This weekend, all over the world, the best football players will represent their national teams in various continental qualifiers, competitions and friendlies. As with top level football games all over the world, fans will have to pay a competitive fee for the quality of experience of watching these stars play. After all, watching a nation’s best footballers is high on the list of dream experiences for those who identify as football lovers and supporters.
In Nigeria, things will be quite different.
It’s been decided that watching our best players in the AFCON qualifier in Uyo this weekend is not worth much as the government of Akwa Ibom has cut ticket prices by 50%. It’s the latest in a trend of cheapening entry fees to watch the Super Eagles which started a few years ago and has gradually become standard practice.
Some of the reasoning is rooted in populism: with dwindling oil revenues crippling many state governments and impacting their ability to deliver on real development, opportunities like a Super Eagles game provides an outlet for the government to play the role of a benevolent, caring one.
But, long-term, there is significant cost to this brand of populism.
How do you convince the same fans (leading clubs all over the word refer to them as customers) who have watched the most popular Nigerian footballers for free, or a pittance, to pay for the significantly watered down experiences of league and cup competitions on the local scene featuring barely known players and managers? How do you get around convincing an audience that the match-day experience is worth their money later on after years of actively teaching them not to attach any significant value to the match-day experience?
For the most part, Nigeria’s football leaders have only talked the talk. The refrain of leading football administrators in the sports media and marketing has typically been that all efforts must be made to ensure that football becomes a self sustaining activity. After decades of being tied firmly to the apron of government and playing the role of a willing tool in the political patronage system, there seemed a real movement to start to wean football off easy money from government and start the process of truly unlocking value in the sector.
And it’s not too difficult. Opportunities to monetize football lies in three main strands, match-day revenue, broadcast revenue and commercial revenue. Of all three, match-day revenue is the lowest hanging fruit and literally only requires organizing a match, sorting out the logistics of a venue and time, printing tickets and charging a fee. Therefore, to watch the NFF and other actors in the sports industry look on as the biggest match-day experience is cheapened is very worrying.
Admitting fans to watch the Super Eagles for free erodes value significantly and sends a clear signal to football fans that watching live football is not worth their cash. The corollary is that local clubs will struggle to attract fee-paying fans and their journey to self sustenance is heavily impeded particularly as this is the easiest way to start to generate income. It is also a sign that the journey to truly unlocking the value trapped in Nigerian football has not even started.
And the timing could not be worse.
Government revenues are dwindling significantly. Debts and salary arrears are rising. Soon enough, allocations to football clubs will either reduce or stop entirely and there are already early signs as many clubs owe players for months and the Nigerian Professional Football League ended abruptly 14 match-days early partly because most clubs couldn’t muster funds to continue the league after a long break during the World Cup. All these mean one thing: the present model of local football’s dependence on government for sustenance is coming to an end.
Against that backdrop, cheapening the match-day experience is an unnecessarily expensive mistake that has to be corrected. The NFF has to make it clear to “benevolent” governors that in the wider interest of the long-term health of Nigerian football, it is important that fans pay the full fare, just as they would for other forms of entertainment.
Another important consideration often forgotten when declaring gates open is security. With financial barrier to entry, you are likely to attract dangerous elements who will come to the stadium to everything else but watch football. To place those individuals in close proximity with other who have valuables and cash without adequate security is usually an invitation to disaster. Young women are also at significant risk of sexual harassment and assault from these individuals particularly after the games. In that regard, entry fee can serve as a first layer of security and weed off people who could make the match day experience unpleasant or even out-rightly dangerous & could significant affect repeat attendance.
Significant effort and resources go into planning football matches and fans must start learning that, to enjoy the experience served up, there is a cost to bear. The present culture of free matches and subsided entry fees might win a few popularity polls but, in actual terms, the local football ecosystem—and any effort to make it self-sustaining—is the real loser.
Abiola Kazeem works in the intersection of sports media and marketing and is presently the Lead Consultant at Elev8 Sports, a leading sports media and marketing company in Lagos, Nigeria.
Follow on Twitter @BiolaKazeem