Is satellite TV killing African football?
Accra’s stadium is empty, while football fans watch English games on TV
When satellite television started broadcasting the top leagues of Europe around the world in the mid-1990s, football lovers in Africa must have been unsure whether to laugh or cry.
To succeed, leagues have to become businesses but very few have grasped this yet”
Gary Rathbone Former head of Africa, SuperSport
On the one hand, they could suddenly watch some of the best club football on the planet – simply by turning on the TV.
At the same time, the realisation must have dawned that the local league they had been watching for years was a sub-standard product to the one found in countries like England, Spain and Italy.
It wasn’t always thus though – for African club football’s heyday came in the 1970s and 1980s when vast crowds, sometimes 100,000 strong, regularly flocked to league games and the leading pan-African club competitions.
By the 1990s, however, the state of Africa’s leagues had become a major worry.
The exodus of players to Europe, which today is a flood, was beginning to become significant, meaning local fans were denied the chance to watch the best talents as they left for greener pastures, while many leagues were also blighted by poor organisation, corruption, chronic infrastructure, low crowds and sometimes a combination of all four.
European football was most welcome when it arrived, as fans feasted upon the chance to watch legendary clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan and Manchester United on a regular basis, but the impact on the diminishing local leagues – North Africa aside – has been less well received.
“The advent of satellite TV has certainly taken away the feel people had for the local league – more so when you have the likes of Lionel Messi at your fingertips,” Ghanaian football commentator Karl Tufuoh told BBC Sport. “It’s clear local attendance has been massively affected.”
Why I support Manchester United
Kabir Ahmed, Kaduna, Nigeria:
I am a supporter of Manchester United football club. I have been supporting the club for the past 15 years. I like the game they play. I like their style of play, their fighting spirit.
I normally enjoy watching Manchester United matches in a viewing centre with my friends.
It is not that I don’t have a satellite but I hate isolation, I don’t like watching football in isolation. When I am in the viewing centre, watching with my friends and others like Chelsea and Arsenal fans it gives me lots of joy and happiness, shouting, arguing, cracking jokes and all that.
I just don’t have time for local matches now. I used to, way back in 1998-99 when Katsina United was playing but they are no more playing, they are no more in the Nigerian premier league, that’s why I don’t watch local football any more.
I only watch international premier league now, I don’t enjoy the kind of play of local matches, that is the fact. It is not entertaining at all, maybe that is why people don’t watch them frequently. We are used to watching international football now and you know it is a known fact, international football is better than our local football.
Tufuoh was speaking at the Accra Sports Stadium, whose 40,000 red, yellow and green seats were more or less all visible for a league clash between top clubs Liberty Professionals and Asante Kotoko on a recent Sunday.
A few miles down the road, the bar at the Alisa Hotel was overflowing with fans who had come to watch two crunch English Premier League (EPL) clashes.
“Maybe if we had no option, we would have to follow our local league,” said one customer, Kojo. “But if you find something better than the local league, you would watch the better one.”
The situation in Ghana is far from unique – it is played out in countless African cities every weekend.
In fact, the attendances became so insignificant in many African leagues that they have been scheduling domestic kick-offs to avoid the big European matches.
However, there has been a recent reversal in the declining attendances as a previously-unseen factor has entered the market: Satellite television that now broadcasts some of Africa’s leagues.
In 2006, South African broadcaster Supersport started to air matches from both its own league and Nigeria’s on the DSTV network, which is broadcast across the continent for those who can afford it.
Seven years on, SuperSport also owns the rights to games in Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Ghana, Angola and Tanzania.
Crowds up in Kenya
While the beneficial impact on some leagues has been questionable, such as in Zambia and Nigeria, one of the stand-out successes has been in Kenya.
Prior to SuperSport’s involvement, the domestic league was riddled by infighting, poor crowds, poor marketing and a chaotic fixture list.
The situation is now wholly different, with improved organisation added to the TV money that enables clubs to pay their players both well and regularly, making the league not only more attractive to fans but foreign players too.
“The first season we covered the KPL, you were getting a few hundred people for normal games and a few thousand for the big games,” says Gary Rathbone, former head of Africa for SuperSport.
“Last year, crowds were in their thousands for normal games and 25,000 for the big games. Another massive change was that the league sponsorship had increased from zero to something quite substantial.”
The success of SuperSport’s KPL coverage – which has included the creation of a studio, a weekly magazine programme and the coverage of over 100 live games – has been staggering.
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Prior to the input, Rathbone estimates that 75% of the Kenyan media’s football coverage was devoted to Europe but he believes that figure is now equal – with perhaps over half sometimes devoted to the KPL.
A survey later revealed that the Advertising Value Equivalent of sponsorship for the KPL – which Rathbone now classifies as a “truly professional league” – amounts to a barely-credible $86m (£55m).
“That’s what happens when you get behind the league and broadcast it and organise it properly,” he says.
In his own South Africa, the TV audiences watching local games are double those of the EPL – even if the advertising revenue for the latter’s games is significantly higher, given the demographic being targeted.
However, slick television production can only take a league so far if it has perceived flaws – as those running Nigerian football have discovered.
Believing that the league is unattractive, amateurishly run and constantly haemorrhages its best players, Nigerian football fans – those backing Kano Pillars aside – have not come out in numbers to attend games.
In Zambia meanwhile, a former FA president says the SuperSport deal means fans now watch local games on TV – not just because they can watch the European games afterwards, but also for more simple reasons.
“In our stadiums, refreshments are not allowed – so why should I go to a stadium to be thirsty for 90 minutes when I can watch at a bar with a big screen?” asks Simataa Simataa.
So when African leagues complain about the impact of the EPL on their attendances, is this simply an excuse for their general laziness and incompetence when it comes to improving their product?
“To succeed, leagues have to become businesses but very few have grasped this yet,” says Rathbone. “They also need to explore other forms of revenue – like advertising and merchandise.”
“If the local leagues are run properly and it’s an interesting standard, the experience is positive and the media is supportive, there is no reason why the EPL and the local league should not live successfully side by side.”