Let's create sports superstars to attract fans

Tuesday January 9 2018

Isuzu East Africa chairman Eisaku Akazawa (left) hands over keys to an Isuzu D-Max double cab to Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge on October 5, 2017 in Nairobi after his triumph at last month’s Berlin Marathon. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |

Isuzu East Africa chairman Eisaku Akazawa (left) hands over keys to an Isuzu D-Max double cab to Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge on October 5, 2017 in Nairobi after his triumph at last month’s Berlin Marathon. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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A lot has been said after giant betting firm SportPesa decided to withdraw backing for Kenyan federations and clubs, throwing the country’s sport into a tailspin.

Most certainly, Kenya’s preparations for the April 4-15 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, will take some beating, considering that the betting giants sponsored key Commonwealth Games disciplines including boxing and rugby.

A write-up by my friend Peter Gacheru, a sports marketing consultant and chief executive officer at public relations firm IMG, caught my eye, and, with his kind permission, I share an abridged version of his thoughts:

“Two months back, I sent a warning to sports federations. I suggested that it was high time they expanded their sponsorship pool, and probably looked at the growing SME sector.

"Well, on Tuesday, January 2, 2018, SportPesa  -  the biggest of the betting companies  -  cancelled all their local (please note local) sponsorship contracts totalling to more than S600 million, citing unfavourable tax regulation.

"As things stand, the cancellation move has already sent several teams and federations into panic mode. I hope that this move will be a wake-up call for sports federations and teams. It’s obvious that the government has to invest more in sports. Sports federations need not only look at the SME sector but also to their fans for financial sport."

"But fans will not attend sporting events just to support federations. The sporting events and matches must provide fun and entertainment to attract spectators."

"My Uncle Lucas (his real name) for instance, religiously attended matches at the City Stadium every Saturday. But he always feared for the safety of his car.
Luckily for him, we lived in the neighbouring Shauri Moyo Estate, (yes that’s where I was brought up) where we provided safe parking for his car, while he walked to “Citi” as we called it."

"If your sports venues are not safe enough to park a car, how do you expect to #JazaStadi? (fill up the stadium).

"Unfortunately, most federations have assumed that these diehard fans will always be there. That guys will come to the game no matter what. True, they will always be there, but they are very few.

"I believe the solution to funding sports sustainably is in getting fans back on the stands. The corporates will follow the regular fan. For more than 10 years, I served on the Executive Board of the Badminton World Federation. (BWF). And as part of the marketing committee, one of our mandates was to seek sponsorships for our many events."

"While the game was well known among the Commonwealth countries, it didn’t have what we would call a global following. We knew without such global following, the big bucks wouldn’t come."

"We needed the big sponsors so that we would increase our prize money and have our stars listed alongside golf, tennis and football stars. We needed to create stars.

"We watched with envy as the popularity of tennis, golf and Formula One grew in Africa following the success of the Williams Sisters, Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton respectively."

"Last year, I had the opportunity to work on the hosting of IAAF World Under 18 Youth Championship in Nairobi. A last-minute addition to the programme was the invitation of the Kenyan athletics legends."

"To my surprise, we had more than 100 legends to accommodate, the majority of whom only a few of us could recognise. Many seemed to have suffered serious economic hardships."

"And in true to Kenyan fashion, we blamed the government for “neglecting our past heroes.”

"The solution to our federations is getting back fans and athletes making a decent livelihood after the competition years lies in star creation. Federations need to learn how to create sporting stars. Fans follow and idolise stars. This behaviour is what attracts sponsors."

Just before the London World Athletes Championships, the French team had scheduled a total of 17 media interviews, while the Norway had eight.

Kenya, the defending champions, had none! Kenya had squandered the opportunity to highlight our track stars.

No wonder little is known of our athletes.

Did you know Kenyans won all except one of the World Marathon Majors races in 2017?

Can you name two of the lady winners?

Our champions will continue to make money until their last race, after that we hope they’ll have invested well.

No advertising agency will be chasing them for an advert or product endorsement after retirement.

Meanwhile, their European and American counterparts like Carl Lewis continue to make money way past their competition days.

The same applies to our football legends.

The art of star creation is not new to us. Julius Yego’s YouTube story is well known.

He was propelled into being a household name well before his World Championships gold medal in Beijing (2015).

Stars must have more than just good performance.

They need some drama or story to go with the success.

Sometimes, all one needs is a signature victory dance like Ezekiel Kemboi’s, or Usain Bolt’s “Lightning Bolt” victory pose, or Mo Farah’s heart (over head) sign.

Federations must create these stories.

They must help and train athletes on how to engage with fans, a job that Eliud Kipchoge (@EliudKipchoge) and David Rudisha (@rudishadavid) are doing very well on Twitter.

Mo Farah updates his Instagram account regularly, much to the delight of Nike.

Social media provides an easy, almost free platform for clubs, teams, federations and athletes to engage with fans.

They can use these platforms, not just to update scores, but to let fans interact with the human side of the athletes.