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As soccer leagues in Eastern Africa fail, NBA and President Obama to lead basketball explosion in Africa

A professional basket league, promising ecstatic following and viable business, will be formed in Africa — the American National Basketball Association (NBA) and President Barrack Obama are going to make sure — and a big indictment to African football for failure to organize continental club soccer leagues as commercial successes such as in Europe.

The African professional basketball venture is being supported by FIBA (Federation of International Basketball Associations) the world body.

Why does Fifa, the world soccer body, not advise Africans about the need to dramatically re-shape club football in the continent? It is full of soccer leagues that do not make commercial sense; fixture played before no one on unsuitable days in a continent where only a few days (weekends) are set aside for recreation.

A Final in the Uganda Basketball League

A Final in the Uganda Basketball League

The Basketball Africa League (BAL) will be a collaboration between the NBA and the sport’s global governing body FIBA. The initial plan is for the 12-team league to begin play in January 2020 with former US President Obama among those who are expected to have direct involvement with the league’s plan to keep growing the game in Africa through the league and other initiatives.

President Obama tweeted on February 16: “I’ve always loved basketball because it’s about building a team that’s equal to more than the sum of its parts. Glad to see this expansion into Africa because for a rising continent, this can be about a lot more than what happens on the court.”

Qualification tournaments will be held later this year to determine those clubs, with teams from Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia expected to be among those taking part. No nation will have more than two teams in the league.

Angola (right) face Egypt in an African championship showdown

Angola (right) face Egypt in an African championship showdown

Obviously, like in the American tradition of forming sporting “franchises”, the new African venture will look to incorporate teams with a strong spectator and community following and business potential. They will have no ‘pick’ problems to fit the criterium in Angola, Egypt and Rwanda, for instance, but a careful search will be necessary, at least, in Kenya.

Joseph Amoko, the competition secretary of Kenya Basketball Federation (KBF) said they were aware of the mooted African League and are engaged in planning. The most successful KBF clubs are not necessarily those with passionate following and both the KBF and the NBA will have to take a lot in consideration to arrive at a Kenyan choice.

President Barack Obama plays basketball with Bruce Bowen during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. Below: With President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya and bottom: President Obama presents NBA legend Bill Russell with the Medal of Freedom in 2011

President Barack Obama plays basketball with Bruce Bowen during the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. Below: With President Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya and bottom: President Obama presents NBA legend Bill Russell with the Medal of Freedom in 2011

Amoko said that in terms of current playing strength KPA (Kenya Ports Authority, based in Mombasa) are top, “but spectator passion is markedly different with [Nairobi City]  Thunder (on Nairobi’s Shauri Moyo area) and Enyimba commanding higher following.”

The NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said they have been talking about the African concept over the last several months. “There’s been a tremendous reception from many of our NBA team owners … and in addition, several of the partners of the NBA have expressed a strong desire to work with us in Africa.”

Silver said Pepsi and Nike’s Jordan Brand are among the partners who have reached out to the NBA and said they want to be part of the Africa league. Silver also said that Obama, an enormous basketball fan, has told him he wants to “be directly involved with these activities in Africa.”

A league match in Kigali and below, Rwanda President Paul Kagame launches a basketball programme

A league match in Kigali and below, Rwanda President Paul Kagame launches a basketball programme

Silver said there are 438 companies in Africa that generate more than $1 billion in revenue annually, but that sport there has not seen the same growth, yet. “Africa is a huge economic engine,” Silver said. “And one place, though, where we haven’t seen enormous economic growth yet is in the industry of sport. And that’s something that we are all particularly focused on,” he said.

The NBA has held three games in Africa since 2015, all of them selling out. Many of the league’s current players and coaches, along with several legends and Hall of Famers, have been part of those trips. The league also built an academy in Senegal that opened nearly two years ago.

African Hall of Fame and other stars in NBA include Hakeem Olajuwon, Emeka Okafor, Festus Ezeli (Nigeria), Dikembe Mutombo, Serge Ibaka, Bismarck Biyombo, D J Mbenga, Christian Eyenga (DR Congo Kinshasa), Emmanuel Mudiay (Congo Republic, Brazzaville) Manute Bol, Luol Deng’, Thon Maker (South Sudan), Joel Embioud, Victor Oladipo, Luc Mbaha Moute, Pascal Siakau (Cameroon), Steve Nash (South Africa), De Sagna Diop, Pape Saw (Senegal), Hashim Thabeet (Tanzania).

Recent US ambassador to Kenya Bob Godec (left) and NBA Vice President and Managing Director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall Launch an NBA supported junior programme for Kenya in Nairobi

Recent US ambassador to Kenya Bob Godec (left) and NBA Vice President and Managing Director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall Launch an NBA supported junior programme for Kenya in Nairobi

The NBA Vice-President and Managing Director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall (left), Hornets chairman Michael Jordan and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum at the announcement of the Basketball Africa League at the annual NBA Allstar Africa luncheon in Africa Luncheon in Charlotte, North Carolina on February 16

The NBA Vice-President and Managing Director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall (left), Hornets chairman Michael Jordan and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum at the announcement of the Basketball Africa League at the annual NBA Allstar Africa luncheon in Africa Luncheon in Charlotte, North Carolina on February 16

“It’s a huge joy to see our partnership with the NBA enter unchartered territory as we work together for the first time to maximize the potential of professional basketball in Africa,” said Andreas Zagklis, FIBA’s secretary general.

“We’re excited to work closely with the NBA to develop and put in a place a professional league like none that we have ever seen in our region before,” said FIBA Africa Executive Director Alphonse Bile. The NBA says more details about the new league will be released in the coming months.

In stark contrast, the basketball scene in the backdrop, failure to think out-of-the-box and make progress has been the bane of football in the eastern African region where soccer leagues, played before no one, are a dour commercial waste of time.

Nairobi City Thunder basketball club supporters at a league match on the Nyayo National Stadium gymnasium floor

Nairobi City Thunder basketball club supporters at a league match on the Nyayo National Stadium gymnasium floor

Yet, the region has enough passionately supported teams where a sensibly structured competition could regularly bring in crowds of 60,000 at every much.

Dar es Salaam, on Sunday had a packed National Stadium for the Simba v Young Africans Tanzania Premier League match. Sadly, that can only happen twice a year – with the reverse fixture. But across the border, one-hour direct flight, the two Tanzania clubs would be guaranteed equal attention at meetings with Kenya champions Gor Mahia.

Between these three, those are six regular fixtures that would gross in a revenue for the clubs do not even dream of in whole seasons of Tanzania’s 20-team and Kenya’s 18-team leagues.

Former NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder Tanzania-born, Kenya-schooled Hasheem Thabit

Former NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder Tanzania-born, Kenya-schooled Hasheem Thabit

There are regional clubs that attract more supporters than many big European league teams. If you had Simba, Yanga, Gor Mahia, Al Hilal, El Merreikh, St George and a carefully selected one team each from the rest of the region’s nations – Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, South Sudan, Zanzibar (security and low standards should disqualify Somalia and Djibouti) — you could have an explosive 12-team league.

Even more tantalizing would be 15-team roster if you invited some of the world’s most feverishly supported football teams, TP Mazembe, AS Vita and DC Motema Pembe of neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Of course to the antique traditional football administrators in Africa this would sound like fantastic fiction. Their mantra is every football association (FA) having its “own”, no matter how hopeless, competition.

At National Stadium, Dar es Salaam, Simba v Yanga fixtures big crowd pullers, rest of Tanzanzia Premier League fixtures a yawning financial liability

At National Stadium, Dar es Salaam, Simba v Yanga fixtures big crowd pullers, rest of Tanzanzia Premier League fixtures a yawning financial liability

You will wait till the chickens come home, for example, for these Kenyan Premier League matches to attract 50 people to a stadium; Tusker v Sofapaka, KCB v Mt Kenya United or Uganda Premier League ties; Bul v Kirinya, Maroons v Police, Soana v Black Angels, etc.

Haven’t they heard of Wales FA teams – such as Cardiff and Swansea – taking part in what makesore sense England FA’s Premier league? Of three Canadian clubs (Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, Montreal Impact) playing in the USA Major Soccer League [MLS]? Incidentally all major American Football, Basketball and Hockey leagues comprise teams from across the two countries.

African soccer leagues are dead, largely complete-waste-of-time affairs. European-dominated Fifa does nothing about it; because Africa’s backwardness is Europe’s gain. From a dysfunctional Africa – some of the most talented nations such as Guinea hardly have a reliable league competition to talk of — Europe taps the best playing talent, ships it to all levels of leagues in France, Portugal, Belgium, Scandinavia and now eastern Europe.

Attendance for St George football matches -- National Stadium, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Attendance for St George football matches — National Stadium, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

In spectators’ point of view, Europe has reached an epix and there is no more growth. Africa is the virgin continent where new football spectator following can be attracted for European leagues and some like the English Premier League (EPL), Spain’s Laliga and the German Bundesliga everyday launch campaigns to draw African spectator interest to their competitions.

The already supremely successful UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) competition are continuously updated to fir modern times. For rich clubs, the across the borders Champions League group and knock-out stages are full-fledged annual occupations. They, UEFA are now experimenting with a regular season ‘Nations League’ (for national teams).

Little has changed in African club, national teams’ competition set-ups in nearly half a century.

-Additional reporting by Correspondents

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