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SuperSport is all about developing sports in Nigeria, Awogu

SuperSport has etched its name on the minds of millions of sports loving Nigerians especially lovers of the English Premiership. Despite losing the Premiership right to a rival company, SuperSport seems to be consolidating its hold on Nigerian sports as it has veered into covering of the local league, basketball league and covered the Nations Cup/World Cup qualifiers. The pay-TV company has also secured the right to beam the 2010 World Cup to Nigerian homes as its
General Manager for  Nigeria, Felix Awogu explains in this interview. Enjoy it.

Felix Awogu

SuperSport Nigeria in 2009
Like my CEO will always say, SuperSport is in for the long haul in Nigeria. 2009 was brilliant; we had major breakthroughs so to say. We broadcast the Basketball League, we consolidated on the Nigerian Premier League and we also aired all the Super Eagles World Cup qualifying matches which were very exciting because we started from the scratch. Even when people lost hope, Nigeria still managed to qualify for the World Cup. We did the production and made it available for other broadcasters in Nigeria. We also did the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, and of course we are looking forward to kicking off 2010 on a high note. For the League, we hope to beam at least three matches every week.

What were the key highlights for 2009?
I mentioned earlier Nigeria’s Super Eagles matches and the qualification for the World Cup in South Africa and the Nations Cup in Angola when everyone had lost hope. But thank God there was a turn of events for the players and the team qualified. Then there was the hosting of the FIFA 2009 Under-17 World Cup by Nigeria and the fact that we did the production and also made it available to most of the broadcasters, were also very key elements for us. In addition, the fact that two Nigerian teams from the local league, the Globacom Premier League: Kano Pillars and Heartland, got to the semi-finals and one of them actually played in the final of the CAF Champions League and today the Nigerian league is actually recognized as the number one on the continent. These were some of the key highlights.

Agenda for 2010
In 2010, our major plan is to consolidate on the Nigerian Premier League, as it is our biggest and one of the most important properties. We’ll be seeking for Nigeria to develop interest in and appreciate what they have as we develop the Nigerian Premier League to become a world-class product like the English Premier League, like the South African League, the Italian Serie A and any of the other important leagues around the world. These are some of the key highlights we would be looking forward to and then the Nations Cup of course and then the World Cup in Africa for the first time. These are key elements that we look forward to working on

As a key stakeholder in Nigeria’s sports, what is your assessment of the sector in 2009 vis-à-vis SuperSport’s contribution to its growth and development?

I think, to a large extent, I can say we have done very well. Just like in any other facet of life we have been on the downward stream but there is also a revival coming up quietly, it may be slow but it is coming up quietly. Infrastructure is beginning to improve in Nigeria especially after the 2009 U-17 event. Before, it was really embarrassing doing some of our league matches because the pitches were not television-friendly. But after the 2009 Under-17 tournament here in Lagos, they have been upgraded.

There have also been major changes in the sports fraternity with Chief Patrick Ekeji coming in as Director General; he is a more development —oriented personality and that to us is good and also the new Minister who was also the President of the Tennis Association of Nigeria. So, right now that we have core sports-oriented people at the peak of sports administration in Nigeria is a welcome development.

Come June, Nigeria will join other 31 teams from different parts of the world to take part in FIFA World Cup, taking place in South Africa. What are SuperSport’s plans to ensure that Nigerian fans enjoy the competition?

This is the biggest sporting event; we have waited, the continent has waited, so I don’t want to call it a South African World Cup, I would rather call it a World Cup for Africa and indeed for all countries who would be watching and hoping to have a great outing. Of course, we would be doing a world-class event; we have been doing it over the years before the World Cup but this is a special World Cup.

So, we would be coming out with some special and new programming around the World Cup. We are looking towards a Nigerian house, that’s what the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) is thinking of in Angola where every Nigerian could come and converge after every match. The objective is to participate actively in such an event and get Nigerians closer to the World Cup. I wouldn’t say we have come out with the final plan for the World Cup but very soon, maybe after the Nations Cup, we would sit back and come out with a comprehensive plan for the World Cup which will be mind-blowing. It’s going to be an exciting one with some dedicated channels, about 2 or 3 dedicated channels for the World Cup.

You talked earlier about the Globacom Premier League as SuperSport’s main focus for this year. However, some people complained about live coverage of the League last year. While some felt SuperSport favoured some clubs ahead of others, some felt SuperSport was not doing enough to bring viewers live matches from some regions.  What’s your take on this?

There are always challenges for anything in the developmental stage. All over the world, rights owners make matches available for you to watch. Like in England for the EPL and Italy for the Serie A, we did not need to carry our OB Vans, everything is already produced and made available to us. But here, we are doing what I call a developmental program in the sense that we help to do the production to meet our standards. Secondly, the road network in Nigeria makes certain regions less accessible.

Moving from the North, say Kano, to Owerri is very hectic and you cannot fly these OB Vans. So, what we have done in essence is to try as much as we can to cover everybody. However, there are stadia we cannot go to, like the one in Minna. Obviously, we cannot cover live matches there, but what we do in such places are highlight packages. So, it’s not like we have favoured any team Of course the big teams, Rangers International, Kano Pillars, Sharks Football Club, Dolphin Football Club and Warri Wolves, Enyimba, 3SC, etc., we cover them more because of their proximity .

We can take a match in Port Harcourt on Saturday and it is easy for us to take a drive to Aba or Owerri which is one hour away to do a second match because we want to do as many matches as possible. But in the North, the geography is a little difficult, you do a match in Bauchi and then for you to move your OB Van to Kano, it is a challenge because it takes about eight hours due to the bad roads. In addition, you consider the human factor, the risk element involved when you are doing this kind of thing because we have to take our security into consideration when we are going for these matches. We try to guarantee life and property so that we can do more of these matches.

The DStv Basketball League, sponsored by MultiChoice Nigeria, is considered by many as a laudable initiative. What would you say the sponsorship has helped to achieve for the game?

First of all, this is the first time basketball is coming on TV. Secondly, we are putting money into the pockets of the Federation. Apart from football, no other sport really has sponsorship in this country and that is also very important.

If you go to South Africa, Egypt and these other countries, we have Rugby competing with football. In Nigeria, it’s just football alone and we thought it was necessary to also raise other sports.

The average Nigerian is tall and big, why can’t they play basketball? Akeem Olajuwon was one of the greatest basketball players out of Nigeria and we are wondering why we can’t develop many more Akeem Olajuwons? That’s why we went into basketball sponsorship and television activation to make sure it is live, so that people can be interested and a lot of young people can start playing the game. The death of school sports actually contributed more to the decline of sports in Nigeria and this is one area that I think the government has to really look forward to developing. We are developing a generation of young people, who are illiterate sportsmen.

Do you think this sole sponsorship can do much for the sport? Do you see a possibility where MultiChoice can go into an agreement with others to sponsor the sport?

We have never been a greedy player. When we came into the Globacom Premier League with television sponsorship, the value of the sponsorship was seventy million naira. It went to about two billion naira in two years. Being on television allows other sponsors to participate because they have one or two places where they can showcase to the people what they are doing. In other words, we are partnering with Basketball; I don’t want to call it just sponsorship. We are a partner in the development of basketball in this country and, of course, other sponsors are also welcome to be part of it.

At the close of the last season, two of the basketball clubs could not make the continental competition. What would you say was responsible for that?

I just mentioned something; there is a general decay in sponsorship in the country apart from football. Basketball is not well-funded. That will take time. We have only been here for less than a year and in the next two to three years, more sponsors will come, we would get shirt endorsements for these teams, then they can realise enough revenue to participate in some of these events.

Well, it is a club event, not a national event, so I can’t ask why the Federal Government did not sponsor them. I am looking forward to some of these teams hiring brand managers or hiring companies to actually sit down and do a proper audit of these things and help them attract sponsorship. There is a huge business potential ahead of some of these teams and potential sponsors but it is a gradual process. It is rather unfortunate that they didn’t have the sponsorship but I know Kano Pillars attended and didn’t do particularly well at that Championship.

Talking about performance, do you think the present crop of Super Eagles players can do the country proud in this year’s championships?

They are our representatives and they are the best team whether we like it or not. There have been sentiments in the selection but I must tell you, if you select a team of 11 players, surely at least two would be chosen out of sentiment. It is natural and that’s something that happens all over the world from Chelsea to Arsenal to Manchester United; it happens and loyalty to the coach is also part of it. So, I think that though the team may not have been doing particularly well going from 1994 when we were rated number 5 in the world to currently being rated number 22. It’s quite unfortunate.

I think we need to start developmental programmes; we need to improve on our league. It is unfortunate that 100% of the players are from Europe and I think we should start looking inward because it was the same Heartland from the local league that defeated the team from Tunisia. It was the same team from Tunisia that had 11 of their players come and forced our Super Eagles to a 2-2 draw.

I think we should start looking inwards and start encouraging the local lads. If you remember Finidi George played for Sharks before Westerhof brought him into the team, he played two matches and walked right into the first team.  I still think we have some great players in the local league and we should find a way of fusing them together. Egypt played last time in Ghana and won with a completely local side, so we must have a synergy between our local league players and our foreign-based players.

Did Amodu make a mistake by not including any local league player in the squad?
He is the coach. It wouldn’t help if I say Amodu is not my kind of coach because he remains the coach and as long as he remains in the leadership position, we must give all the support and encouragement and not just criticize him. He has his reasons and we must support him.

Nigerians are concerned about the absence of the
EPL on DStv, hence they would like to know what other programs are available for viewers’ enjoyment on SuperSport this season?
That’s the nature of sports.

The rest of the continent will be watching it via SuperSport but we always believe in pricing everything we do fairly as we would like to remain in business for the long haul and we would want to keep entertaining our viewers. We have a pot-pourri of sporting activities. We have almost all the leagues because we also put money into development of the products on the continent. We have the Kenyan, Zambian, Angolan, Ghanaian local Leagues as well as the Nigerian Globacom Premier League.

These are very fundamental to us. If we are really going to have to develop ourselves and we don’t want those guys in Europe stuffing us the way they do, we need to develop our products. We need to develop a young generation of Nigerian players who can feed themselves and not become criminals on the street because at that time you won’t be able to watch any match in your home because you will not feel safe. So we are putting a lot of money, millions of dollars, into the local league.

In South Africa, people are watching the local league more than the English league and any other foreign league. We are hoping that this will become the story in Nigeria. Of course, we had a bid, what I call a very reasonable bid, and we would like to be always reasonable in our bid.

Even in the local league, I believe we have occasions where people get fanatical in their approach to football.
You don’t see killing. Some of these drivers don’t even know the names of some of the players, but the following of the foreign leagues is becoming a gang kind of thing and we should do something about it. The media should actually revive and educate our people.

Let’s celebrate our talents. That’s the reason our league is not taking off, it’s because we don’t celebrate it enough. Everyday, we are talking of our players in Europe, I think we should look inwards and celebrate our own talents here.

How would you describe the man Felix Awogu?
Quiet. I like my tennis because I can’t play football; probably age is catching up with me, but I play tennis regularly. I am a member of Ikoyi Club, either at Ikoyi Club or Excellence Hotel at Ogba, which is close to my house. I go there to while away time. I look forward to a greater nation for all of us.


Disclaimer

Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.