For decades, Nigeria has served as a talent pool for international basketball leagues but has failed to capitalize on its youth potential. The advent of a new administration provides an opportunity for a renewed and revised policy approach.
On 12 May 2022, the Nigeria Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that then-president, Muhammadu Buhari, approved a two-year ban of Nigerian basketball teams from international basketball activities. The then minister for youth and sports, Sunday Dare, had reported that the decision was made as part of efforts by the federal government to address contentious issues among stakeholders and revive the domestic basketball leagues.
To support this process, an Interim Management Committee (IMC) was created by the ministry, with the directive to design programmes that would revamp basketball from the grassroots, attract corporate sponsors and revive the domestic leagues. However, only one month after the announcement of the self-imposed ban, the Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that Buhari had approved the rescission of the decision, citing a letter of appeal from the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF) as the main reason.
Unfortunately, this rescission came too late for the Nigerian women’s basketball team – D’Tigress, as they had been replaced in the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Basket-ball (FIBA) Women’s Basketball World Cup tournament. The misalignment of the strategic direction between the NBBF and Ministry of Youth and Sports and the repercussion of the government’s decision on the D’Tigress team is an example of the impact that inadequate governance has had on Nigerian athletes and the retention of sports talent in the country to date.
Following the resumption of participation in international competitions, the IMC was subsequently dissolved as it was deemed no longer necessary. However, with the administration, President Bola Tinubu has an opportunity to lead an assessment of the strategic policy and programme direction for domestic basketball in Nigeria. Though specific details were not provided, President Tinubu’s manifesto identified that a new National Sports Industry Policy will be implemented with the goal to create a coordinated sports development programme. It also identified that sports development in all its facets will be made a priority item under a Tinubu government and governed through a dynamic training and funding approach.
Considering the current landscape of national sports administration and oversight, the Tinubu government will face significant policy challenges in its attempt to revamp domestic basketball, especially with the expansion of the North American-owned National Basketball Association (NBA) within Nigeria and across Africa and the ongoing talent drain out of the country. This essay will identify and investigate the four main policy challenges that the new government will face in its mission to revamp Nigerian basketball and proffer strategic policy options for each of these challenges to help achieve its goals.
THE POLICY CHALLENGES
The first and most significant challenge the new government will face is having to identify and delineate the scope and role(s) of the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the NBBF within the ecosystem of Nigerian Basketball. The second most significant challenge is determining how best to generate sufficient interest in the domestic league to make it profitable and create a sense of loyalty and belonging to local basketball clubs. This challenge is compounded by the permeation of established international leagues such as NBA and the Euroleague in Nigeria. The third challenge will be to decide if and how to collaborate, partner or compete with the expansion of NBA operations and other international Basketball organizations such as Giants of Africa and Basketball without Borders, into Nigeria. Due to an absence of effective leadership and success in turning millions of Nigerians into participants and consumers of domestic basketball and due to a lack of athletes in the Nigeria domestic league pipeline, the Nigerian government now must collaborate or compete with already established leagues and organizations that are fulfilling the demand. Additionally, as it pertains to the revamping of domestic basketball, it will have to define and identify what a positive outcome for Nigeria (as a country) and Nigerians (as individuals with unique and varying aspirations) would be and if those outcomes can coexist without conflict.
The fourth main challenge will entail the task of balancing the need to develop and showcase home-grown talent against the opportunity to leverage current Nigerian basketball players that play in international leagues to maximize the potential of Nigerian athletes worldwide.
MITIGATING POLICY CHALLENGES: A ROADMAP FOR THE TINUBU ADMINISTRATION
The NBBF has been facing a crisis over the legitimacy of its leadership after two factions emerged with conflicting claims. The crisis began in 2017 when Tijjani Umar was elected as the NBBF president while Musa Ahmadu-Kida was elected as the president of a faction that was recognized by FIBA which set the stage for legal battles between the factions. This has led to a state of confusion within Nigerian basketball with different sponsors and broadcasters being unsure with whom to negotiate. As a result, there has been much ado about the affairs of the NBBF and its internal organizational structure and policy direction. However, there has not been a focus on an assessment of the appropriate role and scope of the government as it pertains to the operation of sports leagues and the maximization of Nigerian talent in Nigeria.
It is important to identify that the current Ministry of Youth and Sports was created in 2016 because of the merger of the now-defunct Federal Ministry of Youth Development and the National Sports Commission which has 16 functions. These functions largely pertain to the formulation of sports policy, coordination of sports development activities, provision of financial assistance for the organization of sports activities and liaising with development partners for the development of sports. However, the NBBF, while being the governing body specifically for Men’s and Women’s Basketball in Nigeria, is also responsible for organizing some national basketball competitions.
There are four main issues with this governing structure. First, both the Ministry and NBBF have overlapping responsibilities as it pertains to directly organizing Basketball leagues and tournaments with no clear delineation of roles. Second, there is an unusually higher emphasis on direct programme delivery by the government that creates inefficiencies due to the stress on public service capacity and limitation in the direct technical skillset to deliver programmes. Third, there do not appear to be sub-organizations within the NBBF or the Ministry of Sports specifically dedicated to the operation and oversight of the various subgroups of amateur and professional sports development and competition (i.e., collegiate, disabled etc.). Lastly, there is a lack of an adequate check-and-balance system to ensure successful internal regulation of sport administration affairs within the NBBF and the Ministry for Youth and Sports.
As the two leading Basketball leagues in the world, the USA Basketball (USAB) and the Euroleague Basketball are examples of two unique but similar organizations that have been able to create and sustain successful domestic leagues in North America and across Europe. The USAB was set up to be an oversight body for individual leagues that are owned and operated as private entities such as NBA, WNBA etc. Similarly, Euroleague is owned and operated as a private entity under Euroleague Commercial Assets – a corporation that is governed and supervised by a general assembly of shareholders.
These two examples can serve as inspiration for innovative ways to structurally organize the governance and oversight of Nigerian basketball. In his manifesto, Tinubu also identified that, per the new National Sports Industry Policy, incentives will be provided to attract private sector investments and participation in sports infrastructural development. Therefore, it may also be beneficial to investigate opportunities for private sector leadership in the operation of domestic basketball leagues. Perhaps, as opposed to having a role as a direct organizer of sports leagues and competitions, the government can operate more strategically as a funder, facilitator and overseer of the domestic sports industry.
For example, a huge opportunity for the federal government to act as a facilitator and overseer will be in engaging the education sector and creating a more standardized and coordinated approach to youth amateur sports. For youth development to occur, there needs to be a cohesive youth strategy that permeates public and private schools. Currently, the amateur sports competition landscape is comprised of fragmented inter and intra-school competitions within private and public schools and privately run competitions such as the Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA) and the Nestle MILO Basketball Championship.
NUGA provides a viable blueprint for how NBBF or the Ministry of Youth and Sports can organize elementary and secondary school-level sports leagues and competitions. NUGA is a body enshrined with the responsibility of ensuring regular, orderly and peaceful organization and conduct of Sports and Games amongst Nigerian Universities. The association is a specialized organ of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors that takes care of the sporting aspects of inter-university cooperation. Alongside its bi-annual Olympic-style competitions, NUGA also operates a volunteer training programme to train Nigerian youths for careers in the sports industry such as sports media journalism and broadcasting, graphic design and video editing, project management etc.
GENERATING INTEREST AND REVENUE THROUGH NIGERIAN BASKETBALL (LEVERAGING ETHNIC AND NATIONAL PRIDE)
European Football is arguably the most popular sport in Nigeria. However, Basketball is rapidly gaining popularity; especially with the advent of more Nigerian-born or raised athletes gaining prominence in international leagues such as NBA, WNBA and Euroleague. However, because of the increasing popularity of NBA across the world, the new government will face a significant challenge in attempting to generate interest in watching and supporting domestic leagues and players.
Over the course of history, Nigerians have developed strong allegiances to European football clubs presumably due to the inability of the Nigerian Football Federation and the Ministry for Youth and Sports to adequately develop the domestic Football leagues for several decades. In some cases, support for European teams is inherited supporters, based on their families, but others are drawn to the competitive and flashy style of play, the sound and size of the supporting crowds in the arenas and the competitiveness and professional branding of the league.
There are also psychological and human behaviour factors that can also attempt to explain a fan’s identification with a sports team to the extent that the fan feels a psychological connection to a team, its performances and well-being. According to an article on the science behind fanatic behaviour, a need to belong, an extension of self and, a belief in superstitions were given as three main reasons why sports fans develop psychological connections to a sports team. All these factors could possibly contribute to why Nigerians seek comfort in rooting for abroad-based teams. However, there is an opportunity to redirect this fandom for European teams and players to local sports.
For better or worse, one of the main features of the Nigerian society is a strong attachment and allegiance to one’s tribal, ethnic and/or regional origin(s). As Eniola Soyemi writes for Quartz Africa, Nigeria has an ethnicity problem that is evident in high-profile cases of sometimes violent tensions but also demonstrated in the low-profile everyday mistrust and prejudices with which many Nigerians view their fellow citizens.
The passion that Nigerians have for their ethnic origins and in support of people that they share heritage with, can be leveraged to advance the growth of domestic basketball. Certainly, there are pros and cons to promulgating allegiance to one ethnic group or another and furthering differences through new sports rivalries; therefore, this approach must be applied strategically after in-depth behavioural analysis research is conducted. For example, like the regional team structure of the earlier structure of NBA, the Nigerian domestic basketball league can be restructured to only include the six main geopolitical zones to leverage ethnic pride to generate interest and friendly rivalry.
Although NBA viewership levels in Nigeria are not as high as European Football, competing against international basketball leagues will be a difficult task to achieve. Therefore, the means through which this portfolio is approached should be very strategic.
COMPETING FOR NIGERIAN DOMESTIC TALENT
Basketball Without Borders (BWB) is a basketball development outreach programme that was launched by NBA and FIBA in 2001 to scout and train basketball players from outside US and provide opportunities for these players to play in NBA, WNBA and on the international stage. Since 2001, BWB has staged 66 camps in 43 cities across 31 countries and six continents. Specifically, within Africa, these camps have been hosted in Senegal, Angola and South Africa and although no camps have been hosted in Nigeria, several young Nigerian players have been scouted and invited to these camps and have gone on to play amateur and professional basketball internationally.
On February 16, 2019, the NBA and FIBA announced plans to establish a continental professional basketball league in Africa – the Basketball Africa League (BAL). In a press release, FIBA secretary general, Andreas Zagklis, identified that BAL was a natural extension of BWB initiative that helps find, develop and nurture young talented players from across the world. In February 2022, the NBA opened an office in Lagos, Nigeria. It was the third of its kind in Africa; evidence of the league’s efforts to source talent from across the continent, increase viewership in the continent by making NBA and BAL games more accessible and increase brand awareness for the league.
These three major NBA and FIBA initiatives and programmes present very valuable opportunities for young Nigerians that aspire to be professional basketball players to be scouted and developed into elite-level athletes. However, these opportunities also threaten the possibility of a successful domestic basketball league in Nigeria and prevent full maximization of economic benefits for the local economy. As NBBF attempts to revamp domestic basketball in Nigeria, it will now be competing with NBA and other international leagues to retain talent.
Additionally, in the 2019 BAL announcement press conference, NBA also announced its plan to introduce a re-imagined direct-to-consumer offering of NBA games for fans in Africa by the start of the 2019-20 NBA season that will include new packages, features and localized content. In line with this approach, in an interview with ESPN, NBA Africa vice president and country Head for Nigeria, Gbemisola Abudu, while discussing NBA viewership identified that one of the goals of the new office is to strategize how best to get a large percentage of the Nigerian population to develop an affinity for basketball and specifically NBA.
The inability of previous government administrations to capitalize on the demand for high-quality domestic basketball in Nigeria has now resulted in a policy space that has been largely influenced and developed by external actors. As a result, the new government faces a unique challenge to determine the most efficient and beneficial strategy to interact with the growing operations of NBA and other sports philanthropic missions within Nigeria and across Africa. More specifically, the government will need to determine and distinguish between the impacts of sports policy on the country as an entity (i.e., economy, tourism etc.) and the impacts of sports policy on Nigerians as people (i.e., aspiring professional athletes). Similar to the former government’s decision to restrict cryptocurrency transactions within the traditional financial system(s), not every government policy that benefits the government necessarily benefits its people. Therefore, any efforts to stifle the operations of NBA, BAL or other international basketball organizations may reduce competition for domestic leagues and competitions, but that policy will have an adverse impact on the training and development of thousands of Nigerians who may already be enrolled or succeeding in these programmes.
BALANCING HOMEGROWN TALENT WITH NBA SUPERSTARS
Balancing the usage and promotion of home-grown talent in Nigeria with NBA superstars of Nigerian descent is a critical issue that the Tinubu government will need to tackle. There are three main issues to consider. Firstly, while Nigerian superstars in NBA may be eligible to play for Nigeria in international competitions like the Olympics, they do not always sign up for it. This can be attributed to the disadvantages linked with playing for Nigeria, such as lack of modern practice facilities, inadequate NBBF leadership, issues with paying players equitably and timely and an absence of an insurance plan in case of injury while playing for Nigeria.
The second issue is that Nigerian superstars in NBA who do sign up to play for Team Nigeria often replace home-grown players with lesser-known names after these home-grown players have qualified on behalf of the team for international championships. While the practice of replacing home-grown players with superstars from NBA is prevalent in US and Canada, home-grown players in Nigeria are at a bigger disadvantage because of the limited opportunities otherwise to showcase their talents internationally.
Thirdly, there is also a significant challenge with getting basketball superstars of Nigerian descent to play for their country. This issue highlights a deeper problem: the lack of national pride and connection to the motherland among many young Nigerians. With Nigeria’s history of corruption and lack of leadership, it is unsurprising that many Nigerians do not feel proud of their country. The Tinubu government needs to take steps to instil a sense of pride in youths and aspiring athletes so that representing Nigeria becomes a desirable and honourable achievement.
Developing a strong connection to Nigeria starts with the youths and it needs to be a connection so powerful that even children born and raised outside of Nigeria will want to represent the country. The new government must also provide a value proposition to athletes, as many are deterred by the limited compensation and lack of resources available to them. Ultimately, getting elite basketball players to play for Team Nigeria is not just a matter of coaxing them with incentives; it is about creating an environment where representing Nigeria is a source of national pride and a badge of honour worth pursuing.
Nigeria has a vast reservoir of basketball talents and with deliberate and focused interventions, the Tinubu government can develop these talents and create a thriving basketball ecosystem that can contribute to Nigeria’s growth. A more structured, innovative and stakeholder-driven approach is necessary to build a sustainable Nigerian basketball industry⎈
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