By Fred Edoreh
Recently, the League Management Company engaged club owners for solutions to steer the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), post COVID-19 lockdown, but it was greeted with the familiar misinformation by people who wanted a return to the old order of the Nigeria Football League Limited (NFLL). They suggested that the only way to advance the NPFL is a return to the NFLL deals that left the league in squalor until the League Management Company (LMC) came to rescue it.
Inimically praying for the failure of the current broadcast and commercialization partnership with NEXT Digital TV and even calling on club owners “to rise up” against the LMC, they conveniently hid the fact that the old Nigeria Football League Limited (NFLL) ran a transaction in which the league broadcaster paid $5.4m per season to a middleman who only pinched N150m (barely $1m at the time) to the league and its 20 clubs and kept $4.4m as profit.
At a point, the league could no longer fulfil its obligations, including indemnities for match officials, as it revolved in indebtedness to the agent which lent it money just to keep it afloat to enable collection of new season payment from which the old season debts were further deducted from its bare bones.
Even before the first tenure of the TV deal was due, the NFLL jumped to knot the niggardly arrangement till 2022 and moved to further expand the rapacity by considering to award the title sponsorship of the league to same middleman for far lower than what was actually asked of a telecommunications company on pitch.
Ironically, because of the possible private benefits its leaders enjoyed from the skews, the tussle for succession became so feisty that the protracted multiple disputes in several courts boomeranged with a judicial declaration that the NFLL was not incorporated correctly, thus unknown to law and therefore an illegal body.
That declaration led the NFF, the clubs and the sports ministry to seek a different legitimate vehicle to save the league. Thus was the League Management Company Limited (LMC) birthed as a non-profit organisation acting in the interest of the participating clubs in the NPFL and also the NFF as is the case with the FA Premier League Limited in the UK and various European countries?
The LMC came into being in 2013 and quickly salvaged the league from the obnoxious transactions of the NFLL by eliminating the middle man and negotiating directly with the league broadcaster to free up the full value of the rights which it raised to USD $8m per season (paid directly to the league), with effect from 2015, but with advance payments to keep the league afloat while it smartly left the broadcaster to fulfil its old contract to avoid encumbering the league with disruptive legal entanglements.
Still, some hirelings with false claims as players’ representatives wrote to threaten the broadcaster with legal actions if it discarded the old deal for the new one. The broadcaster did not bulge and thus followed a staccato of sponsored litigations and petitions.
Over seven different cases with one even at the Supreme Court are still pending while about twenty others have failed or been dismissed by the courts. The renewed attack on the LMC/NEXT TV deal is therefore not a surprise.
Despite the onslaughts, the LMC has resiliently steered the league away from the ugly past in which clubs were tasked to pay participation and players’ registration fees, insurance, provide match balls, and pay match indemnities and other charges.
Now, the clubs register at no cost and receive various pay outs and bonuses depending on inflow of revenue while the LMC provides insurance, match day branding, official match balls, media presence, indemnities and various other organisational costs.
This is in addition to ensuring the league is operated on the foundation of a world class Rule Book and framework on club licensing regulations and seamless enforcement and adjudication processes, besides the introduction of Domestic Transfer matching System – DTMS in partnership with FIFA (the first league in Africa to do so) which optimized the transfer system, among several other innovative strategies to move the league forward.
As it strengthened the broadcast, corporate trust, transparent distribution of funds to clubs and heightened match day experiences to create a boom in match attendance and social media following, Nigerians witnessed and still testify to that revival which reverberated in improved and impressive spectatorships in various centres, from Enugu to Kano, Lagos, Aba, Bauchi, Owerri, Ibadan, Akure and others.
That there has been a lull in the 2018 and 2019 NPFL seasons in terms of pay-outs to clubs was because the broadcast partner withdrew, not because the LMC dropped the ball but because of exogenous factors like high cost of production logistics and low advertising patronage, not excluding the drop in the value of Naira-To-Dollar and the flux of competitive new technology platforms not distinctly captured in the contract.
Challenged to seek alternative strategies to produce the league contents for TV, the LMC found no indigenous Nigerian company with the technical and financial capacity to step in. Even the attempt to partner the national network to fill in the gap failed due to the sorry fact that, for years, there was no investment to boost its capacity.
So, through the years, our league has been groping with handicap in the intense, pitiless competition. Even when the league had TV partners, only one or two matches were transmitted live per match day whereas, for the league to optimise revenue, all ten matches should be on TV.
It has been estimated that Nigeria loses over $200m annually to the foreign leagues through fans consumption of their products and endorsements by local brands.
While, for example, the CAF Champions League rakes in only about $30m annually, Africa should be concerned that the UEFA Champions League taps over €300m from the region alone. With Nigeria as their premium market, the top foreign clubs harvest even more.
Understanding the trend, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, instructively initiated a review of the National Broadcast Code to push advertising and sponsorship support for domestic sports. Even at that, the products have to be available in the right quality, reason why he is also seeking funds to re-equip the Nigeria Television Authority to be able to produce quality, internationally marketable contents and buy rights on sports and entertainment properties to retain large audience, attract advertisements and sponsorships and deliver profit for steady innovations and expansion.
The football family in Nigeria, in a move championed by the LMC leadership has severally taken this message to the Federal Government Economic Management Team (EMT), Nigeria Economic Summit Group, and the Central Bank, the Sovereign National Wealth Fund, the organised private sector and even foreign investors through a deliberate program code named “Football Means More”.
“Football Means More” is a comprehensive blue print of the LMC outlining strategies for legislation, investment, infrastructure, promotion, protection and general support required to jumpstart and situate domestic football as a key contributor to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Nigerian Economy as obtained in other jurisdictions, articulating the roles of various stakeholders in the process and identifying the potentials and outcomes for partners and investors.