Connect with us


How Professional Sports Leagues Can Thoughtfully Expand In Africa



If you watched this year’s Super Bowl, you probably saw the “Born To Play” commercial from the National Football League (NFL). The commercial, which ranked fifth among all 59 halftime commercials according to a poll by USA Today, featured snippets of NFL players inspiring a young athlete to pursue his passion for playing football.

As leagues, including the NFL and National Basketball Association (NBA), expand their presence in Africa, here’s a look at what’s being done and some important lessons for expanding thoughtfully.

What’s Happening

Professional sports leagues are working to identify, develop, and showcase new talent–both at home and abroad.

In 2018, the NBA launched the NBA Academy Africa, an exclusive basketball training center in Senegal for aspiring athletes from across the continent. The academy was started in collaboration with the SEED Project (Sports for Education and Economic Development), a Senegal-based nonprofit that leverages basketball to empower youth in athletic, academic, and leadership initiatives.

Recognizing that it’s not enough to nurture African athletes only to have them leave the continent to play in the United States, in 2019, the NBA launched The Basketball Africa League (BAL), Africa’s own league for recruiting and growing basketball talent. In 2021, President Barack Obama signed on as a strategic partner to help “advance the league’s social responsibility efforts across the continent, including programs and partnerships that support greater gender equality and economic inclusion.” The current BAL season is broadcast across the globe and includes 12 club teams from 12 African countries. Now in its fourth season, the spring games are taking place in South Africa, Egypt, Senegal, and Rwanda in NBA-supported arenas and infrastructure.

In 2022, the NFL announced the launch of NFL Africa, a partnership that now includes local organizations in Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya dedicated to building football infrastructure and talent programs in previously unreached areas. Through football clinics, coaching workshops, and community outreach initiatives, NFL Africa has established football infrastructure and has created new pathways for young African athletes to pursue their love of the game.

European soccer teams are also investing in Africa. In 2023, German football club Bayern Munich announced a new partnership with the Rwanda Development Board, which aims to highlight football talent in Rwanda and bring tourism to the country to bolster the economy. Rwanda has been at the forefront of countries showcasing the power of international sports partnerships, boasting iconic collaborations with Arsenal FC from the English Premier League (EPL) and with Paris Saint-Germain FC from France’s Ligue 1.

So, how can non-native sports leagues invest thoughtfully in Africa’s future?

Invest In Youth

Africa is home to the world’s youngest population, with 70% of its people under the age of thirty. Africa’s sports business industry is expected to grow exponentially in future decades, as its population has taken a particular interest in football, soccer, basketball, and boxing. And with sports comes tremendous opportunities for skills acquisition, job opportunities, leadership development, and community building, all of which could yield incredible dividends for Africa.

In 2018, Aicha Ndour participated in the first NBA Academy girls’ basketball camp in Senegal. Ndour has since played Division I basketball for Rutgers University, Northwest Florida State College, and the University of Illinois. But for every talented player like Ndour there are many more kids who won’t play collegiately or professionally. The success of league sports in Africa will not be measured by how many athletes advance professionally–it’ll be the legacy they’ve left on communities, especially young people.

Imagine a world where a high school student goes to a sports camp and alongside a lecture about taking care of their body, they are also given information about protecting themselves and others from sexually transmitted diseases. Envision a universe where students who are given a physical to play sports are simultaneously tested for other preventable and treatable diseases. That future could yield stronger athletes and stronger communities.

Invest In Healthcare

The health of professional sports in Africa depends on the health of Africans.

According to The ONE Campaign, low- and lower-middle-income countries contain over half of the world’s population and over half of the world’s disease burden, yet account for only 3.8% of global health expenditures. Many African nations are facing difficult economic choices like whether to spend on healthcare or repay old debts and mitigate the growing effects of climate change. Estimates suggest countries should spend a minimum of 5% of their GDP and $86 per capita on healthcare. No African country hit that milestone in 2021.

“There needs to be renewed commitment by government and national parliaments to increase domestic financing for health in Africa,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame in 2021. “This has been a priority for the African Union for several years but progress has not been fast enough. We cannot continue to rely on external funding for something so important for our future,” he said.

As true as that may be, sports leagues will be judged on whether they too are contributing to the health of the communities they are investing in. Efforts to address the root causes of injustice are critical, as are initiatives that ensure children can grow up to live healthy, productive lives. Sports fields are valuable spaces for children to learn, play, and develop valuable skills. But if the population isn’t healthy, the hospitals will be full and the fields and the courts will be empty.

Listen To Local Communities

Last year, I shared a story about one African community’s need for motorcycles so they could get blood samples to laboratories faster for HIV testing. It’s insights like this that are only gained by listening to leaders on the ground.

Investing thoughtfully in Africa requires leaders to lean on local community experts and collaborate on solutions to solve local challenges. Slowly building trust is paramount–especially in light of how Western countries have colonized and exploited Africa in the past.

As leagues continue expanding in Africa, they can learn a thing or two from non-sports organizations like the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), which supports African youth in the fight against HIV/AIDS and prioritizes local community partnerships. By forging deep partnerships with local South-African based organizations CTAOP provides education, resources, and psychosocial support to young people living with HIV.

“Our partners on the ground are trying to move outside the box within the community in a way that’s not off-putting, but where you can slowly turn around hearts and minds,” Theron told Town and Country last year.

Looking Ahead

There are many reasons why professional sports leagues are bullish on Africa’s future. But as these leagues expand, their actions will be under a larger microscope.

In announcing NBA Africa, Babatunde “Tunde” Folawiyo, the Chairman and CEO of the Yinka Folawiyo Group, an investment firm with expertise in growing sports businesses in Africa, said, “This is a unique opportunity for Africa to leverage the new economy and develop the business and innovation infrastructure of sports. This time, success will be defined not just by return on investment but by sustainable and long-term impact on the lives of our people.”

Continue Reading