Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sports business a virgin land yet to be exploited

Chelsea’s Didier Drogba celebrates with Michael Essien after scoring a goal. Bringing English Premier League teams to Kenya on pre-season tours is a very viable business opportunity, especially with the World Cup coming to Africa next year. Photo/FILE

Chelsea’s Didier Drogba celebrates with Michael Essien after scoring a goal. Bringing English Premier League teams to Kenya on pre-season tours is a very viable business opportunity, especially with the World Cup coming to Africa next year. Photo/FILE 

By GISHINGA NJOROGE

Manchester City have planned a three-game summer tour of South Africa in a move seen in England as towards establishing a global brand and gaining ground on Manchester United’s worldwide popularity.

Touring South Africa is clearly a City’s raid on United territory. The country is a Manchester United hotbed.

City have accepted an invitation to take part in a three-game tour in July that will see them face Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria.

The news is highly significant for Kenyans because this country does not lack ambitions of developing into as a hub on which staging of world class sporting events can rotate.

The wheels of the popular English Premier League must be moving pretty fast even for one enigmatic Kenyan with a staggering record of bringing some of the greatest world sportsmen off all time to play in Kenya and staging spectacular events with fantastic world appeal.

In 1996, Sharad Ghai burst into a breathtaking limelight of managing Kenyan cricket, leaving everyone dumbfounded by his tactics.

Between then and 2005, Ghai bankrolled the professionalising of talented Kenya national team players giving them a semblance of the status of others in the leading nations.

He also galvanised incredible sponsorship for the country to host every great cricket playing nation and bring to Kenya the entire cast of world cricket stars playing in that period.

Detractors

Amid all the glamour and associated big money business Ghai acquired detractors. Three officials of the Nairobi Province Cricket Association (NPCA) John Moyi, Tom Tikolo and Sukhbans Singh, lodged a case in court saying that Sharad Ghai’s sports management company, Media Plus, had failed to pay the Kenya Cricket Association (KCA) $3.3 million (approximately Sh233 million) after a four-nation tournament involving India, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya in 1999.

The NPCA said they were affiliates of the KCA and were concerned that KCA had been deprived of money by Sharad Ghai’s company. But only Moyi, in the end, was available to give evidence and said that KCA did not receive the $3.3m they were entitled to. Tikolo and Singh did not avail themselves at the court over several sittings.

Eventually, in the Chief Magistrate’s court, Nairobi, on the criminal case No.698 of 2005, CM A.O. Muchelule said: “I find the accused has no case to answer…and is accordingly acquitted.”

Chief Magistrate Muchelule said there was evidence that the KCA had no complaint against the accused in regard to the alleged $3.3m. The magistrate sited the KCA chairman, Jimmy Rayani’s evidence that the agreement with Media Plus provided for how the KCA was to benefit from the agreement and indeed benefited leaving them with no complaint.

All that is water under the bridge for Sharad Ghai but the ramifications of his ceasing to take part in Kenyan cricket reverberate to this day. After ending his contractual obligation to pay the salaries of Kenya cricket players after the end of the shenanigans in 2006 the country’s performance has been dismal.

Business magic

But the indefatigable Ghai, a former Kenya table tennis international, could as well have been weaving his business magic in any other sport outside cricket.

He has a passion for all top-flight competition -- from rugby football, swimming, volleyball and football. In a short stint, he involved himself with the national football team, Harambee Stars, hoping, then, to put the players on the same professional status as the cricketers. Familiar Kenya Football Federation lack of foresight put breaks on Ghai’s venture.

He has an interesting plan for volleyball and his dream is to turn the talented Kenyan women’s national and club sides -- the best in Africa -- not just aspirants for intermittent participation in the world and Olympic championships.

“How about making sure that the glamorous women’s teams of Cuba, Brazil, USA, etc, play major tournaments in our gymnasium here in Nairobi? It can be done,” he says.

Before that, Ghai had been looking at the Manchester United “African spectacle”. United have been regular visitors to South Africa in recent years, touring the country during the pre-season campaigns of both 2006 and 2008.

Last year, United added a Nigerian leg to the African tour and Ghai was to enviously comment: “It should be a three-nation circuit and the next stop should be our country. We ought to be a natural destination.”

Sachin Tendulkar

Having brought to Kenya, West Indies and Brian Lara, Pakistan with Wasim Akram and Waqar Yunis, India with Sachin Tendulkar, South Africa with Hansie Cronje, Australia with Shane Warne, Sri Lanka with Muttiah Muralitharan and England with Andy Flintoff, Ghai sees no reason why Christiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney will not be kicking a ball in Nairobi soon.
“These are the dreams of wonderful sports business which I believe I will pull off.

“I would like to turn round on its head something like volleyball which our country is fantastic but in business has been underestimated. But in the obviously ready football market, the sky is the limit.

“If you believed that there is nothing else than wrangles in African football you will be sorely mistaken. How can the Manchester United and City be trying to outshine each other on our stage if there was nothing to be reaped?”

When it came to money in sport, Ghai walked the talk. His wage bill throughout the nine years or so he paid the Kenya cricket tem was, at the minimum, Sh12 million a year.

“That was for basic salaries; no allowances. When the team was busy playing here and touring, it went as high as Sh44 million a year. Players had a good life and prospects.”

How did Sharad Ghai do it? “At the time I had wonderful business partners and sponsors including Kenya Breweries Limited, Safaricom, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Emirates, and British Airways.

Back-breaking

“The work was back breaking and it did not help that those who cannot roll their sleeves and do a job are always the ones who think there are easy pickings. There was good money but I was not going to share it with busybodies. And perhaps the situation would have been phenomenal now had the rot of envy and sheers stupidity set in.”

The milestones of Ghai’s cricket business involvement included: 1996 – four-nation tournament involving Sri Lanka, South Africa, Pakistan and Kenya; 1998 – tri-nations tournament, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Kenya; 1999 – LG four-nation tournament, India, SA, Zimbabwe, Kenya; 2000 – ICC knock-out trophy, all Test playing nations plus Kenya; 2000 – Pakistan tour of Kenya; 2001 – Kenya tour to South Africa for tri-nations tourney involving SA, India and Kenya; 2003a – World Cup match in Nairobi versus Sri Lanka; 2005 – India “A” and Pakistan “A” two and a half month tour of Kenya.

Football, Ghai says, is a much easier sell in sports business and he plans, in the very near future, to pull off something “to prove the point” and perhaps show the way to a few other Kenyans who should not fear getting involved.

“Imagine a Manchester United match at Coca Cola Stadium. Piece of cake selling a ticket at whatever you like. There would not be enough room for those who would break a bank to pay whatever price.”

And a beaming Ghai adds: “The ‘Nation’ Sports Editor, Elias Makori would temporarily relocate his office to the stadium seat a few days before kick-off date; won’t leave anything to chance of missing any detail!”

Enemy terrain

Manchester City have spotted the hole to drop in and infiltrate “enemy” terrain and make hay when the sun shines. With Manchester United committed to a four-game tour of the Far East this summer, City have been handed the burgeoning football market in South Africa less than 12 months before the 2010 World Cup.

With a 2007 survey suggesting that United have 10 million supporters in South Africa, City’s newly formed brand marketing team regard the chance to establish the club name in a United heartland as a priceless opportunity.

On the football side, South Africa is also regarded as an ideal pre-season base due to the good autumn weather and the absence of the time zone difficulties.

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