Changing the game: The dynamics of the commercialisation of football in Eastern Africa

Introduction 

Football operates as a global business. The commercialisation of elite level professional football affects all levels of the game - from ownership, sponsorship, ticket sales to TV licensing. This reality has come to the fore with the rise of new business models which are changing how we think about the global game. For example, within six years of being founded by the Red Bull drinks company, RasenBallsport (RB) Leipzig had achieved the feat of obtaining six promotions in six years to reach Germany’s top flight, finishing as runners-up and qualifying for the 2017–18 UEFA Champions League in their first season in the Bundesliga. Another striking example is the City Football Group (CFG) which despite being only a few years old already owns, or co-owns, six clubs on four continents and is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful forces in the world’s favourite sport.

These developments have raised interesting questions and debates about the impact of corporate influence on football, both globally and locally. Importantly, the commercialisation of football is not limited to the most powerful and competitive leagues in Western Europe but affects de-facto all regions of the world, including Africa. The commercialisation at the professional level across the whole of Africa is having a significant impact on the continent’s domestic competitions.

In business terms (TV revenues, ticket sales, advertisement, club budget, players’ salaries, etc.), Africa as a region is to-date peripheral in global football. Meanwhile, local leagues struggle to compete with European leagues for the domestic football fans’ attention. Notably, UK football legend Sir Bobby Charlton made this assessment in the late 1990s: “The only problem [with African football] is money. Just that one word. It is their downfall because they just don’t have enough of it.”

Along the same vein, it has been suggested that the development of football in Africa necessitates the creation of the type of professional and commercial culture which surrounds western European football. There are a number of examples now where there has been an attempt to create this type of culture; various leagues and clubs from East Africa exemplify this growing phenomenon.

This project thus proposes a comparative study of the ongoing and intensifying dynamics of commercialisation of football in East Africa. The aim is to empirically investigate and map the major drivers, characteristics and repercussions of the commercialisation in two countries: Kenya and Uganda. The overall question is: what changes are triggered by the commercialisation of local football? We will investigate different clubs and commercial developments in the countries’ capitals - Nairobi and Kampala.

These case studies will allow us to explore the dynamics of introducing cutting-edge commercial models in sports leagues on a continent that has had – compared to other regions – relatively low levels of commercialisation until recently. This will enable a better understanding of commercialisation-in-practice – and respective similarities and differences across the two sites - in a key football region in the Global South. The methodology will be a combination of structured interviews with local/locally present foreign actors and participant observation.

Literature review

Alegi traces the different phases in the commercialisation of football in Africa, noting how the commercial interests of (global and local) mass media and corporate sponsors have integrated Africa more fully into the networks of global sport business (2010: 110), although mostly in an uneven manner. He states that the involvement of domestic and foreign companies has challenged existing local sports structures and hierarchies in many instances and encouraged the professionalisation of sport management.

Notably, Alegi highlights the local political embeddedness of football on the continent, including its reliance on government funds and political support (ibid: 57); sports – and respective commercial operations - can thus de-facto never operate autonomously, i.e. unfettered by national government involvement and outside the national political economy (ibid, Krippner 2001).

Furthermore, our understanding of the commercialisation of football in Africa will be informed by debates, both academic and public, around matters of globalisation, global society, capitalism, commerce, sports, football, and culture. To begin with, studies of ‘glocalisation’ point to how global products and services are adapted to better fit local or national conditions (Robertson, 1992). In addition, in their discussion of neoliberalism and football, Giulianotti and Robertson (2009) state that rather than accepting the neoliberal ‘one size fits all’ packaging, we must instead study the way modern capitalism is ‘glocalised’ to fit particular contexts, emphasising the complex ways nations implement pro-market policies and programmes (ibid: 65).

Our project thus proposes an empirical study of the way the commercialisation of football is ‘glocalised’ in Africa. It gives analytical attention to the relationship between matters of business, sports, leisure, lifestyle, culture and politics. It links with and complements other recent studies that explore related matters in the African context such as the analysis of development schemes of football academies in Ghana and dynamics of hope, aspirations and dreams (i.e. imagined futures) of various actors in that setting (Dubinsky and Schler 2019; see also Dubinsky and Schler 2016).

Therefore, our aim is to empirically study the relevant effects – from economic to socio-cultural and political-economic - of the commercialisation of football in the two selected case studies. Central to this project is the understanding that the neoliberalisation of a society, that is the embedding of the pillars of a ‘market society’ - of which heightened commercialisation is a part - entails a transformation of people and society, i.e. not only changes regarding economy and polity but also culture (Harrison 2005, 2010, 2019, Wiegratz 2016). However, there is a shortage of empirical research on the socio-cultural change resulting from the construction of a market society, i.e. the process of the alteration of dominant beliefs, discourses, norms, values, and practices.

For these reasons, this research aims to empirically study how commercialisation is embedded and expanded in particular societies, thus allowing us to study actually existing commercialisation. We will investigate for instance how the promoters of these commercial models present respective projects and make claims of legitimacy, for example by arguing for a move in the direction of the ‘modernisation’ of club and league, and away from (alleged) practices of political corruption in the football sector. We will also enquire how the respective pro-commercialisation teams gain support from various stakeholders, respond to critics; and so on.

Research questions 

The key hypothesis is this: the commercialisation of football has brought a number of significant economic, socio-cultural and political changes at the local level, i.e. it has altered the character of the local economic, cultural and political embeddedness of the sport. The question is therefore how and why this alteration has occurred and evolved. The overall question is: what changes are triggered by the commercialisation of local football?

This leads to an exploration of the following questions: What are the reasons for the commercialisation of football in these countries? How has the process been advanced and managed by the promoters of commercialisation? How have local histories in each country affected the commercialisation project (i.e. the embrace of extensive neoliberal societal restructuring)? How have different local actors (football players, coaches, managers, fans, other clubs, national football associations, industry specialists, companies, politicians, technocracts etc.) related to commercialisation, i.e. engaged, embraced, challenged or rejected it? What changes has the commercialisation triggered, especially at the economic and socio-cultural level (relationships, practices, norms, values, attitudes, ideas, discourses)? How has commercialisation interacted with (and possibly altered) the political embeddedness (power structures, varying interests, political allegiances) of football in each country?

Methodology

The main method employed will be structured interviews and participant observation. Interviews will be conducted with local/locally operating foreign actors such as a selection of football management staff, national associations, sports experts, companies, commercialisation promoters, journalists, politicians, technocrats, players, fans and fans’ representatives. Participant observation entails a period of immersion in the research topic. We will attend some football matches during research time, and talk to supporters and supporter groups, familiarising myself with respective structures of organisation and modes of behaviour in order to explore, document and better understand what commercialisation looks like and means on the ground, in particular localities.

Taken together, this data will provide material a detailed, localised analysis of how the actors themselves identify, conceptualise, think about and evaluate the processes related to commercialisation. Note, women’s football is not that active in the region. Hence, we focus on men’s football but will also explore the existing women’s club game so as to capture the effect of commercialisation on both men’s and women’s club football in these two countries and capture the gender dimension of the phenomenon in focus.

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