It is time for local sports leadership to wake up from the slumber

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By Isaac swila

Long before the emergence of betting and gaming firms in, the local sports landscape was that of squalor. Not only was the industry financially starved but clubs, federations and associations also struggled to make ends meet. Cases of teams failing to fly out to world capitals to honour championships and tournaments were common phenomena – they still are.

On the football scene, it was usual, or rather normal to find players trekking to training for lack of fare as others were locked out of their residences for defaulting on rent payment were plenty.

Well, it’s not that the gaming industry has done some magic. On the contrary, the leagues, associations, clubs and even players continue to struggle. However, some progress has been made however little, thanks to the coming on board of these gaming firms who, as opposed to their blue chip counterparts, have been too eager to embrace sports.

Though the gaming firms have been loud enough in explaining that their vision of delving into sports is to help the industry grow, it is no brainer that the only logical way for them to penetrate the market is to embrace the industry.

Looked at differently, prior to the birth of leading local betting firm, SportPesa, only telecommunications firms Safaricom and Airtel , and  beer  firm Kenya Breweries Limited had exhibited some affinity for Sports.

Airtel have, in the past, been actively engaged in sponsoring the school games through the “Airtel Rising Stars”. Brookside Dairies have also been a major partner as far the school games is concerned.

Safaricom, on the other hand, were proudly associated with the defunct Sakata Ball Challenge –  a grassroots talent  search initiative which  caused a lot of excitement in the football scene, only to fold under unclear circumstances owing to differences with the then Sam Nyamweya led Football Kenya Federation.

On the national scale, clubs and even federations continue with the struggle to attract sponsorship.

After a long lull, it was the Kenya Breweries Limited, through their Tusker brand which came to the rescue of the Kenyan Premier League entering into a title sponsorship with the latter in 2012 after signing a three year deal valued at Sh170 million, which handed them the league naming rights. This deal expired in June 2015, creating room for betting firm SportPesa to jump at the chance.

Buoyed by their financial muscle, Sportpesa inked a five-year deal valued at Sh450 million which will expire in 2019.

Apart from becoming the KPL title sponsors, SportPesa, buoyed by its grand scheme and expansion tendencies have entered into other lucrative   partnerships with Kenyan Premier League giants Gor Mahia (Sh320 million), AFC Leopards (Sh200 milion), Nakuru All Star (Sh20 milion), the Kenya Rugby Union (Sh660 million), and even the Boxing Association of Kenya.

These partnerships have been hailed as good measures aimed at improving the status of sports in Kenya.

Simply put, sports and finance cannot be separated. Sports need finance to grow and likewise, the finances need a platform through which to multiply and there is no better avenue other than sports.

It is due to this that SportPesa has been in a no-holds-barred move pulling all strings to ensure that they have the market under their feet and seemingly, they have succeeded.
However, unbeknown to some, is the fact that hardly had the inks dried on these deals than the ambitious SportPesa firm went west inking sweetened deals with Hull City, an English football club which participated in English top tier last term before falling to the relegation axe to the second tier– the championship.

Under the deal with the Tigers, Hull City stands to get Sh400 million annually during the three- year life span of the contract, taking home a total sum of around Sh1.2 billion; though there are reports that the figure could be revised downwards in the wake of their relegation.

In a statement late last year after the signing of the deal, Hull hailed the partnership as the “most solid and best ever in their long but proud history”, leaving no doubt to the fat sums they had taken to their bank accounts.

It did not end there though as SportPesa went ahead to sign a more lucrative deal with Everton recently which will see the Toffees claim £75 million in the five years that the partnership will stand.

Hailing the move, Everton CEO Robert Elstone said: “We’re pleased to have secured the biggest commercial partnership deal in the club’s history with an ambitious and growing global company. From the outset, we have been impressed by SportPesa and the company’s plans for the future.

“SportPesa are committed to significant investment not only into Everton through this partnership but also in the city as they open up a new European Headquarters that creates new jobs in Liverpool. The Liverpool office will give SportPesa the chance to engage with supporters through a number of fan activities and we look forward to an exciting partnership together.”

Through the venture, it is expected that the gaming firm adding to UK’s economic growth, however minute, will create about 70 new jobs.

Interesting to note is the fact that Kenyan clubs and associations which have been beneficiaries of the SportPesa windfall are now all sulking after it emerged that the gaming firm had pumped in colossal sums to win the deals with the foreign clubs making what they (Kenyan clubs) had earlier negotiated for in their deals a mere joke

This begs the question: Did Kenyan outfits receive the shorter end of the stick? Whichever way one looks at it, the bottom line is that Sports or football has to be run as a business in order to flourish and become more viable.

The English clubs, which are beneficiaries to the SportPesa’s purse string have put so much effort in making their brands visible, therefore, it is only logical that they get a dime commensurate to the product that they have.

Here is the catch: Kenyan outfits must borrow a leaf on how to run their affairs if they want to get the fat end of the cake. They must invest and work for the sweetened deals rather than praying for lady luck to smile their way.  Put differently, apart from the monies they get from sponsorship deals, Kenyan clubs have done very little to make own money and their brands attractive to the corporate world.

With the large number of support bases they boast of, these associations and clubs are sitting on a gold mine that if well harnessed could forever change lives and the scope of things.

Kenyan Premier League CEO, Jack Oguda in an interview with the Nairobi Business Monthly decried the poor performance of Kenyan clubs in continental assignments equating it to the struggle for financial independence – calling for more funds to be channeled to the game if progress is to be made.

Sports the world over, however are treated, run and managed as a business and this, perhaps, needs to be harnessed locally.

In the developed world for instance, no club participates in the top tier league without financial safeguards, while each of them has corporate entities fallings over themselves seeking to seal T-shirt sponsorship deals with them.

In Kenya, it is the opposite.  It is the clubs begging. For instance, in the current top-tier league competition, as high as six clubs lack shirt sponsors, raising the question: Why aren’t our football bosses getting their act right? For how long will the clubs survive on begging bowls?

Sofapaka, for instance, after a long stint in the financial doldrums occasioned by lack of financial safeguards recently landed a three-year shirt sponsorship deal with betting firm, Betika to a tune of Sh50 million, while the Kenya Defence Forces team, Ulinzi Stars, attracted a Sh10 million annual deal from Elite Bet to augment what was already in the kitty.

Granted that it is a remarkable step, these deals are a drop in the ocean   compared to what clubs in South Africa attract from the corporate world, for instance. Besides, clubs such as Kakamega Homeboyz, Zoo Kericho and Kariobangi Sharks, despite competing in the top division, still lack shirt sponsorship raising the question: What must we do to lure more corporates on board?

Football Kenya Federation president Nick Mwendwa argues that clubs must invest in robust marketing strategies, self sustaining projects, as well as cleaning their images if the corporates are to fully embrace the game.

“We came in (to FKF leadership) when things were horribly wrong. We have tried to put a few systems in place and you can see that normalcy is retuning.

“Now, in order to take this forward our clubs, and even ourselves must ensure that there is streamlining of structures and this explains why we adopted the CAF- Club Licensing,” he said,  alluding to the stringent regulations introduced by Fifa and CAF (Confederation of African Football), and which seek, to amongst others, streamline and professionalise the operations of the clubs.

True to call, Safaricom, which has been a major partner with sports association and even Barclays Bank, which is the official title sponsors of the English Premier League have, in the past, cited poor leadership, lack of accountability, checks and balances, as the major hindering blocks to giving big in Kenya’s sports industry.

Barclays, in fact, argued that the local sports landscape is sewed in a lot of mud that would be injurious to their brand, which they must protect at whatever cost.

Besides, the local sports landscape must brace for yet another period of uncertainty as the dark cloud hovers yet again. The leading betting firm, Sportspesa and also the major local soccer sponsor has announced withdrawal of all local sponsorship deals following the 35% tax law on betting firms that was recently assented to by the President.

It is a very untimely development, coming hot on the heels of SupertSports withdrawal from the local scene, and a wakeup call to the Kenyan sports institutions to wake up from the slumber, smell the coffee and get the work done especially in bringing varied local corporate entities on board