Football may be the most popular sport on the planet, but in Africa, it is particularly popular. This popularity stems, no doubt, from the inclusiveness of the sport. All one needs is an open field and a ball. The field does not need to have grass on it and the ball does not need to be a leather ball. A small, empty dirt field and old clothes wound into a round ball, will send a group of African children bustling down a dusty field in a village or in the city.
The attitude that many Africans have towards the sport has changed also. As a child, I grew up in an environment where ambitions of becoming a professional footballer or musician were considered sacrilegious. These career choices were seen as an exutoire for people who had failed in school. We were encouraged to stay in school, graduate, and choose a path in the holy trinity of career choices acknowledged by African parents – doctor, lawyer, or banker.
Today, things have changed tremendously and a career in football is not considered as one reserved for riff-raffs only. Parents are willingly introducing to, and encouraging their children on this path. Why?
The reasons for this are the same reasons that can be given to explain the explosion for the passion of football on the continent over the last 15 years at best;
1. Eto’o and Drogba / 2. Satellite television / 3. Pre-digital pop culture conversations / 4. Digital Media
To say Eto’o and Drogba are significantly responsible for the re-awakening of football passion in the 2000s era is perhaps understating it. The year was 2004. Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba got signed to F.C. Barcelona and Chelsea F.C. respectively. These two African brothers rose to become global superstars. The reach of their fame and influence on the continent is still unmatched even to this day. Many young, aspiring footballers all over the world today will quote these two as their inspiration.
For many African parents, Eto’o and Drogba turned around the perceptions of what a professional football career could be. Eto’o and Drogba were also the figureheads of a cohort of African football superstars that included the likes of Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Emmanuel Adebayor, Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra, Sulley Muntari, and Freddy Kanoute.
It also helps that these footballers blossomed in their career in the years when Satellite TV penetration was growing rapidly, and monthly cable costs had begun falling. Between 2003 and 2010, the average monthly cable bill in Cameroon fell from about as low as $20 to as low as $7. Today you can get cable TV for as low as $5 a month. Many people during that time were able to watch these African stars from the comfort of their homes.
And because we were able to see these games on TV weekly, it became embodied in Pop Culture Conversations. Arguments and banter at every turn. Who is the better midfielder, Essien, or Obi? Who is the better striker, Eto’o or Drogba? Eto’o should never have won Africa’s best player in 2003, as that trophy belonged to Benny McCarthy. Which African team has the best midfield trio? It was endless argument after argument in bars, homes, dorm rooms, and university hostels. Fans of different players gleefully traded insults over beer.
With the advent of Digital And Social Media, these arguments gained a bigger platform and a louder voice. Today, you see South Africans arguing with Nigerians on Twitter. At the same time, Cameroonians are arguing with Ivorians and Tunisians are arguing with Moroccans. It’s a new era for football banter as digital concepts like memes and hashtags are part of the equation now.
And now, international football brands have gotten a feel of the pulse and the throbbing passion that football has generated on the continent in this 2000s, era and have begun looking for ways to cash in other than how they have been doing before.
In the late 90s and early 2000s PUMA began investing heavily in African football, so much so that at the 2008 African Nations cup, half of the sixteen nations represented had their kits made by the German sports brand. At the 2006 World Cup, PUMA was the kit sponsor of all the five African teams in the competition (Togo, Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tunisia). ADIDAS had a one-foot-in/one-foot-out approach with minor representation on the continent, and the American giant, NIKE, didn’t really get into the market until 2015 when it signed a deal with Nigeria.
Today Nike sponsors just 1 national team (Nigeria), against 6 for PUMA, 4 for Adidas, 5 for Umbro, 2 for Kappa, and 2 for Le Coq Sportif. These brands have major African football nations like Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, and Ghana in their pocket. Other minor sports brands like Macron, Garman, Lactoni, AB Sports, Uhlsport, and Airness fight over the less-glamorous African national teams.
What is interesting, however, is the change in the marketing approach. Hitherto, what we have been used to was just bland marketing. As a matter of fact, global brands like Nike and PUMA have always bunched Africa and the Middle East under the same regional management structure – a terrible and unrealistic structuring. Take new jersey kits unveiling for example. Hitherto, we either discovered new kits during a game as the players adorned them or on specialised football digital news outlets as part of a press release. Today these brands are investing some marketing thought and efforts into the unveiling.
It has not always worked well though; a very recent example was the use of a French rapper, MHD, by PUMA, in November 2017 to unveil the new kits for Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon’s national teams. Ghanaians and Cameroonians were not happy about that and they took to the internet to vent their disappointment.
Writing on the topic, I mentioned that the uproar was the “cry of a large cross-section of the African market that feels they are fed the remnants of what seems to fall off the table of the marketing boardrooms of the western brands, without any real due investigation into the specifics and the wants and needs of its individual and very differentiated markets.”
They did not always get the specifics, but it was a step in the right direction and an example, for brands re-imagining their approach to the African market, to notes from. And it seems that nowhere else have things gone in the right direction as it has in Nigeria. Nike, in particular, seems to have taken lessons from the PUMA debacle and understood that the key to a successful and long-tail marketing strategy was to leverage pop culture and its moments.
Nigeria was no doubt the best laboratory to try such a new approach. Nigerians are the loudest people on the continent, and I am tempted to say the loudest in the world. At the very least they are the loudest on social media in Africa, particularly on Twitter and Instagram. Barely a month goes by without a major pop culture moment from Nigeria spilling over into the internet communities of different countries.
These take different forms; infamous fights with Ghanaians over jollof rice hegemony, a snake accused of swallowing money, a commissioner faking a fainting spell during an inquiry into misappropriation of funds, a senator dancing during election campaigns, and clips from old Nollywood movies surfacing on the internet and becoming viral memes; the examples are rife.
Afrobeats, in particular, has been the main driver and exporter of Nigeria’s contemporary pulse and the peculiarity of its zeitgeist. This and other channels are what football and football-related brands have leveraged to cash in on the football market in Nigeria. And Nigeria is a lucrative market. Take this tweet that shows the most-visited Nigerian websites in July of 2020. Out of 17, 11 are football-related!https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=7525017372217100746
But how is global football marketing leveraging Nigerian pop culture to make a dent for itself? Here are three great examples;
NIKE x AFROBEATS
In 2018, Nike renewed its contract with the Nigerian Football Association. The new deal makes Nike Nigeria’s kit sponsor stay till 2026. The collaboration could not have come at a better time. Afrobeats, the newly-minted urban musical sound from Nigeria was, and is still on a very steady and meteoric rise in Africa, African communities in Europe, the Caribbeans, and in the U.S. Afrobeats stars like Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage and Yemi Alade were already prominent, global musical figures.
Nike was smart to pick the most prominent figure of the bunch, Wizkid to make him a part of the campaign for the unveiling of the new Nigerian national team’s football kit. Already in February 2018, Nike had announced a collaborative partnership with Wizkid that saw the production of Wizkid-inspired merchandise (StarBoy teeshirts). These, later on, sold like hotcakes – both original and bootlegged. Using the Afrobeats icon in the promotional campaign to unveil and promote Nike’s new kit for the Nigerian football team was a logical and well-calculated step in also promoting the StarBoy teeshirts that were later released in September 2018.
And so, it was in London, Nigeria’s capital in ’di abroad’ that Nike’s billboards went up to promote what has gone down in history as arguably the most beautiful football jersey ever made. Coupled with an excellent digital strategy, influencer marketing and Nigerians’ own unparalleled ability to hype themselves, the unveiling was a massive PR success. Wizkid’s followers went crazy and promoted their idol and the jersey to the far reaches of the digital world.
And poof! Nike sold 3 million units of that jersey in just 3 minutes! I even got myself one albeit a bootlegged one.
MANCHESTER UNITED x THE AFRICAN GIANT
But that was 2018. And in just two years, in 2020, another Afrobeats figure rose to even bigger global prominence. Burna Boy is today, the biggest and most-recognised figure of the Afrobeats musical movement. The African Giant, as he calls himself, has been releasing music since 2013 but it is during these last 3 years that his fame shot through the roof, dwarfing everyone else around him.
The Nigerian musician has released 3 albums in the last 3 years (2018, 2019 and 2020). All three were critically acclaimed, but the last two, in particular, were massive global successes. In other words, for the past 3 years, Burna Boy has been a dominant figure of pop culture conversations, and it is on the heels of that influence that England’s biggest, richest, most popular, and most decorated football club, Manchester United, reached out to Burna Boy to promote their 3rd football kit for the 2020/2021 season.
Manchester United’s marketing team is very aware of the large fan base they have in Nigeria. They also know their arch-rivals, Chelsea and Arsenal, have an even bigger fan base in Nigeria – a fact accentuated by the fact many prominent Nigerians like Obi Mikel and Alex Iwobi have played for the two London clubs.
As a matter of fact, only seven Africans have ever played for Manchester United, and Odion Ighalo is the first and only Nigerian, joining the club in 2019. The other London clubs have a far better record at signing Nigerian and African players for their first team. This is more than leveraging Burna Boy’s influence (Burna Boy doesn’t even talk much about sports). This is about seducing the Nigerian market more.
BETWAY X BIG BROTHER NAIJA
Organised sports betting is not a new phenomenon on the African continent, but the growth that it has seen in Africa over the last 10 years is phenomenal. The industry has grown with the explosion of social media, financial mobile transactions, and the penetration and ubiquity of satellite TV in African countries.
The familiarity of football in the realm of sports betting sport, as opposed to horse racing in hippodromes in France that was erstwhile the case, found a new audience. Also one cannot push aside the difficult social conditions and the disenfranchisement of many of Africa’s young men and women who have adopted the habit of betting with the aim of supplementing an income or hopefully cashing out a big windfall.
The Nigerian betting industry is quite competitive with companies like Bet9ja, 1xbet, Sportybet, and Betway all vying for customers whom they can lock into their betting platforms
BETWAY took a bet on the biggest cultural, annual TV event in Nigeria; Big Brother Naija. Passion and interest in the reality TV show have exploded exponentially since 2017, though the show has been in existence for 11 years now, with alumni from the show going on to become superstars in their own country.
The passion, interest, and emotional investment of viewers into the show are indescribable, and this has spilled into internet spats, threats, fiefdoms -all symptoms of the web 2.0’s stan culture. Big Brother Naija is now simply the biggest annual TV event in Africa south of the Sahara.
It was on the spur of this that BETWAY invested over 2 billion Nairas into the show in order to become the leading sponsor. Betway has banked on the popularity of the show in and outside Nigeria to get maximum visibility. In truth, BETWAY is getting far more than it paid for as the show is viewed with interest by many English-speaking countries on the continent. The gains alone from brand recognition is priceless.
BETWAY stands to gain from increased visibility and sign-ups, not just in Nigeria. They also stand to gain in licensing from other sponsors on the show, and also to gain a share in the revenue generated from voting. In 2019, Big Brother Naija generated 7.2 billion Nairas from SMS voting alone.
Nigerian pop culture is one of the leading pop cultures in sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks to their population of over 190 million people, their extensive use of digital communication platforms, their buoyant movie industry, their vibrant creative scene, and of course, Afrobeats and the young talents that champion this musical genre, the country has become an attractive playground for brands. As it stands, the peculiarities of the Nigerian market are present in every African country albeit on a smaller scale, except perhaps for a country like South Africa, or even Kenya.
Sports brands that want to invest or deepen their investments and marketing efforts will have to understand that treating African countries from a monolithic marketing perspective does not work well. Football and other sports are disciplines and events that are heavily-affected by pop culture. In this digital age, the impact is felt even more.
It is up to these global sports brands, especially the ones that are invested in football, to find a way to find to develop their marketing channels in order to build a stronger and more relatable interaction with their markets, and that ultimately begins with understanding pop culture and forming alliances with the movers and shakers of culture, in the most ingenious and novel ways possible in these markets.