There is reason to be confident in the ability and willingness of the league organisers to do all that is necessary to ensure that the progress of the league is sustained.
Having shed light on the good and bad aspects of the recently concluded Nigeria Professional Football League season in which Rangers of Enugu emerged champions, ‘Biola Kazeem concludes his assessment of the 2015/16 season with, not the ugly, but what should be in place for the future.
LMC needs better government relations
In the euphoria of how quickly they positioned the league as attractive to fans and sponsors, it is possible that the LMC has underrated how critical government relations is to the continued success of the league.
Spurious rulings from courts sitting in Jos put the entire league into jeopardy and exposed the vulnerability of the league to Nigeria’s unending disregard for anything of value.
The LMC must therefore strengthen its interface and deepen its engagement with all arms of government. Sustaining the success it has achieved demands it.
Less LMC, more NPFL
For some reason, the LMC seems to push its own name as much as the league itself. Almost every statement or bulletin about the league inserts the LMC as an appellation into the conversation as much as the NPFL.
As far as the league is concerned, the only brand that should be aggressively driven is the NPFL. The LMC as a brand should take a back seat and the NPFL appellation should be given all the push it needs to stand as its own.
To continue to make the kind of progress necessary, it is imperative for the league and clubs to embrace data gathering and analysis. From player performance to refereeing performance, from fan profiling to stadia location, data must be the key driver of decision making. It is the only way to go.
At the moment, games from the league are only aired on satellite TV, completely cutting off large swathes of the target audience from deepening their knowledge and affinity with the league.
A way around that could be a highlights show that airs on terrestrial TV, like Match of the Day in England. The shortest and cheapest way to fan acquisition is through video content and the league has to find every outlet possible to achieve that.
Fan education and experience
To be fair, fan conduct in and around stadia is getting better but there is a long way to go. There must be a deliberate effort by the league in collaboration with the security agencies and teams to educate fans on the effect of disorderly or violent conduct on their team and in some cases, their lives and the life of others.
Most disorderly conduct usually stem from perceived injustice by referees or in some cases, poor performance of their own players. It is imperative that fans understand that their role is that of an important BUT powerless attendee at an event and not judge, jury and enforcement officers. Violence of any sort by anyone must be punished viciously just as fan education and reorientation must continue.
To achieve this, it is important to also improve the overall fan experience as people generally behave how they are treated. A better fan experience would also attract more attendees from the middle and upper class which will naturally lead to less incidence of violence as they are better educated and exposed.
An example of how that can be done is in England. The Premier League in its present form rose from the ashes of the former English Football League. In the 70 and 80s, hooliganism was rife, stadiums were crumbling and the whole fan experience was a shambles. The Hillsborough stadium disaster and the Taylor report that followed it were the catalysts that finally arrested the rot and set the English league on the path of monstrous greatness we all witness today.
In fact, the English league was behind the Serie A and the La Liga in match attendance and revenue as at 1985. These days, the English league makes more money from TV than the La Liga and Serie A combined. This is the type of example the league has to follow to fulfil its potential.
Clubs must make their own money
There was a time Nigeria was pretentiously rich. Right now, it is unpretentiously broke and for a league with around 80% of its teams owned by state governments, the very essence of the league is at stake. In a situation where government cannot pay salaries talk more of building infrastructure, it goes without saying that LMC’s stipulation that players must not be owed would soon be out of touch with reality.
Oil prices have fallen, the exchange rate is sky high and there is a recession. All these point in one direction, the days of government playing the reliable benefactor to its football clubs has come to an end. The signs are there already if you choose to see them. Several clubs still owe salaries and even a state as rich as Rivers has had to consolidate its two teams in to Rivers United.
Clubs therefore must now be seen for what they should be, entities operating in the sports entertainment space with clear revenue models and goals. If the plan is to continue to wait on government then our clubs will be living in a bubble. There is simply not enough clubs to prioritise football clubs and their well being any more. The time has come to break the dependence on government as the first step to turning the clubs to privately owned entities.
It is not patronising to say the Nigerian league has a bright future. What will be patronising is to suggest the LMC has done such a great job that it can continue to coast at this level. If anything, the league has a lot more to lose now that it has achieved considerable success in an extremely treacherous and volatile environment like ours. The good news is that given the excellent job it has done over the past few years, there is reason to be confident in the ability and willingness of the league organisers to do all that is necessary to ensure that the pace of progress is accelerated.
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