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Kevin Roberts: Sports governance needs to be stronger than ever before

If you live outside of Nigeria it’s likely you will never have heard of Dr. Larry Izamoje. 

So, by way of introduction, he’s a 52-year-old entrepreneur who owns one of the most raucous, off-the-wall and listened-to sports radio stations in the world. Brila 88.9 FM is headquartered in Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna and Onitsha, giving the station coverage of the entire country and its roughly 180 million population.

Larry lives and breathes the business of sport and has been in it since the early 1990s when he started a production company and consultancy before launching Brila FM in 2002. He wasn’t simply the owner, he was the front man whose exuberant stand-and-deliver, shouty style has been emulated by many others at Brila and beyond. It’s a style that may sound a little foreign to ears attuned to the dulcet tones of the BBC, but it somehow captures the energy and exuberance of Nigeria and the local passion for sport – in particular European football.

Along with Swiss-based business guru Dr. Jim Pulcrano and Robert Mutsauki, former technical director of Anoca (the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa), I was a guest on Brila FM last month. Our topic, establishing a viable sports industry in Nigeria, might have seemed dull compared to the standard fare of impassioned opinion about football, but the phone lines rang, texts and emails kept flowing in.

If well-funded international sports bodies are struggling with governance, what hope is there for sport in a country like Nigeria?

About 60 million according to Izamoje who is remarkably casual about such massive numbers. Brila is an example of how it is possible to build a business in the sports sector despite entrepreneurs investing in other, more certain opportunities. Nigeria depends too much on government funding, there are uncertainties about its commercial culture in which money doesn’t always reach its intended destination, and there’s a prevailing whiff of corruption in sport.

The task facing those working to promote the sports sector in Nigeria is to find a way of encouraging private sector investment. That means overhauling custom and practice and creating working sports infrastructure and governance systems. If either the governance or infrastructure are not up to the mark or simply fail, sport, and the business of sport, is ultimately doomed.

Naturally, what applies to Nigeria also applies to the rest of the world and it is safe to say that there has never been a period where there has been a tighter focus on, and more media scrutiny of, governance in sport.

Sebastian Coe’s election to succeed Lamine Diack as the president of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) was conducted amid a global furore about the prevalence of doping in the sport. In what may have proved to be a timely and well-judged piece of electioneering, Coe went on the attack against the media who, he ridiculously claimed, had declared war on his sport. But while that stance may have won him a few votes, the reality is that threatening to shoot the messenger isn’t going to make the problem go away.

All eyes will be on the IAAF and its new president over the months and years ahead to see how successfully they are able to tackle the problem. This particularly applies to Coe’s plan for an independent body to handle doping issues in athletics. There is, of course, a discussion to be had over what constitutes independence when somebody will have to pick up the bill for the new body. Yet we have to hope that it not only works for the IAAF, but that it also serves as a model for other sports as athletics is far from alone in its doping difficulties.

Doping is just one of the sports governance issues facing sport. Match-fixing may have gone quiet in recent months, but it certainly hasn’t gone away. The tentacles of corruption that extend from the activities of criminal gangs, who will stop at nothing to determine the outcome of matches they have a financial interest in, spread worldwide. But the ultimate answer lies outside of sport and in the legal systems’ willingness of law enforcement agencies worldwide to engage and fight.

Then there are governing bodies whose own activities bring their own sports into disrepute due to their lack of transparency and seemingly bizarre decision making. We are, of course, talking largely about Fifa here, but other governing bodies including the ICC (International Cricket Council) have also come under heavy fire for the way that they are managing the development of the sport and the way that money is distributed.

So if big, well-funded international sports bodies are struggling with governance, what hope is there for sport in a country like Nigeria? Turn the clock back to 2013 and a crucial matchday for clubs vying for promotion to the lowest tier of national league football in Nigeria. In one game a team, intriguingly named Police Machine, won its game 67-0 while their main rival Plateau United Feeders beat even that with a 79-0 triumph.

Nigeria may well have the people and the determination to tackle its domestic problems but there, as for sport worldwide, governance needs to be stronger, more effective and more transparent than ever before. The most basic tenet of sport business is to engage with fans. People like Izamoje understand that, which is why his passion-fuelled radio station succeeds.

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