There is no gain-saying that Nigerians are some of the most engaging and exciting football fans in the world. To understand the extent to which Nigerians, especially the younger generation who represents over 60% of the population in the region of 200 million, one just needs to head over to popular social media platform; Twitter on a matchday, especially weekends when Europe’s top 5 leagues are in action.
What will you see? Guaranteed banter, world-class analysis of the games like the ones you see Gary Neville, Graemes Sounnees and Jamie Carragher deliver on Sky Sports and then there are those who are convinced they can manage a club better than the manager (They probably can, but we’ll never know until they do).
Just ask Gary Neville how he fared after transitioning from a pundit on SkySports to a manager at Valencia; not too well I’m afraid. Oh and the Fantasy Premier League warriors who week in, week out try to score as many points as possible in a franchise game the Premier League has created to keep the fans engaged globally.
Football and Nigerians are inseparable, our love for the world’s most popular sport has been effervescent since the Green Eagles’ first touchdown in the USA for our first ever participation at the World Cup. It’s been 26 years since that golden generation made us proud on the biggest stage in football, and even after two decades, the love for the game is second to none.
There are many ways Nigerians engage with the beautiful game; social media being a major medium of interaction. But away from social media, there are also the football fans on the street who care less about social media but are equally engaged; they typically would share interesting bants and give their analysis on a match, most times in viewing centres.
Football to Nigerians is a way of life, one that majority of the population hold very dear. But how did Nigerians get access to global football content that has become an integral part of their social lives when local broadcasters could not afford the rights to these leagues? It started a while back; let’s take a look at that journey.
Back in the early 90s, Nigerians weren’t exactly focused on other global football leagues, in fact prior to 1994, the Nigerian national team were still without a world cup appearance, but the Nigerian league was already huge in the country. Clubs such as Shooting Stars of Ibadan, BBC Lions of Gboko, stationery Stores , Abiola Babes, Bendel Insurance, Ranchers Bees etc. were very popular those days. Fans will typically go to the stadiums to watch these clubs play those days and the ones that couldn’t make it to the stadium? Well, they had to rely on “gists” from those that caught the game live, games were rarely on TV only on special occasions like the prestigious Federation Cup on local TV like NTA.
But after the Super Eagles made that memorable appearance at the Mundial in 1994, the world took notice of Nigeria and its footballing prowess and also discovered how huge a footballing country Nigeria is.
Around the same time specifically in 1993 MultiChoice made its foray into the Nigerian market and that was the start of a sensational and spectacular relationship between a brand and the teeming football-loving Nigerian populace.
Although most of the Nigerian squad for the World Cup in 94 were already established stars in clubs all around Europe, Nigerians had no access to watch these guys play. Only a fraction of the population (1in 300) had access to cable TV, so Football to Nigerians was merely international competitions like the World Cup and the Nations Cup which the local TV gave them access to watch.
By 1997, a year after the dream team conquered the world in Atlanta, the world took further notice of this unique West African country that is particularly good with the round leather game. Nigerian talents suddenly became hot commodities attracting interest from top European clubs, especially the English Premier League. First, it was Celestine Babayaro who made the switch to Stamford Bridge to join Chelsea in 1997, and then two years later, Kanu Nwankwo who was the star man of the 96 dream team made the switch from Inter Milan to join another London club; Arsenal. Around the same period, Thierry Henry also joined the Gunners, and he forged a formidable attacking partnership with Kanu.
Without a doubt, Kanu’s move to Arsenal, Babayaro’s move to Chelsea and Henry’s move to Arsenal played a huge part in marketing the premiership to Nigerians who are naturally drawn to football. Nigerians were eager to watch stars like Kanu, Babayero and later on Jay Jay Okotcha take the Premier League by storm. By then (1999) Multichoice had been in Nigeria for a little over six years, and the company soon realised how important football is to the Nigerian public. MultiChoice was eager to enable that passion and was ready to commit huge resources that will ensure Nigerians have access to not only the premiership but also other top European leagues such as the Serie A and Laliga to mention just a few.
That initiative and investment by MultiChoice in the late 90s and early 20s proved very decisive and a total game-changer for Nigerians. MultiChoice secured rights to the Premier League, and soon through Super Sports, football fans in Nigeria had access to football content that ensures they get crisp picture quality. They could watch Kanu and Henry dismantle opponents or Babayaro rock solid at left-back. It was an exposure like no other for football fans in the country. Fans began choosing their favourite clubs to support; many chose Arsenal because of Henry and Kanu with the former even earning himself a Nigerian nickname; Igwe! He is aware of the nickname, and you could see how happy he is when anybody calls him Igwe even till this day.
Families became closer because of the premier league; strangers became friends and relationships were built just because of access to the best and the most entertaining league in the world. A lot of interesting stories bants, and memories have also been created in viewing centres; the home of banter where people pay a token (50 to 100 Naira) to watch a football match.
It’s 2020 and it’s been almost two decades since MultiChoice opened up the European football leagues to Nigerians, now Nigeria boasts of millions of fans supporting several European clubs. Some have been inspired to chase their dreams by merely watching these games, others have found their paths, while to some, the leagues have become their favourite pastime, one they can hardly do without.
We’ve experienced over 20 football league seasons in this part of the world, and as we experience the new football season, it is a time to look back and reflect on how far we have come as a country and as fans when it comes to the access we have to consuming football content. As we reflect, you’ll realise that if MultiChoice had not taken that giant leap and invested heavily in getting the rights to these contents, we wouldn’t be where we are today with football content consumption. Do we as fans owe MultiChoice a thank you for taking that bold step? Most definitely!.
Samuel Ipinyomi a marketing and corporate communications professional, football enthusiast and a student of football’s big business takes a moment to analyse the growth and popularity of global football leagues in Nigeria and how Multi Choice played a crucial role in ensuring access to football content for Nigerians at the turn of the millenium.