Slam Dunk for Business: The growth of the African sports economy
African sport is going global, and with it come an emergent ecosystem of business opportunities, deals and alliances.
The world of African sports is receiving unprecedented global attention. Major breakthroughs flow one after another in front of admiring and cheering global TV audiences: this year, Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, the double Olympics and 1,500 world record holder completed a hat-trick of world records, shattering the mile and 5,000m records to add to her further extension of the 1,500m record – all within an astonishing seven weeks. Tunisian female 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 male 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 with Nouhaila Benzina becoming the first player to play at a World Cup while wearing the hijab. In 2021 Eliud Kipchoge became the first individual to run the marathon in under two hours. More recently, the Springboks, the South African national rugby team, became the first in the sports history to win the World Cup four times .
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 – to make two instances, Salah with Adidas and Giannis with Whatsapp/Meta – demonstrate the global reach and markets that African sports stars can access. The sports achievements, and the accolades that come with them, have opened up a range of commercial opportunities.
Consider also that African sports has 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 International Basketball Federation (FIBA). The 2023 season was first played in Dakar, Senegal, and Cairo, Egypt. The final stage of the seasons 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 broadcasted around the world. The forthcoming 2024 season will include South Africa as a host country; it 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 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 her tourism via partnerships with a leading team (Arsenal FC) from the most well-known league globally, the English Premier League (EPL). The Visit Rwanda initiative was discussed globally: for its politics and its business credentials, amongst others. Rwanda, however, then signed-up France’s Ligue 1 Champion Paris Saint-Germain FC and Germany’s Bundesliga Champion Bayern Munich FC as well, both iconic clubs and record title holders in their respective leagues. South Africa has recently been in the news for plans for a similar tourism-oriented deal with an EPL team (Tottenham Hotspur). The initiative was eventually drooped – the attempt to strike such a deal is significant nonetheless. Other deals have been struck: Dakar will host the first Olympic event on the continent – the World Youth Olympic Games in 2026. 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 and business, and politics.
Taken together, the above are a number of key examples of commercial ventures, relations and activities that are part of a growing sports economy on or related to the African continent, the ASE, that sits within a rapidly changing and growing global sports economy. 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 sport: it is an omnipresent phenomenon underpinned by a web of different stakeholders linked by commercial transactions. These transactions sit in a wider context: one in which, for example, characteristics of home society and culture can be evident as athletes, teams or clubs engage with and support local communities through foundations, state agencies or development organisations. The development of distinctly African sports economies, and Africa’s increasingly networked engagement in a global sports economy requires analytical attention and can be unpacked from a variety of scholarly perspectives, among them political economy (for example, as part of an enquiry into capitalism, domestic capitalists and commercialisation in Africa) and 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.
In this blog we point to this trend of a growing and dynamic ASE and suggest five areas that we regard as important for purpose of analysis: (1) relevant actors that are part of the new growth and initiate, plan, implement, and manage new measures and respective actors’ alliances; (2) new formats that are sought, tried out and underpin the growth (e.g. new leagues and competitions); (3) the respective business/economic side of these growth measures and formats, particularly matters of ownership, control, financing, sponsorships, revenue split, profits, broadcasting, state subsidies and support, local economic impact, relevant/trending professions, businesses and sectors including media, betting, transport and entertainment. Further, (4) issues related to matters of popularity, that is local, regional and global fandom, social media, marketing, image, branding, image, and so on. Finally, analytical attention is required regarding (5) the politics/political economy of the ASE including the growth and commercialisation initiatives. This triangulates the influences of sports, business and politics: about who gets what, why and how in material terms; about the distribution of gain and harm in the sector, about interests, power and conflicts, about the links to and influence of aid agencies and NGOs, and so on.
Before we continue, note: ‘Africa Sports Economy’ (ASE) is not a widely used term. As things stand twin links follow from a straightforward internet search: one connected to European aid agency (ADF), and the other to a US think tank (a business press outlet also refers to a ‘sports industry’ on the continent). We adopt the term here because we think it captures well the plethora of trends and emerging structures: it thus helps to draw a specific focus to the subject matter; to give prominence to conceptualising the evidence; and to open up space for analysis and debate.
A season of new alliances in the ASE
Let us delve deeper. First, into the theme of actors and actors alliances: 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 a number of states, particularly Rwanda, in the birth and management of the pan-African BAL. Rwanda’s President Kagame has positioned Rwanda as a centrepiece of African sports business. Hosting in the Covid-impacted first iteration of the BAL’s tournament in a sealed ‘bubble’ in Kigali in 2021 is just one example, alongside hosting Afrobasket and the African Volleyball Championships that year, and hosting, as mentioned, the UCIs World Championship Cycling in 2025. The significance of the BAL – hosted without Covid regulations from 2022 – as the first pan-African club competition is, amongst others, 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 organisation: CAF, the Confederation of African Football in 1957, preceding the African Union’s forebears, was immediately political with Black African nations using football to take a stand against South Africa’s then nine-year-old apartheid policy. These antecedents provide a platform for other national efforts such as in Senegal (hosting the Youth Olympic Games in 2026), Uganda and South Africa in mimicking Rwanda.
That said, major multinational brands such as the Nike and Jordan are commercial partners of the BAL. The NBA supporting investment are partnered with African staff and governance to develop and enhance an authentic Africa 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; the French government (and President Macron) played a role too in acting out the intersection of sporting and diplomatic realms. Nonetheless criticism was recently aired related to having the preseason scouting event Combine in Paris (rather than on continent). The Combine in Paris reflected the influence of Macron’s domestic priorities and African diaspora communities. The BAL example illustrates our point that there is a political economy and politics underpinning such significant multi-actors commercial ventures; and this applies to other recent cases of this wider trend of a proliferation of new remarkable high-profile growth alliances. This example provides insight and raises important questions about the ASE. For example: Who owns, drives, steers and benefits from such commercial sports 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 business and economies? It helps to get a sense of the usefulness of different analytical perspectives from, say, political science to unpack a given initiative: one way of comprehending the politics of the ASE is to use the analytical lens of global diplomacy practice and look at matters of communication, representation and negotiation; all at play in the example of the establishment of the BAL.
New formats, formulars and revenue streams
The second area that requires further attention addressed the formats or modes of the commercial projects being implemented. There is a significant level of searching for and trying out of new formulas in the African sports economy space: new products and formats, and with it can come new commercial alliances. Actors try to achieve commercial break throughs, 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 national and local initiatives. Stakeholders know African domestic sports generates – in comparison to other regions – low levels of revenues. This is particularly stark in football, if one compares leagues in say Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania with top leagues in Europe but also with leagues across the African continent. Format experimentation is underway in Uganda’s football for example, both at professional and amateur level, as part of commercialising 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, i.e., 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 that opens up new possibilities regarding format, content and commerce for local sports. At continent level CAF’s AFL is among the key examples of new formulars in Africa’s commercial sports.
The third dimension of the ASE focuses more firmly on all aspects of business and commerce. This includes giving analytical attention to local initiatives and homegrown innovations that are able to 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 level) will be one issue to watch in the coming years. Take Vihiga Queens FC, the multiple national female 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 a ten-week period. This partnership is a remarkable achievement given the difficulty of finding companies to sponsor women club football in the country. We further highlight the issue of setting up and running commercially viable support businesses, including on matters of data capture and analysis (regarding players’ performance). Vihiga have for example 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 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 – and again, agencies, and alliances – also play a role: think of the Kenyan Rift Valley towns of Iten, Kaptagat and Eldoret whose economies have been significantly fuelled by athletes’ earnings and inputs from non-state benefactors (and various other members of athletes’ support networks) over the past 20 years or so. They transformed into towns 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 programmes and systems.
The focus on commerce can further help to track to what extent, how and why the new growth and business initiatives change: (i) Africa’s place in the global division of labour in global sport (historically, more often as a provider of talent to other regions of the world: the lucrative and profitable football leagues of Europe and Asia or the basketball league in the USA); and (ii) sport’s place in matters of national development and change in post-independence African states (i.e., impact significantly the evolution of national sports in these countries). Finally, this focus can shed light on the business drives and practices that are fuelling the exploitation and harm that characterise part of the for-profit sports business, and explore respective matters of sports governance, for instance, to track and assess measures taken to curb these aspects of the ASE.
Popularity, politics and impact
Our fourth analytical priority area is the matter of popularity. Across sports, local leagues and clubs, and their commercial, political and media partners undertake a lot of work to promote their sports, competitions, clubs, and players, locally and nationally, but also beyond – think of the popularity and marketing campaign around Kenyan runner Kipchoge. The dynamics and outcomes of these measures will vary greatly, for instance in terms of spectators’ numbers in premier league games (across sports, countries, clubs etc.), and provide interesting points of comparison and learning. Relevant questions include: which is the popular audience? Who is judging popularity? How might actors and actors’ alliances in sports in Africa achieve, for instance, what Afrobeats achieved in music? That is, significant global recognition, relevance, following and fame, and financial success for home-produced content.
Fifth, politics/political economy: here the focus of analysis turns more firmly to matters of competing political and business interests, power and conflict. Of interest would be the political interests of government and other members of the ruling elite to support particular sports, new measures and investments (rather than others), and significantly neglect, drain or ‘disorganise’ sections of sport – or particular commercial projects – too. This area calls for analysis of, for example, the political economy of the betting industry, of new commercial competitions (BAL, AFL, etc.) and of new major local sports investments (say, the construction of new stadia); 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, commercialisation, professionalisation and performance; or the political activities (including in-office careers) of active and retired star players. Finally, this can encapsulate to not just explore the politics and political economy of growth (and wealth creation and appropriation) in sports, but also of significant setbacks, crisis and decline in the sector. And it can often imply an analytical attention to historicizing contemporary phenomena of the ASE.
Finally, this all amounts to the question of impact – the ‘so-what’ issue. Impact is something that is crucial to track, analyse and debate in the coming years. Which measures, formats, actors’ alliances, innovative changes and political interventions make a difference regarding key indicators: better fans 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. The five analytical areas outlined above, demonstrate in our view both the resonance of identifying and sharing the term the African sports economy – ASE, and the need for further attention and debate.