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    Mordi: Why Nigeria Needs to Build Digital Economy around Sports

    03 Jun 2021

    The Chief Executive Officer of Desarrollar Limited, a sport marketing and real estate company, Ikemefuna Mordi, in this interview speaks on how sports can help boost the nation’s economy if well positioned, marketed and supported with necessary infrastructure. Raheem Akingbolu brings the excerpts.

    You have consistently advocated that focusing on the sports industry can rub positively on the economy, what are the important changes that need to be made in the industry to succeed and earn global recognition?

    To start with, let me emphasise that governments at all levels and top players in the private sector ought to factor in sports when discussing or taking actions on diversification of Nigeria’s economy. The industry is yet to be explored adequately if we consider our potentials and what we can garner in terms of resources through sports. That said, I believe in the intervention of the private sector just as it has been done globally. Now, guess what! For the private sector to be involved, imagine Nigeria having Sport Court facilities branded with telecommunications companies’ logos or a banks’ logos. And the value proposition to these conglomerates is that whatever facility you want to institutionalise in gated communities or educational communities, you can leave your brand on that facility and it will have a 15-year gestation period on it. That is an attraction to the organised private sector.

    Not only that. Right now, in Nigeria, most of our sporting initiatives are driven by individual companies. But imagine a sector-led intervention. You have the Bankers’ Committee, the oil and gas sector, the manufacturing sector, and the telcos. Imagine that Nigeria’s top five or six sports are supported by different sectors in the economy. So, they take different sporting initiatives and pump in not just promotion, but marketing. Remember you are reaching youths.

    If, for instance, you have these facilities branded and they are supported with balls or free kits from global institutions, and from Nigerians who are global persons of repute, i.e. Masai Ujiri, who is the President of the Toronto Raptors. If we have facilities branded and supported by the organised private sector, we will be able to attract foreign patronage and intervention here in Nigeria.

    There are foreign-based global non-governmental organisations that give free footballs and sporting equipment once you have the facilities on the ground. Nigeria has not been able to access this because we lack the plan, strategy and infrastructure to attract them. It’s a system that will require private sector intervention but will also require the “how” to make them interested. It’s a marketing tool that reaches over half of this population whether you are in or out of school. Therefore, the first thing is infrastructure – I want to tie it down to brass knuckles. While we were growing up in schools, we had access to facilities. For instance, I went to the University of Benin and I remember that Prof. Grace Alele-Williams was the vice-chancellor when the UNIBEN sport complex was built. I can remember we had a great complex. Other schools that had great (sport) complexes were University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), University of Ibadan, and so on. When we went to exercise, all I needed to do was go to the sport department within the complex, I would just sign in with my ID card and take a fresh pair of football boots or anything.

    If we understand the picture you are painting, Nigeria lacks basic infrastructure to support sports industry’s growth?

    Yes, what is lacking basically across the board is infrastructure. If you look at the growing nations in the world, they build sport stores, football facilities, wrestling facilities, indoor and outdoor, just like they are doing in South Africa. South Africa has a sport store, to use a very close example. So, what they have done since 2010 is to attract the corporate world. I’ll give you a prime example: one of our partners is called Sport Court – it’s almost like a basketball facility but you can play six sports on it – football, basketball, netball, hockey and it has a 20-year warranty. Now, I look across Nigeria and my solutions are more of making it an educational sport intervention – in the primary schools, secondary schools, universities, the military installations and the police. You might remember the old mock Nations Cup in Ajegunle (Lagos). Those are havens where, if we had standard facilities – not just standard but facilities that will go from one generation to another – you will find that because of government intervention, facilities are poorly built because the mindset is ‘we need to change these things every three years.’ It’s seen as a contract. But the kind of intervention we are bringing with our partners is such that when we institutionalise facilities and we make sport a co-educational thing, so that we are looking at sustainability and maintenance, it becomes the bedrock for intervention in the public and private space. It is then what we call edu-sport. The second part is that sporting infrastructure must be as durable as the ones that we have globally. Why is it that in South Africa or England the sporting facilities are standard; they are there for 10 to 15 years and they have not changed? We need to have that kind of durability because that is what will lead to talent discovery, and it’s not just about football; it’s about making it integral to our educational system as it used to be. That forms the foundation. I’ll give you a critical example. My children used to attend Corona School; anytime we had to do their inter-house sports, the school had to use the University of Lagos. Now, UNILAG is the barometer for any school within that axis to Ikoyi. My children are in Ikoyi, but they would come all the way for their inter-house sports to use the UNILAG facilities. Imagine a sector-led intervention taking up not just UNILAG but Yaba College of Technology and other critical schools, outfitting those facilities and putting their logos on those facilities. Even within the military and the police college, it can happen. I’ve had experiences in Europe where people say, ‘I would love to come to Nigeria but you don’t have facilities or any place where we can bring our scouts, whether basketball or any other sport, to see those talents.’ So, the primary foundation of our intervention is infrastructure, relationships, marketing and showing the private sector how they can utilise and grow their market from this infrastructure.

    How will the private sector be more encouraged to make the investment?

    By my exposure, especially in banking, I have had the opportunity to crisscross 18 African countries. Taxation is crucial because for one, most of the organised private sector have what we call foundation, so they have community interventions, which is tax-deduct. For some of these interventions, because it is packaged as sectorial, it is focused. Just like the Dangote Grou president, Aliko Dangote was given a N23bn concession by the government, most of the interventions by the organised private sector have tax-deduct elements, once it is community-based. I’ll give you an insight into the things I have done, so it is not just theory. In the last one and a half years, and that has been elongated by COVID-19 pandemic, I marketed a proposition to the Nigerian Army that will attract private sector funding, and that is tax-deductible because it is a collective. But imagine that impact where you have this private sector infrastructure situated in different communities across Nigeria, all driven by the organised private sector because they know that whatever the interventions that are people-led, impact the local communities and are male-centric and female-centric, and has a gestation period of 15 to 20 years, will naturally attract (tax deductions) because those are things they can report on their books as their interventions. And guess what! It doesn’t become a one-off. It becomes a sustainable initiative that can go year-on-year for the next 15 to 20 years, especially if they are going to be situated within educational institutions. There is a strategy to that. It is private sector-led and they get their natural tax (deductions). It is devoid of politics and religion. Those things will actually help promote the culture of making sport a business

    The summary of your projection is based on sports marketing and positioning, could that be because of the background you had in marketing communications industry and banking sector?

    It is natural for those backgrounds to influence me but what spurs me majorly is the exposure to global trends and the need for us to explore opportunities around us. I have been a consultant and a banker. But in recent times, we’ve been thinking about infrastructure. The COVID-19 era has allowed us to modify our business. Desarrollar basically started as a real estate solution company, but we have infused sport consulting and agency as the primary vision of Desarrollar right now. There are so many opportunities that lie not just in Nigeria, but across Africa. I was privileged to take two young boys from Jos (Plateau State) to Manchester United for football try-outs. They had never traveled by air, neither had they ever left Jos. We held a series of camps in Lagos, Onitsha, Benin and Jos, just looking for talents we could recommend to Manchester United. I was working with my foreign partners then. Interestingly, we got the invitation. For two young boys who had never been out of Jos, the British High Commission was magnanimous enough and gave us visas. We travelled and it was quite an experience but I tell you it has left a scar on my soul. We got to the Carrington Training Centre of Manchester United. We were introduced to the training facility; the boys spent about two weeks training there, trying to get a contract. When we got outside and they introduced us to their training facility, I was shocked. There were 12 full-size training pitches in some wooded areas. There were bushes around but well-kept. Inside, they had two indoor training facilities, full-size pitches, of course, with a plethora of equipment and swimming pools. I saw an industry and I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. I met with Sir Alex (Ferguson) and the boys were so overwhelmed. And then, I asked my foreign partner who took us there, “You mean this is a training facility?” The gentleman smiled, turned to me and said, “Sport is a business. Football is a business.” I had the same encounter when I went to Finch Farm, Everton’s training facility. Everton had 16 full-size pitches outside for training. It was crazy. And I could go on and on. But interestingly, that experience left the boys with an impact. I went to other facilities and travelled with a few sporting stars, Nwankwo Kanu and the like. It made me think of how to replicate that mindset in this environment.

    Why has Nigeria been unable to replicate this?

    The direct answer to your question is, first, sport has not been packaged as a business and I’ll break it down. Look at the impact music has had on the youths in Nigeria; I want to use that as an analogy. Let me give you some statistics. Nigeria’s population is projected to be 234 million by 2025; 263 million by 2030 and 330 million by 2040. In 2050, it has been projected that Nigeria’s population will hit 402 million. Now, 60 percent of this population is youth. The “why” is because sport has been packaged as a cost centre, rather than seen as a business. So, like it happens in other climes, the direct answer is, sport needs to be productised and monetised. Sport needs to be sold as a product, whether it’s football, athletics, handball, netball, etc. It hasn’t been packaged as a product to make it attractive enough for the organised private sector to run. Many times in this environment, sport has been left to the government to execute. You and I know that a government is not well suited to promote sport. However, the intervention that is required for adequate funding to follow through must come from the ability to productise sport, like Formula One. You can imagine if the gentleman that is called the Nigerian Nightmare (Kamaru Usman) were in Nigeria, he would maybe be pushing trucks or whatever. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has been packaged as a product; so today, everyone is talking about the UFC. The basic answer is that sport needs to be productised and monetised. We need to build a digital economy around it. It needs to become attractive as a marketing tool for the organised private sector, so that they can fund it. It is that funding that will allow sport to grow. It is that funding that will attract global patronage. It is that funding that is tied to marketing. The statistics I’ve given you, especially the youths, will make it attractive enough for sport to be lifted up.

    Have you devised a strategy to change the narrative?

    I would like to say first and foremost that sport is a community and a corporate religion in Nigeria. Sport is not seen, packaged and promoted as a business but as a cost centre. Really, the intentions for Desarrollar are just to bring to the forefront the need to promote sport as a business, create the opportunities, highlight them, and make it attractive enough for private sector participation. Like we all know, sport worldwide is an economic block built on people, products and processes. It’s a multibillion-naira industry. So, the question is why isn’t that happening in our environment, with a population of over 200 million people? With a teen population of over 100 million, why haven’t we been able to replicate in this environment what has happened in other climes? That is why we have come up with what we call solutions that will speak to these initiatives; solutions that will attract funding; solutions that will attract private sector participation, just like it is done worldwide. That is why we are on this journey.

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