Why Africa’s sports industry needs to step up to the plate

Icons like Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba have made a name for themselves playing overseas. Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

The Egyptian government recently took steps that have lead to football fans being labelled as terrorists. The arrest and detention of alleged members of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), a highly politicised supporters group associated with Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, has marked renewed attempts by the government to curb the influence of some fans on Egyptian society and politics.

At the other end of the continent, South Africa is to become the first ever African nation host to an American NBA game. An all-star team will take part in an exhibition game in Johannesburg in early August. Unlike Egypt, talk is focusing on business-development, market-entry, brand experiences and fan engagement.

Comparing Egypt and South Africa might seem disingenuous, like comparing Canada and Peru or Iceland and Albania. But the contrasting fan experiences aptly illustrates some of the contradictions and challenges facing the sport industry across Africa.

The numbers can be misleading

For many cynics, African sport is played out against the backdrop of a post-colonial narrative. This paints the continent as poor victim with more pressing needs to address than the development of a sport industry. To some extent the numbers add credence to this view with the value of sport elsewhere in the world dwarfing Africa’s contribution to the industry.

A recent study of the global sport industry tends to suggest just how far behind the rest of the world Africa is. Another by African Investor supports this. On this evidence, there is little to suggest that Africa’s sport industry is on the verge of becoming a global force.

Yet this view is misleading and patronising given the growing economic strength of African nations. Over the last decade a number have recorded some of the fastest annual national income growth figures in the world.

Africa is perfectly capable of competing with the rest of the world on fields and tracks, and in organisational terms too. Kenyan marathon runners and Ivorian footballers have proved that some of the globe’s best athletes are African. South Africa’s 2010 World Cup proved to be something of an unexpected success.

Perhaps African nations simply underestimate their prowess or lack confidence in the face of a prevailingly bullish industry narrative that emphasises North American corporate values. This narrative dominates even though the sport industry is not just about sponsorship values and the sale of media rights.

Fuel for the cynics

But in these examples of African success lay the contradictions that fuel the cynicism. For instance, while Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure may be world-class footballers, they are better known for playing football in Europe than in Africa. Labour migration is a major issue for African nations, a problem sometimes exacerbated by clubs such as Arsenal and nations such as Qatar harvesting athletes to fuel their own sporting ambitions.

The reason for migration is principally an economic one – money. By moving to Europe a footballer will earn more, possibly play for a big team and appear on television around the world, the ticket to signing endorsement deals. Building an industry back home without any big stars is difficult.

The case of South Africa’s football World Cup is rather misleading too. On the face of it the tournament was a success, despite the apocalyptic scenarios predicted ahead of the event. Yet the real tragedy is only now being realised: great stadiums were built but many are either unused or under-utilised. It seems South Africa was seduced into heavy spending on an event which, in reality, was neither necessary nor desirable.

Grounds for optimism

Yet recent economic growth figures suggest there may be grounds for optimism. In this case, phenomena such as labour migration might to be curbed. This is a serious issue for African countries as attendances at sporting events are often weak. This is hardly surprising when the big drawcards such as Drogba and Toure mostly perform elsewhere.

Even if economic growth helps to generate the resources to underpin development of the sport industry, significant questions remain. Many African nations face socioeconomic challenges that would appear to be more pressing than sport. While countries such as China and Qatar see sport as a means to addressing a range of socioeconomic issues, there is little evidence that African countries are about to adopt the same approach.

This may be the result of attitudes towards sport in African countries. Working as a governor or manager in sport might be an acceptable career option in Europe, but many in Africa don’t view sport in this way.

Nor should big changes in African sport be expected any time soon unless politicians and other decision-makers realise that building a stadium is not a one-off activity but an event that can drive broader infrastructural developments.

There are other issues too, notably corruption. The last thing many African countries need is unscrupulous, avaricious and corrupt individuals of world sport swarming around the continent. The recent events surrounding FIFA are a case in point.

We are already seeing a new race for Africa and its sport emerge like 19th-century colonialism in 21st-century clothes. The NBA will need to work hard to convince people that its African fan engagement programme is as much about the development of sport as it is about the pockets of Wall Street businessmen.

In the same way, China is using African sport as a focus for its aggressive global soft-power agenda. For the 2010 African Cup of Nations in Angola four venues were built by China as part of a $600 million aid package. This “stadium diplomacy” isn’t a coincidence. Angola is now China’s leading oil supplier

Africa is heading towards a crossroads: the continent has emerging economic powers able to perform on an international sporting stage but lacking a sport industry infrastructure of organisations and businesses that can lead change. We can look forward to more breathtaking African athletic performances, but not, in the near future, a healthy and thriving sport industry.

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