The future of African sport after coronavirus is “bleak” and there is no guarantee it will recover, Liberian president and former World Footballer Of The Year George Weah has warned.
Sport across the continent has been suspended – as in most places around the world – due to the pandemic.
But in countries where it is restarting, it is doing so behind closed doors or with minimal crowds.
And Weah told a special conference for Africa Sports Ventures Group that this, coupled with a likely large drop-off in sponsorship as companies reduce spending in the wake of coronavirus-inflicted losses, poses a huge threat not just to individual sporting clubs right across the continent, but also the very league structures in which they exist.
“The lifeblood of sports consists mainly of attendance fees and sponsorships – where these no longer exist, many clubs will collapse and many leagues will close permanently,” said President Weah.
“It is my considered opinion that the future of sports in Africa after Covid-19 is bleak, and is not guaranteed to recover. There will be an urgent need to resuscitate football and other games.
“Health and recovery of our economies take absolute priority, however it is important that the global funding being raised should recognise the social importance of sport.”
Time to go digital
The online event, in collaboration with Unesco, featured presentations from experts, athletes, administrators, marketers and government officials aimed at dealing with the aftermath of coronavirus.
Some of the suggestions worked on included a stronger digital presence, new partnerships in social development, the inclusion of some of Africa’s traditional sports in the mainstream, staging more events on the continent.
As internet use has risen in countries in lockdown around the world, it was argued that African sport, and football in particular, has yet to exploit the digital world.
African sports media consultant Gary Rathbone, recently appointed as head of sport at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, said he believes that social media can bring clubs much-needed income to clubs as they try and get back into playing again.
“There’s an opportunity for many leagues and many sports federations to start engaging with their consumers via the digital space,” said Rathbone.
“In many American sports, big international leagues, Formula One, consumers can subscribe directly to content without paying for a TV subscription, and there’s an opportunity here on the continent now if federations can start doing that.
“There are around 300 million people with smartphones across sub-Saharan Africa. If you look at big football clubs in Africa so many of them are not exploiting the digital space on social media. It’s a huge opportunity to monetise the content that they have with advertisers or subscription fees.
“If a club has a million fans and say a quarter of them subscribe for just 50 cents a month, that’s $125,000 a month – much greater than any broadcast TV revenue that they might have got. “
Social development specialist Rachel Aron said she believes that sport can play a part in the continent’s rebuilding process, while benefiting from new sponsors at the same time.
“The sports industry can contribute to promoting and advancing Africa’s social development. It must continue to leverage on existing partnerships, but should also strive to develop new strategic partners – governments, civil society, community-based organisations,” said Aron.
However, the competitions director of the Confederation of African Football, Samson Adamu, feels that the priority is to continue addressing key challenges.
“Of course there are ways to rethink, but we have to focus on issues that were there before Covid-19,” said Adamu. “We still have a big deficit of infrastructure in Africa, facilities are not up to standard, so the problem is still there, but it will be harder.
“We need to develop coaches and youth football, and to be playing matches before we are innovative. Football is the biggest sport in the world because of its simplicity, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. The continental club competitions remain our biggest drivers, though health is the priority and we’re in no hurry to restart.”
Growing traditional sports
There was also discussion on the value that could be unlocked in traditional African sports – Senegal’s Presidential Advisor on Youth and Sports, Ndongo N’Diaye highlighted the huge interest in Senegalese wrestling as a model that others can follow.
“It’s basically the main sport in Senegal, the stars are as popular as Sadio Mane, everyone in Senegal has their favourite wrestler and we have no less than 25,000 fans for a big night of wrestling,” said N’Diaye.
“We have more than 30,000 youngsters involved in the sport, in 2016 the prize money for fights was over $16m. There’s big potential for the sport that we need to work on, and there are many other traditional sports here.”
Athletes were also given an opportunity to talk about their current challenges and the way forward. LJ Van Zyl, winner of three golds in the 400m hurdles at the African Championships, stressed a feeling that there should be more events on the continent.
“The Shanghai Diamond League will take place in September. It would normally cost me about $800 to get there, but now it could cost me three times as much to travel,” Van Zyl said.
“So it makes no financial sense, and the implications for athletes will be enormous. Student athletes won’t be able to afford it, getting sponsorship will be harder.
“We only have one Diamond League meeting in Africa, in Morocco, so why can’t we have one in southern Africa, or east Africa? And we must have more African local competition with decent prize money.”
The new Basketball Africa League, which was to start in March, was mentioned as a concept that can take sport on the continent forward.
And while a tough road is surely ahead for African sport, Nigeria football great Segun “Mathematical” Odegbami gave a reason to be optimistic.
“Sport is a 700-billion dollar business, and we haven’t scratched the surface of the business of football in Africa,” he said.
“Covid-19 gives us a chance to rethink.”