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Ardent fans, empty stands

As the SportPesa Premier League curtains come down, we reflect on the clubs’ performance off the pitch. Do our football clubs lack appeal to attract fans? ALFAYO ONYANGO explores

On an ordinary weekend in Nairobi, a common sight would be the presence of foreign football clubs’ emblems and colours, or cult figures displayed in every corner.

Be it the public artistic vans that give Nairobi life (matatus) or regular pedestrians in their favourite European team jerseys, the Western invasion of the East African metropolitan seems to be effective as ever.

In 2016, Football Kenya Federation (FKF) launched the Jaza Stadi campaign, in a bid to promote fans’ attendance in games played domestically.

This was a promising spirit and sober thought that could further expand local fanfare. An MoU was penned between FKF and Capo Vendors shortly after, to offer a match day programme beyond just the 90 minutes the teams compete.

Refreshments as well as entertainment such as afterparties and artiste performances seemed to cap a thought out morning-to-evening schedule, that would be added to the match day activities to persuade local fans to physically attend games rather than watch them on TV.

In Meru, whenever 11-time champions Tusker go head to head against reigning champions Gor Mahia, the town’s hotels get fully booked by travelling fans, and Kinoru Stadium comes alive.

Even though this could indicate hope, Kenyan football clubs are still registering low turnouts in their games, as only big franchises such as Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards (Ingwe) manage to pull up to 10,000 people on a good day.

“Several other clubs which have some presence pull little crowds on match day,” says AFC’s chairman Dan Mule. Yet, according to research by Havas Media, English Premier League (EPL) side Chelsea has a fan base of four million Kenyans.

So, why do Kenyans fail to attend games? Poor stadia security and sub-standard infrastructure such as lack of seats have been cited as some of the reasons the local football fandom isn’t as excited to go watch games live.

The mayhem witnessed last Saturday during the Gor Mahia versus AFC Leopards game, where Ingwe fans destroyed stadium seats as they protested the match’s officiating, didn’t do much to alleviate an already bad situation of poorly maintained stadiums and hooliganism that deter many from attending matches. “We had to go and call police ‘from holes’. Security is an issue,” laments Ingwe’s chair.

Government’s role

The response by authorities has not been satisfactory in addressing deficiencies. Fans have accused the national government of laziness and neglect of the sports industry, despite county governments’ spirited efforts to develop community clubs, as seen with Vihiga FC for example, which has not been helpful in sustaining the game.

A ball boy during the Gor Mahia vs Hull City match held at Kasarani in May. Only big franchises like Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards manage to pull up to 10,000 people on a good day.

Local league clubs have become a pity party, sharing pitches and relying on grants by gaming companies such as SportPesa to maintain their operations, while the government continues to underfund sport projects, not to mention the recently unearthed Sh1.7 billion scandal citing mismanagement of funds in the sports ministry. Of the five stadiums the government promised to build in 2013, none has seen the light of day.

Although an improvement in clubs’ policies in merchandising and advertising has been desperately infused, donors and investors are reluctant to pump huge lump sums of money due to poor returns on investments by the hardly bothered consumers.

The league’s major shareholder, gaming company SportPesa, bought its naming rights from FKF, but threatened to revoke its sponsorship in January 2018 due to the government’s increased taxation on betting firms.

The sky came crashing on Kenyan football as multiple clubs would be on the receiving end of the decision, making certain reliant teams in the league look like beggars before fans’ eyes.

To bounce back, FKF secured a deal with Spanish firm Mediapro, which specialises in multimedia equipment and TV production that had just signed a contract to exclusively air Italian Serie A matches.

The FKF deal would see Mediapro provide high-resolution cameras and equipment to air SportPesa Premier League (SPL) games.

Major sport broadcasting company SuperSport further cemented its loyalty and enthusiastic Pan-Africanist attitude, revamping the deal to air SPL matches live, which gave special consideration to Kenyan football on their 17 channels known to air higher quality leagues such as South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL).

PSL’s coverage is in high quality resolution, and airs in HD. The deal was, however, terminated last year, and now local channels such as K24 TV and Y24 have partnered with FKF to deliver Free-To-Air (FTA) games, that will help market and advertise the league as well as the clubs.

Clubs continue trying to make a brand in the public domain, involving the community by setting up workshops, youth teams, events as well as community development programmes like nurturing youth talents.

However, they will need to go a step further to grow their bases, especially where financing is concerned. Clubs in the locally revered EPL travel miles overseas, just to expand their fan bases, and Kenyan clubs could follow suit regionally.

WAY FORWARD

Branding and marketing is key for these clubs to succeed and inspire generations to continue the legacies of Kenyan football, but it must be a strategic, well-organised and social process, if they are to conjure up solid loyal fan bases that can part with a shilling in the name of football, as opposed to spending their last dime in watching a foreign team on TV or being a part of the three billion pounds raked in by EPL annually.

“A lot needs to be done to make football clubs attractive to the fans. Clubs, the government and corporate Kenya need to all pull their weight. The government can help through the ministry of tourism to promote the league.

Corporates can sponsor local league clubs instead of other bodies like Total with CAF Champions League. Only SportPesa supports the league sufficiently. If clubs had enough sponsors, there would definitely be more output from them.

Marketing can be beefed up. Match days need to be more fun besides a football match, like how rugby has many events away from the game itself, so, creation of other activities can help,” concludes Mule.

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