Understanding the African sports economy

Sports on the continent are being commercialized at a rapid rate. What’s driving it?

Basketball Africa League (BAL) Finals, May 2023. Image credit Paul Kagame via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

The world of African sports is receiving unprecedented global attention: Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur made consecutive Grand Slam Tennis finals in 2022 at Wimbledon and the US Open and returned to the Wimbledon final in 2023; the Morocco men’s football team was the first squad from the continent to reach the FIFA world-cup semi-final; their female compatriots competed in the Women’s World Cup for the first time (and reached the knock-out stages), with Nouhaila Benzina becoming the first player to play at a World Cup while wearing the hijab; and Kenyan runner, Eliud Kipchoge has become the first athlete to run the marathon distance under two hours. All of these achievements were rewarded commercially and boosted the brand power of the athletes and teams concerned. Footballers such as Egypt’s Mohammed Salah (Liverpool FC) and Senegal’s Sadio Mané (Al Nassr FC), or Greek-Nigerian basketball player and 2021 NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks), are other recent examples of African sports achievers who have become global household names in their respective sports, and—importantly for understanding the burgeoning African Sports Economy (ASE)—commercial success stories. 

The commercial partnerships and alliances that some of the most successful African athletes are party to (Salah with Adidas, Antetokounmpo with Whatsapp/Meta and Kipchoge with Tecno) demonstrate the global reach and markets that African sports stars can access. Consider also that African sports have been at the forefront of other significant firsts. Take for example the new professional continental men’s basketball league, the Basketball Africa League (BAL), established in 2019 by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). The 2023 season was first played in Dakar, Senegal, and Cairo, Egypt. The final stage of the season took place in Kigali, Rwanda. These playoffs took place in the BK (Bank of Kigali) arena, East Africa’s largest indoor arena, at 10,000 capacity, constructed by a Turkish multinational firm. Kigali has hosted the playoffs in the last three years since the first BAL kicked off in 2021. The BAL games are broadcast around the world. The forthcoming 2024 season will feature “12 club teams from 12 African countries playing a record 48 games across four African countries—South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, and Rwanda—over four months.”

Hosting the BAL finals is just one part of the massive sports investment and branding that Rwanda has carried out in the past few years. Rwanda will host the first World Road Cycling Championship on the continent in 2025. Furthermore, the country has boosted its tourism via partnerships with a leading English Premier League (EPL) team, Arsenal. Rwanda then signed up France’s Ligue 1 Champion, Paris Saint-Germain, and Germany’s Bundesliga Champion, Bayern Munich—both iconic clubs and record title holders in their respective leagues. South Africa has recently been in the news regarding a similar tourism-oriented deal with the EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur. The initiative was eventually dropped but the attempt to strike such a deal is significant, nonetheless. Other deals have also been confirmed, including Dakar hosting the World Youth Olympic Games in 2026, the first Olympic event on the continent. Hosting Sport Mega Events (SMEs) is a distinct trend on the continent, with Morocco’s successful bid (with Portugal and Spain) for the 2030 FIFA Men’s World Cup as the latest example. Such state-supported initiatives constitute an intriguing mix of sports, business, and politics. 

Understanding the economy of sport as an increasingly global phenomenon is vital. Sport’s capacity for communication across spatial boundaries through networked media means populations globally are never far from being able to access such events; it is an omnipresent phenomenon underpinned by a web of different stakeholders linked by commercial transactions. These transactions take place in a wider context, in which the characteristics of home society and culture can be evident as athletes, coaches, teams, or clubs engage with and support local communities through foundations, state agencies, or development organizations. The development of distinctly African sports economies can be unpacked via an inquiry into capitalism, foreign and domestic capitalists, and commercialization in Africa, sports diplomacy (as an analysis of the enhancement of the network of networks in the realms of sport and diplomacy), as well as broader trends in politics and international relations. 

A season of new alliances in the ASE

In evidencing the ASE and its networked engagement with the global sports economy we point to one key example: the relation between the NBA, NBA Africa (a pre-existing structure dedicated to Africa), and a range of African actors, including several states, in the birth and management of the pan-African BAL. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has positioned his country as a centerpiece of African sports business—including hosting the COVID-impacted first iteration of the BAL’s tournament in a sealed “bubble” in Kigali in 2021, hosting Afrobasket and the African Volleyball Championships that same year, and the UCIs upcoming World Championship Cycling in 2025. The significance of the BAL tournament, as the first pan-African basketball club competition, is that it networks cities and clubs within a sport of global purview across the African continent. Recall also that it was sport that gave rise to the first pan-African organization: the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 1957.

That said, major multinational brands such as Nike and Jordan are commercial partners of the BAL. The NBA investment is partnered with African staff and governance to develop and enhance an authentic African character for the BAL. The BAL received a good deal of support: not least from US President Obama. Notably, aid agencies such as France’s ADF have joined the initiative. However, criticism was recently aired about the preseason scouting event, Combine, in Paris (rather than on the continent). The Combine reflected the influence of President Macron’s domestic priorities. The BAL example illustrates a political economy and politics underpinning such significant, multi-actor, commercial ventures, and other recent cases of high-profile sports business growth alliances. Questions arise: who owns, drives, steers, and benefits from such initiatives embracing African locations and identities? What is the agency and role of actors such as local patrons, benefactors (including wealthy retired sports champions), or active athletes in creating and/or sustaining initiatives that drive the growth of local sports businesses and economies? One way of comprehending the politics of the ASE is to use the analytical lens of global diplomacy practice to look at matters of communication, representation, and negotiation—all at play in the example of the establishment of the BAL.

New formats, formulas, and revenue streams

There is a significant level of searching for and trying out new formulas in the ASE space. With new products and formats can come new commercial alliances. Actors try to achieve commercial breakthroughs, finding models that are sustainable, medium-term oriented, and growth-inducing. This is not only related to continent-wide formats such as the BAL (or the African Football League, AFL) but also to national and local initiatives. Stakeholders know that African domestic sports generate low revenues in comparison to other regional and global markets. This is particularly stark in football if one compares leagues in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, for example, with top leagues in Europe and also across the African continent. Format experimentation is underway in Uganda’s football for instance, both at professional and amateur level, as part of commercializing the sector and (better) resolving the revenue issue. The growth of commercially run weekend amateur competitions in Kampala is a case in point. These competitions are part of the spectrum of new formats and packages including sports products and services. Significant here is the launch of a full-time sports channel in 2022 (also accessible on mobile phones) by a major commercial player in the country, which opens up new possibilities regarding format, content, and commerce for local sports. At the continental level, CAF’s AFL is among the key examples of new formulas in Africa’s commercial sports. 

Another dimension of the ASE focuses on all aspects of business and commerce. This includes giving analytical attention to local initiatives and homegrown innovations that generate incomes, revenues, and profits. A crucial question: Who will sponsor local sports, how, to what level, and to what effect? Here we see for example the alignment of local brands and local content related to sports. Commercial, experimental, and learning partnerships between innovative actors (at local, national, regional, and global levels) will be one issue to watch in the coming years. Take Vihiga Queens FC, the multiple national women’s football champion in Kenya. Vihiga partnered with a bread company for their fans and supporters’ onboarding campaign, which saw the fan numbers grow by over 2,000% over 10 weeks. This partnership is a remarkable achievement given the difficulty of finding companies to sponsor women’s club football in the country. Vihiga has also partnered with Tisini (a data analysis provider in Kenya) to capture their match-day data for improving team and player performances. This data has not only sports value but also commercial value (especially when it comes to player sales). Such partnerships are likely to drive innovative and best practices (and learning and change) in the ASE. 

Geography also plays a role. Over the past 20 years, agencies and alliances in the Kenyan Rift Valley towns of Iten, Kaptagat, and Eldoret have transformed economies—fuelled by athletes’ earnings and inputs from non-state benefactors (and various other members of athletes’ support networks). These towns are organized around athletics training and tourism, producing unique athlete-driven sports (sub-)economies, in a process that runs partly “outside” (or parallel to) national and international athletics programs and systems.

The focus on commerce can further help to track to what extent, how, and why the new growth and business initiatives change larger, long-standing structures and patterns: For example, Africa’s place in the division of labor in global sport is often a provider of talent to other regions of the world, such as the lucrative football leagues of Asia and Europe or the basketball league in the US. Furthermore, to track the impact of these initiatives regarding the place of national sport in matters of national development and change in post-independence African states. This focus can also shed light on the business drives and practices that fuel the exploitation occurring in for-profit sports, while further exploring matters of sports governance, to curb such practices in the ASE. 

Popularity, politics, and impact

Across sports, many actors—including sports’ commercial, political, and media partners—undertake significant work to promote local and national competitions, leagues clubs, athletes, and players. The popularity and marketing campaign around Kenyan runner Kipchoge is a good example. The dynamics and outcomes of these popularity-focused measures vary greatly across sports and countries but provide interesting points of comparison and learning. Relevant questions include: Who is the audience? Who judges popularity? How might sports and sporting alliances in Africa achieve the global recognition, fame, and financial success of home-grown content that Afrobeats achieved in music, for example? 

Finally, an analysis of competing political and business interests, power, and conflict is also important. Of relevance are the political interests of government and other members of the political class to support some sports, policies, and investments rather than others, and to neglect, drain, or undermine particular commercial sports projects. Analysis of the political economy of sport is required—for example, of the betting industry, of new commercial competitions (BAL, AFL, etc.), and of new major local sports investments (say, the construction of new stadiums). Further, of the politics of a national football federation and the political economy of its business and governance activities; the politics of the relations between federation and government, and between national governments (as in the successful 2027 Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON bid of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania) and its impact on sector growth, commercialization, professionalization and performance; or the political activities (including in-office careers) of active and retired star players. 

We should not only explore the politics and political economy of growth (and wealth creation and appropriation) in sports, but also the significant setbacks, crises, and decline in the sector. This requires attention to historicizing contemporary phenomena of the ASE. Finally, and importantly: Which measures, formats, alliances, innovative changes, and political interventions make a difference? How do we draw on the key indicators and historical legacies to develop better fan numbers and experiences, better players’ contracts, sign-on fees and wages, better club finances, better sports and sports performances, more sustainable growth, and so on?

Impact will be crucial to track, analyze, and debate in the coming years. 

Further Reading

A pivot towards Africa

The positive reactions of Africans to Morocco’s performance at the World Cup are not outliers. Sport has often challenged outsiders’ view of Africa’s regions as disparate and disconnected.

Take it to the house

On this month’s AIAC Radio, Boima celebrates all things basketball, looking at its historical relationships with music and race, then focusing on Africa’s biggest names in the sport.