Nigeria’s top tier league kicks off this weekend for the 2016 season, after a three-month hiatus which saw championship-winning coach Kadiri Ikhana pitch up with the Shooting Stars and Kano Pillars complete the signing of Prince Aggreh from Sunshine Stars. But the most significant news came with less than two weeks to the start of the season, and it had little to do with actual football.
League organisers League Management Company (LMC) announced that their contract with long time title sponsors Glo had come to an end and would not be renewed. This was seismic in more ways than one.
It might have been seen by some as nothing more than an unmitigated disaster for the fledgling league. In actual fact, those at the LMC offices were delighted they now have freedom from the restrictions imposed by the previous deal. A huge part of this was the complete exclusivity that deal granted the previous title sponsors, which made it impossible to attract any additional income, bar broadcast rights, for the league.
Unshackled and with a new lease of life, league organisers are now aiming higher than previously expected now they have ditched the single title sponsor model.
“We are now looking more in terms of strategic partnerships in at least six different categories, from which we expect to raise between N4 – N6 billion yearly,” Shehu Dikko, chairman of the LMC told ESPN FC.
Those are massive figures — which would represent a huge jump from the N665 million of last season that gave exclusive rights to a single sponsor — and league sources have told ESPN FC that there are no shortage of potential suitors lining up to lend their names to what is a rapidly improving product.
Nigerian fans normally attend matches together with their entire families to catch the stars in action.
Over the last three seasons, not only has the income coming into the league increased, clubs have also received a bigger slice of the pie.
According to figures obtained from the LMC, clubs received 62 percent of the N741m expended by the league in 2013. That figure went up to 68 percent — of just over N1bn — in 2014. Last season, of the nearly N2bn expended by the league, 71 percent went to the clubs, with a total of N150m as season-ending prize money, up from N50m and N75m in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
The numbers were reflected in guaranteed income, prize money paid out, and numerous, previously non-existent incentive payments to boost the football business.
Champions Enyimba claimed about N80m, made up of the flat N40m paid to each club; N30m as title-winning prize money; N1.25m as incentive for winning five games on the road; N800,000 for eight away draws and a total of N4.75m for getting crowds of over 5,000 for their 19 home games. There was also an additional total of N2m from the N200,000 monthly stadium maintenance grant to each of the 20 clubs, and the facility fee of N250,000 for each of their home games broadcast live.
While this may not sound like much, it represents a significant increase from previous seasons. In 2013, Kano Pillars received a total of N20.5m for winning the title. This was made up of N10m in prize money and N10.5m in equal, league-wide guaranteed payment.
That figure went up to N30m in 2014, with N15m as prize money and another N15m as guaranteed income, but with none of the incentive payments introduced for the 2015 season.
But it wasn’t only top-placed teams enjoying the benefits. For the first time ever, each of the four relegated clubs received a N20m parachute payment in addition to their guaranteed N40m equal share of league revenue and position-based prize money. The last-placed club in the league received N3.5m for a total of N63.5m.
In a league where clubs struggle to pay wages — which average out to about N5m monthly — this prize money can pay wages for a full season. With some loose change left over.
All of this has reflected both on the pitch and in the stands. Two of the biggest criticisms facing the Nigerian league are that teams can only win at home, and the lack of security at league grounds.
Last season’s tally of 31 away wins across the league was the highest in 10 years, while its 92 away draws was the highest in top flight history. Enyimba’s 70 points was also a league record, five more than Pillars in 2014. A total of 817 goals were scored, the second highest in professional league history, second only to last season’s 836.
But that was not all. There were only three incidents of assaults on officials; a league low nine incidents of crowd trouble also set a new record indicating that stadiums are increasingly safe places to go to.
Lack of security personnel has been one of the biggest issues in Nigerian domestic football.
And it also showed in the crowds turning up. Kano, Aba, Akure, Makurdi, Uyo, Ibadan, Enugu and other venues across the country witnessed impressive turnouts, especially for the big games.
Enugu, not known for filling up their stadium in recent years, almost packed the 25,000-capacity Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium for their 2-1 home defeat to Enyimba. Shooting Stars, despite their struggles, still pulled 12,000 every week to the Adamasingba Stadium.
Official league figures estimate an average of 8,000-10,000 turning up to see games across the country every week. These include families with children.
“It is clear to see that our league venues are not only family-friendly, but offer good quality football that will impress anyone who makes the effort to come out and see rather than depend on old, outdated perceptions,” LMC Director Nduka Irabor told ESPN FC.
As the 2016 season kicks off this weekend, the hope is that NPFL sceptics will look at the gradual gains on previous seasons, and embrace a new, refreshing narrative of Nigerian domestic football.