Africa: Sports as a Business and a Brand

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At the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, the visual imagery of  almost empty stadiums is a powerful narrative. But not the kind that African sports, African football, or corporate sponsors deserve.

The empty seat syndrome in suggests that football fans are voting with their feet, or better still with their backsides. Fans are choosing not to watch live football events, and instead are opting in increasing numbers  for the ‘intimacy’ of their crystal clear digital flat TV screens, or not all.

Before Egypt’s stunning 0-1 loss to South Africa in the round of 16, the host country was the only team able to attract 70,000 fans. Other than when Mo Salah and the Pharaohs have been on the field, most stadia across Egypt have at best attracted an average of 5,000 to 7,000 fans.

Official broadcast camera crews have done a creative job minimizing the visual gaps of empty seats. But wide camera angles reveal the obvious … a lack of attendance and public enthusiasm, in spite of the presence of some of the biggest names in world football on the field.

In European football leagues, where many of the stars in Egypt ply their trade, fans pay mega bucks to see the likes of John Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Sadio Mane, Ryahd Mahrez, Nicolas Pépé, Wilfred, Zaha, and Kalidou Koulibaly.

Admittedly, Egypt bailed CAF out and should receive well-deserved credit for coming to the rescue and hosting the African Cup of Nations, with barely 6 months notice, when the original hosts were sanctioned due to shoddy preparations.

Nevertheless, the lack of attendance in Egypt speaks volumes high ticket costs; the timing of matches bang in the middle of work days; the difficulties faced by national team supporters in obtaining entry visas to Egypt; and challenges with the Confederation of African Football’s complicated online ticket purchasing system.

It should not be so. This after all, is the most important event in Africa’s sports calendar. At least, it used to be before England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and Germany’s Bundesliga captured our collective imaginations.

The end result is that where once 30,000 to 70,000 fans a week watched highly competitive domestic football leagues across Africa, the empty seat syndrome has been  the norm for almost two decades. It is not unusual to have less than a thousand fans in a stadium that seats 30,000.

The lack of fan attendance has obvious economic and financial implications across the sports value chain for team owners, sports federations and confederations, players, sponsors, advertising and marketing agencies, merchandisers, vendors, and local communities who once counted on fan attendance to boost fledgling economies.