Understanding how and why the elite football league in Nigeria lost its dominance among Nigerian fans from the early 1990s to date may be a challenge as it now seems to be in the distant past.
The memory of massive support for the local league is faded but as it begins its 46th season this weekend, it is time to spare a few minutes and give it some thought.
The liberalization of Nigeria’s media environment in the early 1990s brought great programming including global news, global music, and much more. It also brought the abundance of foreign football and the expanded support for foreign football clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and the like.
But it also destroyed the base of support for the likes of Enugu Rangers, Ibadan 3Sc, and several other local clubs. While many Nigerians gleefully discuss, worship the stars, fight, and glorify soccer in the foreign leagues, they rarely spare a thought for the game played down the street from their homes.
Such is the story of Nigeria’s elite league. It begs for crumbs. Its administrators gleefully display their ManU shirts, boast of photos with stars of the English Premier league, and regale friends with their attendance at the Emirates Stadium in London. But there is God ooo! That is a statement that we well know in Nigeria. But that may be apt for the elite league. After all, the current saga of the league is not immutable and neither is it without precedence.
Think for one moment about Nigeria’s craze for foreign movies that was so dominant on television by the 1980s and 1990s. It was the Mexican movies and then Bollywood. Even the Nigerian television monopoly — the NTA – forgot about promoting Nigerian movies and went gung-ho on foreign movies.
Yet, a few years later, the masses in Nigerian markets began to embrace the upstart Nollywood movies and its explosion drove off foreign movies to the point that not only do Nollywood movies now appear frequently on home televisions in Nigeria but can be found far away from the shores of the country.
The same story can also be told about the emergence of the Nigerian music industry. About the same period when Nigerians craved for foreign movies, so also did they crave for foreign disco and pop music.
Not only did it dominate the cassette tape era and the night clubs, but the disc jockeys learned to speak in American accent in order to fully look the part. Yet, the era of Nigerian music and accompanying videos changed that in its entirety. Today, it is no longer about the newest American rap artiste or about the American number one music beat. Instead, it is about Davido, Phyno, Techno, and the like. Nigerian music isn’t limited to Nigeria but is accessed in so many other parts of the world.
So why does it matter for Nigeria’s football top tier league? Because there is Hope oo! The current administrator of the league – the League Management Company (LMC)– is certainly on the right path towards a resurrection, the type that may put the league on the same pedestal as Nollywood and Nigerian music.
It is still a long way out and many thorns and hurdles stand in the way. There is the issue of massive debt to players, incidences of hooliganism, and questionable officiating. But spare a thought for the league because the LMC has put games on television and is toeing the path of commercialisation, among several other initiatives. It could be the Nollywood of tomorrow.