major effort taken by the LMC was establishing a framework to guide the management of football clubs and following it up with action. For instance, clubs that failed to turn up for matches were appropriately penalised in accordance with the league’s framework. Clubs now had a feel of what it meant to be chaired by a body that could not only bark but bite as well.

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After establishing a framework, the LMC went ahead to rebrand the league by changing its name to the NPFL. It further signed a three-year contract with one of Africa’s biggest indigenous telecommunications companies, Globacom, which became the league’s title sponsor after years without one.

As a reward for its efforts, the league was rated the fourth best in Africa, and 56th in the world, by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) in 2013 after just 12 months of operation.

The LMC’s consistency also brought about corporate interest in professional club football. Notable individuals like Senate President Bukola Saraki, General Overseer of Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries D K Olukoya, and oil mogul Ifeanyi Ubah have all invested in club football as a business venture. More recently, Puma signed a five-year deal with Abubakar Bukola Saraki FC.

Nigeria’s forward Victor Moses (R) celebrates with an unidentified member of the Nigerian Football Federation after scoring a goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup African zone group B qualifying football match between Nigeria and Algeria at the Akwa Ibom State Stadium in Uyo on November 12, 2016. / Photo: AFP /ANP/ PIUS UTOMI EKPEI

For the first time the NPFL saw the introduction of foreign professionals such as FC Ifeanyi Ubah’s Brazilian duo: coach Raphael Everton and central midfielder Alberico Da Silva. Others include European coaches like Ard Sluis of the Warri Wolves, Theo De Jong of Ikorodu United and Maurice Cooreman of Ikorodu United.

The commercialisation of the NPFL

In 2016, the LMC jettisoned the title-naming model that gave Globalcom exclusive title rights for a more robust category of partners, which included telecommunications, automobile, banking, beverage, broadcast and equipment partners. The projected revenue from the new model will see the NPFL rake in a whopping USD20  million in the 2016/17 season.

Read: Nigerian Football Crises deepens

Before the LMC takeover of 2012/13 calendar season, title champions received a payout of N5 million. This was not guaranteed, and players’ salaries were nothing to write home about. However, the sum has since increased tenfold. Rangers FC’s basic payout as champions for the 2015/16 season added up to N90 million, while top players like FC Ifeanyi Ubah’s Godwin Obaje and Ikechukwu Ezenwa, and Alhassan Ibrahim of Akwa United receive between N600 000 and N2 million monthly.

During the same period, the numbers of serious disciplinary actions in the NPFL declined to the bare minimum, while public followership has recorded a boost.

Nigeria’s Super Falcons celebrate winning the women’s Africa Cup of Nations for the eighth time. Photo: Twitter

The LMC has also made an unflinching commitment to collaborate with the media, taking the bold step in 2016 to source for the broadcast of NPFL matches in the United Kingdom on a pay-per-view/live-streaming model. This will kick off soon.

Another ground-breaking achievement on the part of the LMC has been the consummation of a partnership deal between the NPFL and Spain’s La Liga. The deal was widely hailed, nationally and internationally. This established a rapport between the two parties, which has resulted in a playing tour of Spain by the NPFL’s best, a training programme for club staff, and a partnered collaboration in the NPFL’s Under-15 league, modelled after the La Liga’s Promisas. There has also been the awarding of a €54 000 grant and sporting materials to the El Kanemi Warriors for the internally displaced women and children affected by the Boko Haram insurgency.

The deal also contributed to the signing of Super Eagles and Enyimba FC fringe player Ezekiel Bassey to FC Barcelona’s Team B side on a six-month loan with the option of a three-year deal, based on his end-of-season performance.

In 2016, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Solomon Dalung, described the event as ‘a new page in the history of football administration in Nigeria’.

A new page

Nearly four years after the LMC’s takeover, it entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with NASD OTC, a securities and exchange firm, to help list NPFL clubs on the stock market. The first phase of the scheme will involve eight clubs and will be completed by August 2017.

In line with the LMC’s vision for football development in Nigeria, it has issued several millions of naira in solidarity payments to other leagues and football unions across the country. In conjunction with FIFA, the LMC re-introduced a Domestic Transfer Matching System (DTMS) to eliminate ownership tussles among clubs and eradicate contractual disputes. Now, all player contracts and information will be electronically lodged in the DTMS to ensure full financial transparency.

Thanks to the LMC’s continued determination, many who had detested its birth have since showered it with encomiums. The LMC has also allayed the risk of investing in the league as its coordinated approach towards management and corporate governance has spurred the growth and development that was lacking in the past.

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