Set to tip off on May 16, the Basketball Africa League (BAL) has finally arrived. Delayed a year by COVID-19, the BAL represents the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s first investment in an NBA-branded league outside of North America and the most consequential US recognition of the African sports sector to date. The league offers a platform for the champions of Africa’s domestic leagues to compete for a continental title, with twelve teams qualifying for this year’s inaugural season, to be played in the Rwandan capital of Kigali from May 16-30, 2021.
With the teams in their Kigali bubble and final preparations underway for the launch, the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center reached out to sports stakeholders across the BAL’s inaugural countries to hear their perspective on why the BAL represents a historic moment. Their feedback provides a compelling case for the developmental, diplomatic, and economic potential of African basketball.
An unparalleled opportunity
Dr. Houda Jorio, spokesperson for Moroccan BAL team AS Salé, describes the BAL as “the greatest opportunity a Moroccan team has ever seen.” Reflecting on the team’s rise to prominence, she attributes the turning point to the team’s first taste of international competition in Dubai over a decade ago. Despite only getting into that tournament after another team passed on the invitation, the international exposure turned out to be the spark the team needed to invest in its future. The result has been over a decade of continental success, and analogously, the BAL looks to be that same spark for clubs all across Africa’s fifty-four countries.
This opportunity is not lost on the hosts. To Landry Jabo, executive director of the Rwanda Basketball Federation, the moment is historic and a recognition of Rwanda’s capacity. For him, the tournament shows the country’s determination to “change livelihoods and encourage partnerships that will grow Rwanda’s economy sustainably over the foreseeable future.” For teams in other markets, the BAL is a point of national pride and a unique opportunity for international visibility. Nantenaina Ranaivosoa, head of communications for Madagascar’s team, GNBC, notes that, “The BAL will bring a lot of experience to GNBC,” and “we are also very proud to represent our country Madagascar and GNBC will try to do its best to be at the height of the big clubs during the competition.”
Elsewhere, too, the local buy-in is apparent. For example, the Mozambican team, Clube Ferroviário de Maputo, was seen off at the airport by the country’s secretary of state for sport and the head of the Mozambican Basketball Federation Roque Sebastião, with the secretary voicing that “thirty million Mozambicans are rooting for you.” Commenting on the significance of the moment, Sebastião relayed that, “I hope that the BAL can help us as basketball players, or should I say basketball community as a whole, to acquire recognition outside Africa, as well as within Africa. In terms of benefit, the BAL can help our country to be known, so our players will be appreciated.”
The passion and buzz surrounding the league extends well beyond the confines of basketball. Pabi Gueye, coach of Senegal’s BAL team AS Douanes, describes the BAL as “an important vector of development,” and in a powerful acknowledgement of the league’s potential for impact, the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) has been announced as an official partner of the league, pledging to advance education and inclusion through sports.
Education was a common theme in discussions with stakeholders. For Dr. Jorio, who has a background in the education sector, the two are inextricably tied. Investments by the teams and leagues in basketball camps and youth training facilities support education and citizenship skills just as much as basketball acumen. And the game’s international bent also contributes to added linkages and incentives to support language learning.
Mamadou Boubel Konaté, deputy national technical director of the Malian Basketball Federation, adds that while basketball is the second sport to soccer in most African markets, basketball, in Mali at least, is the sport in which the participation of women and girls is closer to parity. Like the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the United States, many African countries have developed women’s leagues as well, such as the Zenith Bank Women Basketball League in Nigeria.
As Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70 percent of Africans under the age of thirty and the population expected to double by 2050, the continent’s future will depend on the ability to guarantee jobs for its youth and integrate them economically and socially. The role of sports in this vision cannot be discounted and is supported by the fact that many African ministries combine the portfolios of sports and youth, clearly recognizing their complementarities and shared potential.
A sector ripe for investment
Discussion of the African sports sector’s developmental impact must also take into account the economic growth and employment potential, which make the sector ripe for investment. The global sports industry has surpassed $500 billion annually, according to a report by Research and Markets, and emerging markets lead the sector’s robust growth. With Africa’s middle class estimated to reach 1.1 billion with 690 million smartphone users by 2060, the increasingly urbanized and connected continent is a premier market for expansion.
Put simply by Oni Afolabi, board member and media representative for the Nigeria Basketball Federation, for some “sport is a means to wealth” and there is no reason that sport should not be a focus of non-governmental organizations to fight poverty and unemployment, as is done with other sectors.
Building local sports ecosystems in African markets can also contribute to positive spillovers in related sectors. Companies, like Wilson, sponsor of the Official Game Ball of the BAL, are conscious of these opportunities, as Kevin Murphy, general manager of Wilson Team Sports, reflects that, “The sports industry can fuel immense growth for an economy – from investment in job creation to ticket sales, and licensed merchandise to strategic sponsorship opportunities.” The teams and leagues directly employ hundreds of staff per country, and tournaments fill up hotels, bring business to vendors, and drum up business in tourism and services.
Other blue chip US, European, and African corporates are already involved as well. Nike is the official outfitter of the BAL and sees quarterly sales in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa market above $3 billion. New York-headquartered New Fortress Energy, a global energy infrastructure company founded by Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Edens, is also a founding partner of the BAL, and other US companies to include GE, Ford, and Marriott have sponsored past NBA Africa Games. European giants Total and Orange sponsor Nigerian and Malian leagues, respectively, and the domestic sponsors are largely drawn from the African banking and telecom space, with players such as Zenith Bank, the Bank of Kigali, and Unitel involved as sponsors. It will take corporate champions like these to continue to move the needle.
The developmental and economic draws of the BAL are also complemented by an opportunity to build people-to-people ties through sport, both between African countries and between Africa and the United States. The BAL itself is effectively a product of US-Africa basketball linkages and the culmination of growing engagement, including the NBA Academy Africa and NBA Africa Games, played on the continent since 2015. Fourteen Africans currently play in the NBA, and many more have ties to the continent. For instance, nineteen players have Nigerian origins, alone, among them the two-time reigning MVP and arguable face of the league Giannis Antetokounmpo. Legendary hall of famer Hakeem Olajuwon helped put basketball on the map in Nigeria and Nigeria on the map for many Americans, and in his wake, current players the likes of Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Serge Ibaka (Congo-Brazzaville), and Pascal Siakam (Cameroon) have found success at the highest levels. And while many Americans might know next to nothing about Cameroon or Congo-Brazzaville, they may know these players, making them a window to Africa for many average Americans.
Notably, the crossover extends in both directions. Americans are represented on several BAL teams (four foreign players are allowed per team, of which two must be African) and their coaching staffs, including the apparent signing of rapper J. Cole by Rwanda’s Patriots Basketball Club. Golden State Warriors Associate Head Coach Mike Brown was also selected to coach Nigeria’s Olympic team. Such linkages show the opportunities and potential to engage the US and African diasporas through sport, and US embassies are taking note. The US Embassy in Kigali is heavily promoting the BAL on its Facebook page; the US Chargé d’Affaires to Morocco hosted a ceremony in April presenting AS Salé’s participation in the league; and other embassies regularly engage with NBA players like Ibaka for public affairs events or with the NBA Academy in Dakar, for instance.
The BAL’s NBA connection makes it well-suited for heightened engagement. Sports, along with the associated creative industries, remain a tool of US soft power, and the BAL provides a positive story that can cut through the political or security concerns the US faces in certain bilateral relations, such as the security situation in Mozambique. In this way, sport can help keep the door open to US engagement, while building positive people-to-people relations and strengthening civil society directly.
According to a US State Department Spokesperson, its “Sports Diplomacy Division has a long-standing history with the African continent, using our shared love of basketball, to promote solidarity and friendship between our people. The expansion of the NBA into Africa only further serves to connect us socially and economically through the game of basketball. We look forward to supporting increased access, inclusion, capacity, and opportunity for African sports leaders and youth as we continue building bridges through sport.”
Room for growth
While the league’s potential and merits are clear, it is worth stressing that the ecosystem will not change overnight. Progress will be step by step, according to stakeholders, and key areas for growth remain. A recent survey by the African Sports & Creative Institute found that a vast majority of industry stakeholders noted the sector as “underdeveloped,” and interviewees for this article described deficits in infrastructure, attracting sponsorship, and the amateur designation of many leagues.
Even for the hosts, the domestic league is currently amateur. And while the Kigali Arena seats ten thousand, with similar capacities in Dakar and Luanda among others, the average capacity of BAL teams’ local arenas is just 4,600. For reference, this figure is closer to par with a small US college basketball arena. To finance facility expansion and other growth, sponsorship will need to expand well beyond existing levels. In places like Rwanda, the government is the biggest sponsor. But private sector interest must grow to be sustainable. For small markets, the available domestic takers are limited, and while Jabo is ready to see how the BAL’s visibility can impact sponsorships, Konaté cautions that it may take time. For him, in Mali, pitching sponsors will still require explaining the linkages of the BAL, which he contends will need to be met by a continued communications campaign.
Hopes for the league
So while the BAL cannot be expected to revolutionize Africa’s sports ecosystem all at once, it can be a jolt that elevates African basketball, offers a developmental success story, and convinces investors of the vibrancy of African sports and creative industries. But a jolt is good for nothing if momentum is not maintained. Thus, it is telling that when asked for her hopes for the league, Dr. Jorio responded, “one word: sustainability.”
For Afolabi, there is optimism that seeing what the NBA and FIBA bring to the table, by bringing together the best of the best, will be a model for success. But in the longer term, the growth of the league and the expansion of the African sports sector will rely on expanding the pool of interested stakeholders. Active corporate and government champions can play a critical role, but with audience metrics sure to matter, we can all play our part. And there’s an incentive to do so, for as Wilson’s Kevin Murphy puts it, “We want to contribute to the growth of sports globally, because it benefits everyone.”
Luke Tyburski is the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow him on Twitter @TyburskiLuke.
Note: This piece was updated from its original form to add a comment from a US State Department Spokesperson.
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