The state of sporting infrastructure in Africa has gotten better over the last decade and continues to get better. Unfortunately, this improvement on hardware has been happening much faster than that of the software. Administration of football on the continent is now subject to a little bit more transparency. But all this has done is reveal the ill will and incompetence that much of football leadership in Africa is founded on.

We are not taking big strides forward. In fact, on several counts African football is going backwards. We will talk more about these on other days. Today, I only want to touch on one area of stagnation.

An uncomfortably greater portion of stadiums in use, under construction and being planned in Africa share the fate of being white elephants. This may be all good if you are Gabon (we have seen the pictures) and your public resources are not strained by a large population. Otherwise, it is incredibly foolish and unfair to overburden the lacking African public with the entire cost of maintaining a stadium. Enter stadium naming rights.

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Stadium naming rights are a sub-category of naming rights, which is itself one of the many forms of advertising. A naming right agreement obligates a party to issue right to the name of an event or a facility to a second party. This is usually done in exchange for money (what else could it be?).

As you may have guessed, concept of stadium naming rights started in the USA so many years ago. Fenway Realty Company got a stadium to be named Fenway park in 1912 and the United States has been in the lead about this ever since. The Americans have a filthy arrangement where public spending subsidizes the cost of stadiums for private benefit but, fundamentally, they appreciate the importance of basing sports on financial sustainability.

The good in stadium naming rights

Startimes stadium lugogo

The corporate entities that enter into these agreements understand the benefits to be realized. There is to be a rise in brand awareness to an acceptable measurable degree. This comes from both the money they fork out and the free advertisement that follows the renaming of a stadium. For example, we now have to call KCCA FC’s home ground the Startimes Stadium Lugogo and sell the name of this great Chinese company.

Number two, football fans are the most loyal customers. What this means is that companies buying into stadium naming rights agreements can expect to draw in and lock onto a good number of loyal fans.

The city, stadium management body or football club benefits through a diversification of revenue streams. And sometimes a helping hand (or wallet) in maintenance of the particular stadium. This arrangement is so lucrative that even European teams have resorted to “selling the home ground.” Real Madrid and Barcelona are expected to transition into the American way of doing things when they complete renovations of their respective stadiums.

As you would expect, the European football fan is very hostile to the commercialization of his game except when it buys him football talent from all corners of the globe. This explains why Europe is so behind when it comes to exploiting the opportunities in stadium naming rights. A 2019 Duff and Phelps report reveals that only 27% of stadiums in the ‘Big Five’ European leagues have these agreements in place.

Normalizing naming right agreements in Africa

Allianz Family of Stadiums
A few of the Allianz Family of Stadiums

Europe is behind for cultural reasons. Africa is behind because of obstinance. We have echoed Infantino’s correct view that African football can only catch up commercially by introducing in-with-the-times football club administrative structures and competition formats. The CAFCL Gazette has even made a drastic suggestion of its own – read it here.

Indeed, normalizing stadium naming rights agreements in Africa will be a tall order. These facilities are mostly out of the hands of football federations and clubs. Even so, they have a considerable power of influence that needs to be put into use.

First, it is important to figure out if African countries have the kinds of companies that would buy into stadium renaming agreements before soliciting for the same. Duff and Phelps compared companies that have entered into these agreements in the NFL and the Bundesliga. Bundesliga because it is the leader at this approach in Europe. 80% of Bundesliga stadiums are named after corporate entities.

Duff and Phelps found that industries looking at stadium naming rights as a way to advertise was diverse enough. Finance and Telecommunication sectors were a dominant feature.

Mobilis Coupe Algerie
Telecoms company sponsoring football in Algeria

This shows that Africa is not too far off the mark. Telecommunication companies are a big part of sponsorship revenue in African football. CAF itself has a partner from this industry that was a title sponsor not too long ago.

Similarly, leagues and major football clubs in South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria (Africa’s Big Five leagues) also have sponsorship agreements with telecoms companies. Brand awareness is hugely important to companies in this industry because loyalty is the default relationship they have with their customers, which leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of network effects.

The ones that have partnered with your Al Ahlys, Kaizer Chiefs and what not may not be too enticed to go overboard and opt for a naming rights agreement. They are already reaping the rewards as things stand. The good news is that this industry has several players in each of these countries and the issue, therefore, remains of simply making the right pitch.

The right pitch

Who should make the pitch? The easiest route is a direct one. Cities and stadium management bodies need to be pursuaded to see the wisdom in pushing for these agreements. It is within the realm of the believable for countries with relatively dynamic private sectors like Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya to quickly make these agreements a common feature of their sporting landscapes. You don’t believe me? Kenya had such an opportunity in 2009 when Coca-Cola came calling.

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But the then Sports Minister turned around on the deal in the last minute for a most superficial reason. Fortunately, the stadium in question, Nyayo Stadium got to sell off naming rights to an insurance company a few years later. The country’s largest stadium also sold naming rights to a – you guessed it – a telecomunications company.

Just as well, South Africa has been quite successful with this approach. And they are looking to go further by selling the stadium naming rights of Cape Town stadium.

The second way for Africa to normalize stadium naming rights agreements is through the capable big football clubs. Many of these clubs are stranded in trying to finance new stadiums that will have large enough capacities. The leagues are not structured in a manner suitable to attract private investors in droves. So, you either get years of delays in breaking ground or the alternative of a stadium lease. Al Ahly have achieved the latter with the Al Salam stadium in Cairo.

I do not see the reason why duos like Simba and Yanga or Esperance Tunis and Club Africain cannot come together to take a stadium off public hands for their own benefit. I already know what they would work with. There is the Uhuru Stadium in Dar-es-Salaam and El Menzah in Tunis.