For the first time in decades, the NPFL finally got close to the kind of following that validates the league as any sort of meaningful activity.
‘Biola Kazeem, who works within the intersection of sports media and marketing in Lagos, Nigeria, critically assesses the recently concluded Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season in which Rangers of Enugu emerged champions and ended a 32-year league title drought.
That’s it folks. Done, dusted and firmly now consigned to history, the 2015/16 NPFL season. For some; exhilarating, exciting, interesting or maybe even frustrating might be some of the words that capture the just concluded season.
If you have your eyes on the future, words like watershed, breakthrough and tip might be better suited because something has changed in the very essence of the league. For the first time in decades, the NPFL finally got close to the kind of following that validates the league as any sort of meaningful activity that people sweat blood and tears for, not to mention the billions spent by teams just to be a part of it.
Far from being the forgotten orphan it had become through many ever changing appellations, the Nigerian league is now firmly part of the football conversation in Nigeria. It took a while to get here but thanks for the persistent efforts of the LMC, here we are finally. As with all activities, there were positives, negatives and if you choose to be an optimist like me, opportunities.
The good things first.
Enugu Rangers and Imama Amamakabo
Enugu Rangers were the best team over the course of 38 games by a country mile. They scored the most goals, 53, had the most points on the road, 15, and played the best football by any stretch of imagination.
Only 18 months into the role, coach Imama Amamakabo served up a championship winning cocktail of speed, intelligent movement on and off the ball, and goals to firmly assume the leadership position of the new breed of managers in the league.
While many in the league see TV broadcast of their home games as a hindrance, Rangers thrived on it and leveraged it to widen their support base across the country. It might have taken 32 years to get here but with Imama in the driving seat, it is safe to say Rangers’ arrival at the top echelon on Nigerian football could last for a while.
In an organisation averse environment like Nigeria, more so in the football ecosystem where order is treated with disdain and where allergy to responsible behaviour is still epidemic, the NPFL will score high marks for the general organisation of the league.
From its former abyss of pure chaos and permanent dysfunction, the LMC has been able to instil a sense of order and control over the league and that, folks, is no mean feat. One can’t miss the feeling that the league has finally become serious business and that participation in it demands some form of responsibility, planning and decorum. Match days were well coordinated with minimal postponements while incidents and aberrations were quickly dealt with and resolved.
Say what you will, even in the paranoid environment of local football in Nigeria, the LMC also came across as unbiased and very professional in its general conduct which bodes very well for the future and that, is a good thing.
Stripped of all its layering, a league is about the quality of football. With eventual champions, Enugu Rangers enjoying a big share of live TV broadcast, one can do much better than suggesting the quality of follow was satisfying. In Rangers and in many other teams – particularly in the first stanza – we saw some really eye-catching, attacking, organised and tactical displays.
More than any other season, winning – home or away – was mostly a function of quality of performance than other factors. Good as it was, it is critical to the future of the league that this is improved upon. Better coaches, better players will serve up better football and that, is a good thing.
The fans are back
Yes they are. In their thousands physically, potentially millions virtually. Every weekend, match venues have looked like proper football grounds, with fans fully playing their part in transforming hitherto soulless structures where the unfortunate players had to play, to lively – sometimes riveting – theatres, the type that wrings good performances out of the even the most reluctant player.
Online as well, the league has become a hot button conversation and has started to rival the Europeans leagues. In addition to making the league a spectacle, seeing thousands of people taking part in the live football action is the most articulate validation there is of the league to sponsors as there is an immediate, sizeable audience exposed to their message and products and that, is a good thing.
Star on board
As a direct corollary to the renewed and rapidly increasing fan interest, the league has found a solid partner in Star. On several levels, it is a huge deal for the league. Not only will Star come to the table with deep pockets, they also come with several decades of experience in turning sponsored properties and assets into exciting, engaging memorable activities, the type that keeps driving interest and attention.
As one of the biggest spenders in the Nigerian marketing landscape, this is as much a sponsorship as it is an endorsement of the league as a vibrant, valuable property worthy of sponsorship and partnership considerations by other brands and that is a good thing.
Usually held up as one of the reasons why the league was hostage to its own potential for decades because of its relentless focus on foreign football, it is redeeming that the media has played a front line role in the renaissance of the league.
While it was still an issue, it was a classic chicken and egg scenario. With stifling competition, who dictates content, the media or the audience? Luckily, the argument no longer rages as the reportage of the league in traditional and new media has been excellent this season in quality and quantity.
An army of young, passionate reporters like Tobi Adepoju travel the length and breadth of the country to cover and report games. Armed with information, fans can now hold meaningful conversations about the league leading to buzz and word of mouth marketing of the league and that, is a good thing.
To be continued…
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