Like a bedridden comatose patient whose condition has failed to improve despite a series of interventions from attending physicians, so is the story of the Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL). Its fate is uncertain; the present state is abject while its future looks bleak.
Insiders who are privy to the workings of the League Management Committee, LMC, claim that there is little transparency in the management of the NPFL and that clubs are habitually shortchanged "while the leadership keep lining their pockets and smiling to the bank".
In a bid to unravel the actual state of things at the LMC and NPFL, KOLAPO OLAPOJU undertook this investgaton and these are his findings.
Shehu Dikko, chairman of the LMC, was among the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF, leadership investigated in 2019 by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, and the dissolved Special Presidential Investigation Panel, SPIP, over allegations of corruption and misappropriation of funds.
Mediterrenean Sports Ltd, a company which Dikko once served as director, plays the role of marketing agent for the NFF. The company receives 20% commission on sponsorship contracts with the NFF. As the second vice president of NFF and chairman of marketing, sponsorship and broadcast and TV rights sub-committee, Dikko finds himself in a convenient position of influence. His prior relationship with Mediterrenean also constitutes a conflict of interest with duty, and a violation of the section 5 of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act 1991.
This conflict of interest was one of the impetus for the setting up of a committee by the ministry of youth and sports to look into the activities of the NFF. Around the time the committee was mandated to carry out its investigation in 2018, documents obtained show that the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, verified and approved the resolution for removal of Dikko as a director at Mediterrenean Sports.
But curiously, the date for the resolution of removal was dated March 13, 2014, which means the CAC did not approve until four years later.
Although Mediterrenean Sports acts as a marketing agent to the NFF, there is no record of the company being appointed to undertake the task. There is also no evidence that the executive committee of the NFF ratified the appointment of Mediterranean Sports as NFF marketing agent.
Several documents obtained show that Pinnick authorized Financial Derivatives to make multiple payments to Mediterrenean Sports. But in April 2018, Pinnick wrote a letter of appreciation to Isima Ekere, former managing director of Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, over the promise to release funds to support the Super Eagles World Cup campaign. Deviating from the usual norm of presenting the account number of Financial Derivatives for payment, Pinnick instead provided the Ecobank details of Mediterranean Sports.
All efforts to contact representatives or officials of Mediterrenean Sports Ltd proved abortive. During a visit to the registered address of the company, it was discovered that there is no 'Plot 1467', rather a 'No 42' Hon. Justice Mamman Nasir Crescent Asokoro Abuja. Also, the building houses Mediterrenean Hotel and the workers said they have never heard of a Mediterrenean Sports Ltd.
In a petition addressed to FIFA, Harrison Jalla also alleged that Dikko failed to honour the contract between NFF and LMC, which states that the latter must remit 5% of its net earnings to the former. Rather than make the payment, he was said to have presented an account of expenditure on how the money was spent.
Dikko was also alleged to have failed to give accounts of sales of tickets, advertisements, broadcast and television rights for friendly matches played by the Super Eagles.
In 2013, the league signed a five-year deal with Supersport to show two NPFL matches every weekend. The five year deal, which was to kickstart at the commencement of the 2015 season, amounted to a reported $8.5 million annually.
That deal was supposed to be the start of the new dawn of the league, with the television package expected to increase visibility and attractiveness. According to an insider, “the deal was more like a corporate social responsibility on the part of Supersport”, owing to the fact that it was not favourable to them financially.
“The only way Supersport could have made money was through advertisement placement and sponsorship, but since that is not prevalent in the Nigerian league, Supersport could not recoup its television rights investment in the league,” the source said.
To produce one match at the time, it cost Supersport a conservative N5 million per match day to cater to logistics and crew finances. This continued for years until 2017 when the naira’s fortunes took a downturn. Consequently, Supersport resolved to renegotiate the terms of the contract, so as to pay in naira. Failing to reach a compromise, the deal suffered a premature death.
To legally pull out of the deal, Supersport cited breach of contract on the part of LMC “because there were actually several breaches”. Supersports was said to have pulled out of the deal following allegations of funds mismanagement, embezzlement and lack of accountability. That was how Supersport stopped showing the league.
Despite receiving millions of dollars annually from Supersports between 2015 and 2017, the LMC was unable to adequately develop and standardize the NPFL so as to make it attractive to fans and brands.
WHY NPFL IS UNATTRACTIVE
When compared to the South African league, the NPFL is perceived as below-par in many aspects. Issues such as player remuneration challenges, fan attitude, playing environment, organization, poor coaching and refereeing contribute to the failure of the league to live up to its potential. “All these things make it hard for fans to forge a connection with the local teams and get sponsorship,” according to the chairman of a north-west top tier club.
Although some football players are paid monthly allowances as much as N800,000, the payment does not come as promptly as expected. Most clubs tend to owe players for long periods of time. In 2011, Kaduna United players were not paid for 9 months despite having a record-breaking goalscorer like Jude Aneke in their team at the time.
Delayed remuneration is not the only problem, allegations of referees getting bribed to fix matches are also rampant. Some referees are even believed to collect money from both sides.
Although referees are paid per game by the NFF, an insider at the LMC alleged that there are situations whereby home teams pay referees and offer them other forms of gifts - which will undoubtedly influence officiating.
In the NPFL, there is a popular notion that it would take a miracle for a home team to lose a game, as a result of the aforementioned inducement.
Bayelsa United Football Club Head Coach Tiebowei Diprieye believes that the “home team must win” syndrome is crippling the league.
He said: “We would like a situation where teams can go away with the mindset that they can win games. We should be able to get rid of this notion that to win an away match in Nigeria is difficult.”
In the last full season of the NPFL (2018/19) which had 264 games, there were only 28 away victories - which represents a 10.6% away victory ratio. The away win ratio of the English Premier League last season was 31%. Since the EPL was founded in the 1992/1993 season, the lowest away win ratio has been 24% which was obtainable in two back to back seasons; 2009/2010 and 2010/2011.
NPFL 2018/2019 away win ratio
The administration of the league by the LMC leaves a lot to be desired as it seems to take its cue from the NFF. Whenever there is a crisis at the NFF, the LMC would by effect become unstable, case in point is the leadership tussle between Chris Giwa and Amaju Pinnick in 2018 which led to the suspension of the NPFL after 24 games.
During that season, there was no champion and no relegation. A player who chose to remain anonymous described it as a “wasted season”.
A recent addition at Akwa United, Harrison Ibukun believes that the stakeholders at the LMC know what to do to improve the league yet there is no significant improvement.
Kano Pillars forward player, Nyima Nwagua, highlighted key areas where improvement would be welcome. “The areas I think we should look into is the calendar and sponsorship side,” he said. Nwagua’s concern regarding the League calendar is not unfounded. Rescheduling of NPFL games is a norm. The reasons for these vary, and they all have one thing in common - poor planning. An example of poor planning was when continental engagements of Lobi stars and Rangers international led to the rescheduling of several games during the 2018/19 season.
“A situation where the league is stable, and nothing interrupts the season when it is on would go a long way to improve the league,” Nwagua added.
Flying Eagles striker, Jesse Akila believes that improving the welfare of the players would improve the league. He noted that “players should travel to match venues with proper means. For instance, a flight for any trip that is longer than a six-hour drive”.
Poor facilities & insecurity
Several stadiums across the country are in terrible condition and as a result, it scares fans away. In March 2020, Chineme Martins, a 22-year-old Nasarawa United defender, slumped and died in a football match against FC Abuja. He could have been saved but the ambulance at the stadium was non-functional and there was no working defibrillator.
Commenting on the sorry state of stadium infrastructure, Bayelsa United coach Diprieye noted that “If you do not have good infrastructure, good management, good welfare, It will be very difficult for us to move forward”.
Apart from the infrastructure challenge, no one is safe when watching a live match in the NPFL. In most games, there exists the threat of insecurity. Fans of home teams, more often than not, come to stadiums bearing arms - machetes, stones and sticks. When things don’t go their way, they storm the pitch, beat up referees, coaches and their opponents.
While serving as coach of Enyimba several years ago, Kadiri Ikhana’s legs were severely damaged after he was beaten up by home fans during a game in Kaduna.
Situations such as this make it difficult for away teams to be at their best and for referees to be as fair as possible with their decisions.
According to an official of a south-west club who craved anonymity, home clubs sometimes instigate fan violence to scare referees and away teams. In the event of violence, they are fined between N500, 000 to N5 million and this is easily payable by most club owners - which are state governments.
To make matters worse, there is a lot of laxity regarding implementation of penalties on fan violence by the LMC and critics opine that they need to be stiffer.
“Presently, the penalties include fines, exile from your home stadium for an entire season, which is not an effective deterrent because most of the fans lack the necessary emotional connection to the clubs so as to discourage them from perpetrating violence when their clubs are no longer playing in town,” an LMC employee said.
Why state governments own most football clubs
Even though FIFA’s rules frown upon government interference in footballing activities, a blind eye is turned to the fact that most clubs in the country are under the control of state governments. The funding of such clubs by state governments is viewed as “interventions”. But even if FIFA decides to kick against it, can it be helped? In every practical sense, most likely not.
The administration of a football club in Nigeria is so expensive and so unprofitable, hence a lot of private individuals do not venture into it. There are only a handful of private clubs in the country. 98% of the clubs in Nigeria are owned by the government, save for MFM FC and IfeanyiUbah FC.
From a business point of view, there are no returns. Averagely, an NPFL club will spend N100-N300 million in a 10-month season, so It doesn’t make business sense for a private individual to own a club, seeing as there is no viability in the investment. In the past, the private club owners were mostly politicians or corporate entities.
“We are a private club, spending from our pocket. The league is not marketable. No club makes money in Nigeria,” says an official of IfeanyiUbah. “We are always hoping that it gets better.”.
The issue of government interference is also cause for concern, according to insiders. LMC sometimes asks some clubs whose stadiums are in terrible shape to play from another state, but they often refuse. Eventually, they will complain to their state governments, which will in turn talk to the LMC or NFF and “force their hands” to reverse the directive. “There is a lot of politics in the league which also affects the credibility”.
State-owned football clubs in the NPFL
Wikki Tourists - Bauchi state government
Rivers United - Rivers state government
Enugu Rangers - Enugu state government
Niger Tornadoes - Niger state government
Lobi Stars - Benue state government
Katsina United - Katsina state government
Kwara United - Kwara state government
Sunshine Stars - Ondo state government
Enyimba - Abia state government
Remo Stars - Ogun state government
Bendel Insurance - Edo state government
Yobe Desert Stars - Yobe state government
Abia Warriors - Abia state government
Plateau United - Plateau state government
Kano Pillars - Kano state government
Heartland - Imo state government
Akwa United - Akwa Ibom state government
El Kanemi Warriors - Borno state government
Delta Force F.C. - Delta state government
Gombe United - Gombe state government
FIRST NEXT, THEN REDSTRIKE
A common concern about the league voiced by all the players interviewed is the absence of games on international television, local television, or any screen for that matter. Plateau United and former Flying Eagles striker, Jesse Akila, says the league will improve if the games are televised because “referees/officiating will be under more scrutiny”.
Two years after the collapse of the Supersport deal, the LMC in 2019 entered into a commercial rights agreement with Next Digital Broadcasting.
The deal, said to be worth $225 million, was criticised as being unviable, because games were expected to be broadcast via Over The Top (OTT) transmission (ie; streaming service) to the public while they would also be made available to TV channels willing to pay.
An LMC official who spoke anonymously disclosed that “the deal was not exactly viable, seeing as it is a data-intensive arrangement. Even the one on TV was hardly watched, so how will poor Nigerians use their hard-earned data to watch the league”.
According to the outline of the partnership obtained from parties privy to the agreement, the OTT arrangement was supposed to be carried out in partnership with 9mobile.
The agreement with Next Digital Broadcasting included the production of NPFL matches for distribution, sale of NPFL content produced, commercialization of NPFL rights to generate enough revenue.
But less than a year into the five-year deal that commenced in November 2019, the rights were sold to Redstrike Media Nigeria.
Although the LMC has been tight-lipped about the reason for changing partners, documents obtained from insiders revealed that RedStrike submitted a formal interest for the acquisition of the entire shareholding in Next Digital Broadcasting LTD.
"We are therefore writing to advise that a Redstrike-led Consortium of investors/financiers is interested in developing all the Commercial opportunities currently held by Next TV including but not limited to the NPFL commercial rights," said the letter addressed to Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim of Next Digital by Howard Thomas, CEO of Redstrike.
The letter, dated April 2020, came three months after Next Digital had already issued the payment of $300,000 to the LMC as signature fee and negotiation guarantee. Insiders say this and other payments cannot be accounted for by the LMC management.
Asides from the fact that details of the Redstrike deal are shrouded in secrecy, a possible complication is the fact that Next Digital had collaborated with the LMC to form a JVC known as NPFL-NEXT Marketing Media Company. The company was incorporated in March 2020 and Next Digital Broadcasting has 51% controlling shares in it.
Following the announcement of RedStrike as the new owner of the NPFL’s commercial rights , it was reported that Next Digital was suing the NPFL for a breach of contract and seeking N7 billion in damages. But within a week of the report, the LMC and Next Digital released a joint statement saying that they had "resolved amicably" all "contentious matters" between them.
When asked via email about the nature of the “contentious matters” and other related issues, Next Digital failed to respond.
DELAYED COVID-19 FUNDS
Ahead of the post-COVID resumption of the NPFL, many clubs find themselves in dire financial straits, given the effects of the pandemic on the purse of private owners and government.
The league, rescheduled to resume on December 13, failed to start and insiders attribute the delay to a number of reasons, including paucity of funds and also the fact that the LMC and club owners were supposed to ratify the resumption date at an AGM which is yet to take place.
Another stumbling block in the path of the NPFL’s resumption is a new LMC directive which mandates clubs to have in place insurance for players, acceptable facilities at stadiums, and sufficient funds that guarantees they have the ability to pay players.
Meanwhile, sources say several club administrators would rather push back the resumption date, with many still scrambling to upgrade their stadia to meet acceptable licensing standards.
The delay in the disbursement of the FIFA COVID-19 fund by the NFF also didn’t help matters. In August, the NFF announced that the palliative will be shared among the clubs in the league to help them prepare for the 2020/21 season. NFF president Amaju Pinnick had said the NFF received $1 million and it would be shared across the various clubs and governing bodies of the various leagues. Based on the breakdown made available by the NFF boss, the NPFL is to get $500,000 while the Women Football League (NWFL) will also get $500,000.
Two months later in October, Pinnick confirmed on Twitter that the funds had been received and that disbursement would start in a week.
According to an insider in the NFF, FIFA released half of the COVID-19 palliative to all association members in July, with the rest to be disbursed in January 2021.
“It is surprising and suspicious that the disbursement started towards the end of November. No one can explain why there was a four months delay,” the insider said.
While the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, SWAN, and the Professional Footballers Association of Nigeria, PFAN, recently announced receipt of their portion of the funds, several clubs in the NPFL insist that they are yet to get paid.
But Demola Olajire, NFF spokesperson, maintains that the funds have been disbursed.
“The payments were made from the same CBN platform. Anyone who has not received will eventually receive," he said.
As of Friday morning, the chairmen of 10 clubs confirmed that they had received 50% of the money - well over five months after NFF was credited by FIFA.