At the opening of the 2018/19 NBA season, there were 13 African-born players on the rosters of NBA teams. Including players with African parents, that number rises to about 40 in total out of the 108 international players. Although the numbers of African athlete participation are not astronomical, it is noteworthy. Moreover, the NBA are arguably leading the way regarding investment in Africa and the future of their sport.
Two leading examples of African athletes who are flourishing in the NBA are: Cameroon’s Joel Embiid, a 25-year old centre for the Philadelphia 76ers, who signed a five-year contract worth nearly $150 million in 2017. The other leading talent is Nigerian Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, born in Greece to Nigerian parents. Both Giannis and Joel were contenders to become the NBA’s most valuable player last season.
The NBA have opened their minds to the possible market of Africa by launching the Basketball Africa League. The NBA has clearly identified the possibilities that the large audiences and future athletes can bring to the sport.
These countries with gigantic populations, bring the possibility of mass numbers engaging with the sport and sponsors. The population of a country, cheering on the players who came from their homeland and adding to the culture of the game. Lest we forget, equally as important, the possible athletes who can promote Basketball further and create more revenue, in Africa and America.
The Basketball Africa League (BAL)
The Basketball Africa League (BAL), a partnership between the NBA and the international basketball governing body FIBA, was set to tip off in 2020 with a qualification tournament scheduled, but this is more likely to be resumed later in the year.
As a result of the BAL, Africa is getting an incredible boost with the launch of the first NBA-affiliated regional league.
12 teams from 9 countries including Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa are set to make up the league. A maximum of two teams will represent each country. No new clubs or franchises will be created for now rather existing teams will develop their fan base and talent on the court.
This has clearly been in the minds of the top brass of the NBA for a while. In preparation for this ground breaking project, the NBA established an Africa office nine years ago. It held its first NBA Africa game in 2015 and games in 2017 and 2018 were played in front of sold-out crowds in South Africa.
In March 2019, the NBA began live-streaming (on YouTube) two games a week for free for viewers in sub-Saharan Africa, in a bid to build a larger fan base on the continent.
The league opened an elite basketball academy in Senegal in 2017, which along with its Basketball Without Borders Africa program, has showcased African talent hoping to play for NBA teams or U.S. colleges.
The NBA has an impressive investment footprint with the opening of an elite centre in Senegal last year, several training camps for young players as part of the Basketball without Borders program since 2001 and hosting an annual exhibition game in Africa since 2015.
But it doesn’t stop there!
Many professional players of African descent, including hall of famers two-time Houston Rockets champion Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria and indomitable one-time finalist Dikembe Mutombo of DR Congo have been involved in the NBA’s African outreach.
Current players such as Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng, Cameroon’s Joel Embiid, DRC’s Bismack Biyombo, and South Sudan’s Luol Deng have also had a hand in building the NBA’s African brand at a grassroots level.
In contrast to the steady pool of African soccer players lending their services to European countries or leaving in droves for greener pastures overseas because of the game’s mismanagement on the continent, the NBA has focused on developing local talent with the long view that they will play professionally in the new league and later in North America.
The BAL announcement on All Star Weekend, included soccer superstar Didier Drogba talking up the game’s economic benefits for African countries and commissioner Adam Silver noting that Africa “has a huge economic engine”.
Currently, the average worth of an NBA team is around $1.9billion mostly pouring into the owners’ pockets but players also earn multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsement deals.
Imagine what this money could go toward in Africa!
Former US president Barack Obama, an avid basketball fan, is expected to play a role in strengthening the operations of the game. He features heavily in a promotional NBA video for the new league.
Of course, starting at grassroots is the best start to developing a sport for the NBA’s benefit.
But, realistically, not all of the BAL players will make it to the NBA.
So, in turn, the NBA realises that the creation of the BAL is not just for their benefit of the NBA but for Africa as a whole!
This amazing forward thinking got me thinking, what are other sports doing to give back to Africa? And…why are they not investing in Africa?
On Wednesday the 29th of April, 2020, Rugby Africa president Khaled Babbou sent a very powerful message to World Rugby:
‘Grow the game in Africa’
‘Where are the players you will need in 10 years? I say ‘please come and shop’ – we have very good athletes in Africa’
This already sounds similar to the NBA’s idea…
In fact, Babbou refers to the NBA’s £150million investment in a new Basketball Africa League, and the African influence in France’s football World Cup-winning team, and he is pleading for rugby to follow suit. He advocates a seed fund of two or three times the current amount, sustained over a four-year plan, as well as technology and expertise.
He chides the RFU in England and WRU in Wales as absent friends, unlike their counterparts in France and South Africa, who each have a memorandum of understanding with Rugby Africa.
“Go to any suburb of Lagos or Kinshasa and I can give you 30,000 kids to choose from. Look up rugby in Madagascar on YouTube and you will see scenes you would never expect. The problem is that nobody knows about it, even at the highest level. I mean, they have heard of it but I never saw anyone from any place in world rugby that just said ‘oh s**t I should go there’.
“We need to enlarge the basis of players worldwide, and who is going to give these players? It’s Africa.”
Mr Babbou represents 52 countries and 40 unions as the President of Rugby Africa and for this mammoth task, he receives . . . 2 votes in World Rugby matters and are the thankful recipients of the large sum of. . . “about £2 million a year as Rugby Africa [from World Rugby], for the competitions and training and everything”.
This £2 million is intended to help provide for nations who predominantly fall within the lower tiers of the sport. Rugby Africa’s highest ranked team is Namibia at #24 in the world ranking (men’s) and are in the international Tier 2.
With the exceptions of Kenya #32, Zimbabwe #35 and Ivory Coast #42 in Tier 3 (Development One), the majority of the Rugby Africa nations are in the lowest tier – Development Two.
Most of these nations heavily rely on this funding so they can survive. By survive, I mean, so they can afford the rugby balls, playing kit, mini buses to games and CLEAN WATER!!
*Granted, not all but a large amount suffers from a water and sanitation crisis. I highly recommend going to and finding out more on WaterAid. *
These nations would seriously suffer without the kind and generous private backing from a handful of passionate but fleeting individuals.
46 Sub-Saharan African countries suffer as part of the global water crisis and of the 25 countries globally with the least access to safe water -19 of them are African.
Big teams get big money!
In direct comparison, England receive approximately £7 million from World Rugby, of which the RFU match. So, England Rugby Union works with approximately £14 million for the development of the game, as well as funds supplied by private benefactors and sponsors.
Moreover, stats from the Six Nations 2020 alone show that England received $37.25 million from their sponsors, including: $10m from O2, $8 from Canterbury, $4m British Airways, $1.5m from Gilbert and $1.5m from Vitality Insurance.
There is nothing wrong with successful organisations being rewarded for being successful, you certainly shouldn’t take anything from them for doing well in their nation and their sport. Moreover, it should be applauded that successful nations are reinvesting in order to improve further and prepare for the long term.
However, this situation does leave me with some questions:
How does this help the sport as a whole?
In making the best teams better, with very little going to those who are struggling; surely that increases the gap in quality between competitors and hinders the overall development of rugby?
Why is one of the richest international organisations receiving more money than the smaller (in a monetary sense) organisation who is desperate for cash to provide basic water and food for their players?
If you were budgeting for a couple of families, would you prioritise feeding those with the hungry kids or would you make sure the wealthy family gets new Fitbits?
Current attempts to help the little guy:
At least in some sports they try and restore some form of fairness by giving the less successful organisations a benefit or option to try and get them to the same position as the other teams.
In Football’s Premier League, they provide a financial package known as parachute payments so that the organisations are still rewarded for its efforts and is encouraged to push for promotion again.
In the NFL for example, you will find that the worst team will often have the #1 pick in the NFL draft in an attempt to try and improve their team.
Now, I’m not one for sitting in a prayer circle, holding hands and singing kumbaya in the hope that all the world’s problems get resolved. I know not everyone is treated equally and merit plays a large role in where the finances go – the winners should be rewarded.
But, shouldn’t sports organisations such as Rugby, American Football, Basketball, Football (not soccer) – whoever, invest in other areas so the sport can grow, develop and maybe even help some people along the way? Or at least make sure all participants have clean water, let alone 3g pitches…
This is why I put it to you, the reader, that Football, Basketball*, American Football, Rugby and many more sports should give back and invest in Africa.
*Basketball is clearly making huge strides already.
So, here is my quintessential point:
I believe that because each of the aforementioned sports benefit so much from Native born and first-generation African athletes, they should reinvest in the nations.
I believe they should do this for both business and humanitarian reasons:
· African nations have huge populations, if they were all above the poverty line, they could be a part of the market in enjoying, participating in the sport and or spending money on the sport.
· For example, there are nearly 200 million people in Nigeria, imagine if they were all able to spend money on NFL/NBA/Football merchandise?!
· Native born and first-generation athletes are clearly of use to the individual sports. They make for viable athletes and representatives that improve the sports and provide valuable revenue. Surely you would want more? Surely you would want their nations supporting them so you can benefit from the revenue?
· Why wouldn’t you invest in an area which is already yielding dividends?
· Even though the Sub-Saharan African nations (as a majority) are impoverished. Imagine how the quality of your potential pool of athletes could improve if you had more to choose from who have benefited from a better starting point?
I will mostly relate my examples to Nigeria because I have experience working with their Rugby League and Rugby Union organisations, so I can speak from experience. However, I will use other nations where applicable.
African athletes are clearly pivotal to the aforementioned sports. I will demonstrate this through a series of brief examples from the NFL, Rugby and Football at the end.
So here comes the guilt trip:
55 million people don’t have clean water – That’s 1 in every 3 people.
116 million people don’t have a decent toilet – That’s 7 in 10 people who are more likely to be ill, more often.
60,000 children under 5 die a year – Due to poor water and sanitation.
According to UNICEF statistics on Education in Nigeria: “Nigeria’s population growth has put pressure on the country’s resources, public services, and infrastructure”.
With children under 15 years of age accounting for 45% of the 171 million population, the burden on education has become overwhelming.
Primary school enrolment has increased in recent years, but net attendance is only about
70%, but Nigeria still has 10.5 million out-of-school children—the world’s highest number. 60% of those children are in northern Nigeria.
About 60% of out-of-school children are girls. Many of those who do enrol drop out early. Low perceptions of the value of education for girls and early marriages are among the reasons.
– Nigeria’s unemployment rate in 2018 was 23.10% and is predicted to be 33.5%
– Nigeria’s minimum wage is 30,000 Naira per month – sounds great – unfortunately that is only £62 per month.
– The average is 205,000N per month which equals £423 per month.
Now, by no means should these organisations give money away. Nor should they be forced to.
But, according to Touchdown Wire writer, Michael Colangelo and Action Network’s Darren Rovell; the NFL made almost $17 billion in profit at the end of last season which was then distributed in a 52/48 split between the team owners and players.
According to Maxim Shemetov of MarketWatch, FIFA still had $2.74 billion in cash reserves after awarding the prize money to the nations competing in the World Cup which includes £38 million to the aforementioned winning team France. On top of that, FIFA’s revenue rose to $6.4 billion that year.
Lastly, although I can’t access direct details on profit, Statista states that the NBA made $8.6 billion dollars in revenue as a result of the 2018/29 season.
Why am I telling you how much money these three organisations are making?
If each sport contributed to the African nations, where a lot of their players/assets are from – then they could really speed up the process of tackling such basic needs like clean water and sanitation.
The NBA are taking huge strides in supporting African countries by setting up the BAL. Their athletes, future athletes and fans will all benefit from this new league – new sponsors end private investors are sure to follow which can only benefit the countries, their economies and the people as a whole.
African countries who are suffering from a crisis of clean water and sanitation need an approximate sum of up to $200 billion in total to solve the problem.
If major sports get involved, celebrities may get involved, large companies may get involved and this action may well peer pressure the domestic governments to put aside their own selfish agendas and focus on getting their country healthy. From there, anything is possible!
Maybe we should stop focusing on implementing VAR in football, the difference between 3g pitches and grass in Rugby and who deflated the ball in the Patriots game in the NFL… (Tom Brady).
Maybe we should try and get everyone on a level playing field, let’s start with clean water and a toilet.
Stats as promised:
Native-born and first-generation Africans in the NFL – 2017
Ifeanyi Momah, TE NIGERIA, Robert Nkemdiche, DT NIGERIA, Earl Okine, CB GHANA
Martin Ifedi, DE NIGERIA, Mohamed Sanu, WR SIERRA LEONE, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB LIBERIA, Tevin ColemanLIBERIA
Quincy Adeboyejo, WR NIGERIA, Jermaine Eluemunor, G-T NIGERIA, Stephane Nembot, T CAMEROON ,Patrick Onwuasor, LB NIGERIA
Alex Armah, FB GHANA, Efe Obada, DE NIGERIA
Prince Amukamara, CB NIGERIA
Cedric Ogbuehi, T NIGERIA, C.J. Uzomah, TE NIGERIA
B.J. Bello, OL NIGERIA, David Njoku, TE NIGERIA, Emmanuel Ogbah, DL NIGERIA, Larry Ogunjobi, DL NIGERIA, Victor Salako, T NIGERIA
Chidobe Awuzie, CB NIGERIA, Bene Benwikere, CB NIGERIA
Cyrus Kouandjio, T CAMEROON
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, DE GHANA
Kofi Amichia, G GHANA
Ufomba Kamalu, DE NIGERIA
Mo Alie-Cox, TE SIERRA LEONE, Eze Obiora, LB NIGERIA
Yannick Ngakoue, DE CAMEROON, Patrick Omameh, OL NIGERIA, Eli Ankou, DT TOGO
Tamba Hali, DE LIBERIA, Tanoh Kpassagnon, DL UGANDA–CÔTE D’IVOIRE, Jehu Chesson, WR LIBERIA, Ukeme Eligwe, LB NIGERIA
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Jeremiah Attaochu, DE NIGERIA, Folarin Michael Ola, T NIGERIA, Russell Okung, OT NIGERIA, James Onwualu, LB NIGERIA
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Samson Ebukam, LB NIGERIA
Ndamukong Suh, DT CAMEROON
Ifeadi Odenigbo, DL NIGERIA
Johnson Bademosi, CBNIGERIA
Alex Okafor, DE NIGERIA, David Onyemata, DL NIGERIA, Alvin Kamara, RB LIBERIA
NEW YORK GIANTS
Eli Apple, CB GHANA, Orleans Darkwa, RB GHANA
NEW YORK JETS
Quincy Enunwa, WR NIGERIA, Ben Ijalana, T NIGERIA, Obum Gwacham, WR NIGERIA
Obi Melifonwu, S NIGERIA, Jamize Olawale, FB NIGERIA, Kelechi Osemele, T NIGERIA
Nelson Agholor, WR NIGERIA, Jay Ajayi, RB NIGERIA
Prince Charles Iworah, CB NIGERIA, Noble Nwachukwu, DL NIGERIA, Mark Nzeocha, LB NIGERIA
Amarah Darboh, WR SIERRA LEONE ,Germain Ifedi, G-T NIGERIA, Rees Odhiambo, G-T KENYA
Eric Nzeocha, LB NIGERIA
Brian Orakpo, LB NIGERIA, Victor Ochi, LB NIGERIA
Arie Kouandjio, G CAMEROON, Ty Nsekhe, T NIGERIA
With regards to Rugby, in particular Rugby Union, the following Nigerian native born or first-generation players have represented England:
Ugo Monye, Ayoola Erinle, Topsy Ojo, Anthony Watson, Steve Ojomoh, Victor Ubogu, Adedayo Adebayo, Chris Oti, Andrew Harriman, Mark Odejobi, Daniel Norton, Marcus Watson, Uche Odouza.
And of course Mr Adidas, Mr Ralph Lauren – Mr Maro Itoje.
I don’t think I could possibly list all of the African players who have graced the world of football. The list below shows the relevance of African heritage athletes to the most recent Football World Cup winners: