Devolution should pave way for franchise leagues

Tuesday December 12 2017

National Super League champions Vihiga United FC players and officials when they paid a courtesy call on the Nation Sports desk at Nation Centre on December 9, 2017. Their success, and that of Vihiga Queens in the women’s Premier League, demonstrates the potential that county governments have in sports development. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |

National Super League champions Vihiga United FC players and officials when they paid a courtesy call on the Nation Sports desk at Nation Centre on December 9, 2017. Their success, and that of Vihiga Queens in the women’s Premier League, demonstrates the potential that county governments have in sports development. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ELIAS MAKORI
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Two unrelated events drew my attention last weekend: Vihiga Queen’s victory in the women’s football Premier League, and Kisumu Governor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o’s comments at a social night in Kisumu city.

Vihiga Queens edged out Thika Queens 2-1 in a “royal battle” to win the women’s Premier League after play-offs in Nairobi, just days after their male counterparts Vihiga United won the National Super League to gain promotion to next season’s Kenyan Premier League.

And speaking at a “quiz night” in Kisumu, Governor Nyong’o rooted for the formation of county sports teams as a way of lifting sporting standards nationally.

I couldn’t agree more with the good governor!

VISIBLE LEGACY

The teams from Vihiga County have shown what county government support can do in nurturing talent.

One of the most visible legacies that founding governor Moses Akaranga can pride himself in is the development of footballing talent in Vihiga County.

As patron of the champion football clubs, Akaranga took up a hands-on role, supporting the clubs financially and morally, and even after the current governor, Wilbur Otichillo ascended to power, county government support for football didn’t diminish.

“After Akaranga left, we thought, due to the political rivalry, support for the clubs would diminish, but Governor Otichillo has continued with the support and that’s why the two teams have been able to win the respective leagues — we owe a great deal of our success to the two leaders,” Vihiga United CEO Michael Senelwa told me.

Which brings me to my main thought: Why not employ a radical shift from the current league set-up to a franchise-like system? Not only in football, but also in other major team sports, like basketball, hockey, rugby and cricket?

This would mean that rather than have clubs strewn all over the place, each county adopts one team so that we have 47 strong teams that form “county franchises.”

With 47 strong teams, the levels of both competition and financial support would rise immensely, largely thanks to “hometown pride” and the economic spin-offs that come with county teams and venues.

Already, Kakamega and Machakos, currently hosting matches of the Cecafa Senior Challenge Cup, have demonstrated that with good sporting infrastructure, counties can enjoy the benefits of big-time sports.

In my dream county franchise system, the top-tier Kenyan Premier League, for instance, would have 18 county teams, with a second-tier competition of as many teams and the remaining 11 playing in a third-rung competition.

Rather than corporate sides like Kenya Ports Authority or Kenya Breweries Limited fielding teams alongside nondescript clubs, we would have strong county sides, like, say, Migori County “Brewers” or Mombasa County “Portsmen”, sponsored by the respective companies along with other backers from the local communities.

Besides hometown pride, such franchise teams would ensure consistency, high level management and also ensure a more level playing field among the teams competing in the leagues.

The leagues would be easier to administer and more teams will have a realistic chance of winning the championship with county input ensuring construction of excellent, world-class stadiums and amenities that will be used by resident teams.

The economic spin-offs will also accrue, with hotel bed capacity increasing to cater for visiting sports teams and fans.

Besides, the home team stadiums will open up revenue streams for the county governments as these facilities could also be used for concerts, crusades and other income-generating gatherings that would ensure the home teams do not solely rely on local government financing.

This will be a business model created along the lines of the USA’s NBA basketball league, Major League Baseball, National Football League (NFL) or indeed Major League Soccer competitions. Or the Japanese J-League system.

Steady revenue streams for these franchise leagues will include advertising, sponsorship, royalties, ticket sales and endorsements.

For conservatives, traditional community kingpins like Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards or Shabana FC would still exist, adopted by individual counties while still maintaining their unique identities.

The J-League model, for instance, sees clubs get the backing of local governments, companies and citizens in their respective prefectures (regions).

With the county system up and running in Kenya, perhaps it’s time to rethink how our clubs and leagues are structured.

Vihiga County has demonstrated that the future of Kenyan sport is in the counties.