A peep into Odegbami’s LMC bellyache, By Fred Edoreh

It is left for readers to filter through Segun Odegbami’s piece titled “A peep into the belly of LMC”, published in the Guardian of November 9, to discern if it was borne out of altruism or malevolence.

For starters, it is a dishonorable act in public discourse, to have began by attacking supporters of the LMC as being “very sensitive, emotional and protective”, loving only “to hear or sing its praises”, for it attempts to shut up those who may differ from him. And, if they hate its “criticism with passion”, as he also jibed, it is because the critics come mostly with condiments of half truths, twisted facts, convenient amnesia and jaundiced judgments.

In the main, Odegbami domiciled the difficulties of the Nigeria Professional Football League on the structure and governance of the League Management Company, accusing the leadership of being either imposters of usurpers, insisting that only functionaries of the 20 clubs should constitute the board, alleging that the organisation lacks functionality and transparency as well as wasteful”, “expensive to run” and “intrusive on the operations of the clubs.”

He swiped at the Chairman of the LMC whom he claimed “called a press conference and announced” a new TV broadcast deal without publicly declaring the details, and for “being again on several social media platforms with a picture of him at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, standing with the FIFA president and others” and yet failing to give details of the agreement between the World League Forum (WLF) and FIFA.

The Yorubas say elders don’t lie, but it is disappointing that the oracle did not follow or chose to look away from the facts of his subjects. At no time before Odegbami’s article did the LMC chairman call a press conference purposed to announce a new TV deal. Fact is the NPFL AGM held on November 6 and the LMC issued a release on November 7, informing on the proceedings, including that a TV deal was presented for ratification to the assembly and that the details would be unveiled at a public event with the joint partners.

The release quoted the LMC Chairman as saying at the opening session: “We would be presenting a commercial proposition to the AGM Delegates for consideration and ratification.” It concluded thus: “He (the LMC Chairman) said the full details of the commercial offer would be unveiled at a public event with the partners after the AGM has ratified the pre-contract agreement.”

Also, while his discomfort with the picture of the LMC Chairman at FIFA headquarters, with FIFA President and others “being again on several social media platforms” speaks volumes of the underbelly, one would think that he should know that, by order of information, a public statement on an agreement between FIFA and the WFL could only be made by the leaderships and not any ordinary member, and that the details of the agreement was, indeed, made globally public on November 7 in a release signed by Jerome Perlemuter, General Secretary of the forum.

Furthermore, contrary to his claim that the concept of the LMC as a registered company is new and, “understandably, shrouded in unclear details,” the structure and governance of the LMC have been publicly available as published on its website since inception.

Even at that, the concept, from transition from League Management Committee into a company, was subject of wide, even wild, media scrutiny for over two years of its operations, only let up when its results began to show.

But is the concept really new? Perhaps Odegbami only chose to forget that before the LMC as a registered company, there was the Nigeria Football League Limited too, as a registered company which had many of the club owners on the board. That board, by omission or commission, accepted to settle for a net of $1m annually, for the entire league and its whole 20 clubs, from a TV deal that was worth $5m per season. Only God knows where the balance $4m went annually, and that deal was signed forward to subsist till about 2022.

Surely, it was an unsustainable shortchange as the league remained constantly in the red being that it drew down funds from seasons ahead to survive in the present. With over N400m in debt and unable to secure further loans, the league collapsed at some point and could no longer afford to pay referees indemnities and other administrative needs. It got so bad that, even as the clubs received no funds, they were charged to provide accommodation, transportation and other indemnities for match officials, a development which compromised the integrity of the league.

But most critical was the protracted dispute over who succeeded Chief Oyuki Obaseki as chairman of the board by which, through multiple litigations after arbitration failed, the court declared the NFLL illegal.

It was under these circumstances that the LMC was birthed, to rescue the league from the “baggage and luggage” of the illegal NFLL and also from the stranglehold of terribly debilitating deals.

Notwithstanding, the LMC went through rigorous procedures to ensure the acceptability of relevant stakeholders and a proper foundation, including meeting the conditions for approval by the Corporate Affairs Commission, the ratification of the General Assembly of the clubs, the approval of the NFF board, the ratification of the NFF congress and clearance by CAF and FIFA with regards to compliance with new regulations on club registration and licensing.

Both CAF and FIFA severally commended the LMC model and recommended it to various zones of confederations with the LMC COO designated as CAF instructor on league structures and club registration and licensing.

There is no one single universal structure for league governance. What is important is that the participating clubs and the national association are satisfied and approve of the structure and governance of the body, to, by their mandate, organise the league based on ratified rules and regulations, bargain commercial sponsorships and TV rights and distribute shares to the clubs as agreed. In this regard, the LMC presents all plans and programmes, season’s budget and accounts to the clubs AGM for ratification before implementation. This is the true “theory and story” of the LMC.

The structure and governance of the EPL which Odegbami referenced so much have had various transitions through the years till it now has a board of two directors and a CEO. The LMC, being not just a carbon copy of the EPL but adapted from various experiences for our environment, has a board of seven directors, an independent chairman, two independent members, three representatives nominated by the clubs and rotated each season in view of relegations and promotions, and a CEO. The Bundesliga, the LaLiga, MSL and others also have various peculiarities in structure and governance, with provisions for independent members, and they all serve the same purpose. What is important is efficiency and effectiveness in delivery.

On that, it is gratifying that Odegbami acknowledges that “much has surely been done by the LMC during parts of the last five or so years,” as was visible to Nigerians, but chose to disregard the fact that businesses do have hiccups and the very truth of the circumstances of the last two years which he says “have been barren, largely unproductive and now ugly.”

While he admits that league revenue is “mostly from television”, it is known that it was the LMC that unshackled the income from the former broadcast deal, raised it to $8m annually and fully declared, by which the clubs received greater revenue to inform the much that he admits the LMC did in the five years he referenced. So, from an average of N30,000, hitherto, the current average players salary is at about N250,000 with N150,000 as the minimum while some players earn up to N1m monthly. So, too, receipt by clubs increased from N5m to about N30m just as the winning prize moved from about N10 to N50m. These are aside other weekly incentives to clubs.

But Odegbami also knows that the TV partner withdrew from the Nigeria league, as well as Ghana and Kenya, during the period of economic recession, high forex rate and low patronage from advertisers which hampered its return on investment, and while the LMC sought another broadcaster, it ran the league for the two years with savings from the previous years, deriving from prudent financial management.

Knowing that it is TV revenue that sustains the league, one would expect Odegbami to interrogate why indigenous Nigerian broadcast companies have not been up to the game, including the NTA which the LMC had to pay to produce the NPFL matches, rather than receiving broadcast fees from it.

It is pertinent to mention that, recently, the South Africa Premier Soccer League came under same situation and the government had to empower the SABC financially to enable it buy into and support the visibility of the league to attract more sponsorships, while the SABC markets for advertisements to sustain the relationship. Similarly, the BBC, driven with taxpayers money, pays about £200m pounds for EPL highlights.

Indeed, the establishment of same EPL was supported by a grant of £150m by the UK government for the founding clubs to upgrade facilities and reposition to attract greater share of the global football economy. That investment now earns the UK treasury about £4b, annually, in taxes, from the EPL alone, while TV rights is now valued in excess of £9b for the next three years.

But, “uglier” is Odegbami’s insistence that whatever happens to the NFF cannot affect the LMC when the facts clearly show that the struggle for the leadership of the NFF always adversely affected the league.

It will be recalled that, in attempt by the LMC to ensure compliance to regulations, one of the clubs which failed to honour its fixtures took it to the usual Jos court, after the club owner insisted it will not submit to the appeal panel set up by the NFF for which he was contesting its leadership. Resultantly, the court ostensibly ordered the suspension of the league and when the LMC insisted on its independence, its leadership was threatened with imprisonments for contempt of court.

It is also recalled that when the former broadcast partner withdrew, the LMC opened discussions with FOX TV. Negotiations were looking positive with hope that a deal could be sealed after the 2018 World Cup, and possibly for broadcast to commence in the second half of the league. But, just when the league was about to resume, the detractors, with the support of then Sports Minister, seized the NFF secretariat and, indeed, ordered the dissolution of the LMC and suspension of the league. Dislodged after some days, they re-seized the NFF again after two weeks before they were finally dislodged.

With the back and forth and counter instructions on the resumption of the league and the confusion as to who was in charge, the club owners announced their withdrawal until there was sanity. The league lost time, leading to its abridgment to conclude the season. On its part, FOX lost interest in the negotiations as the situation reflected instability into which not many investors would risk their money.

At those times, one would have expected Odegbami, as a stakeholder, to have pointed out that the court shouldn’t have entertained such competition regulatory matter or that contenders to the NFF leadership should not disturb the flow of the league.

Again, the LMC leadership never contested the right of any agency to probe any officials of Nigeria football, neither did it declare that the investigations and prosecutions were what constrained the resumption of the league as Odegbami twisted it.

What was said is that the orchestrated and sustained media campaigns alleging corruption against the officials presented the entirety of Nigerian football as toxic and such impression has inherent capacity to destroy the confidence of prospective partners. How can anyone controvert that?

Alas, in a recent proceeding, the court found that whereas the NFF officials were accused of having taken N4b from their account, evidence from both the CBN and other relevant financial investigatory bodies showed that the NFF account received inflow of less than N1b in 2018 referenced. One would think Odegbami would advocate the prosecution of the petitioner for falsehood leading to various disruptions, waste of time and resources of the court and the agencies.

The LMC chairman was very clear on the challenge of the league in the past two years: “We have struggled financially in the last two seasons as a result of the withdrawal of our former (broadcast) partners and it is common knowledge that television right generates the biggest revenue for football”, he said. Again, how do you controvert that?

Besides broadcast revenue, Odegbami knows that the clubs owe it to themselves to develop their own fan base, spectatorship and ticketing, sponsorship, merchandising, endorsement and media marketing; that it is their responsibility to upgrade and present spectator, business and broadcast friendly stadiums to elicit both fans and sponsors appeal; and that one of the banes is that the most of the clubs are promoted by state governments who really do not care about the professionalism and commerce of club ownership.

Though the LMC should enforce standards, there is also wisdom in pushing the clubs subtly, rather than expelling them all, as they are all equally deficient. Even at that, the LMC had sponsored various programmes to retrain the club owners on the business of club ownership and playing beyond just three points, as well as supporting them to engage with the corporate world and public to elicit private and community equity investments for the financial stability of the clubs, a challenge which should concern all stakeholders and the expectations from our legendary “Mathematical” when he was called to manage Shooting Stars FC of Ibadan and Gateway FC of Abeokuta before also serving as Chairman of the Governing Council of the National Institute for Sports. But, alas, prowess on the pitch does not necessarily translate to proficiency in administration and management of the game.

Most revealing, however, is Odegbami’s lament of non interrogation of the LMC and promise of further, perhaps orchestrated attacks on the LMC, saying “in due course, it will be, but for now, just a cursory look.” So much like a statement of mission by an agent provocateur with confederates in dark places. So, now that the LMC has found a new broadcast partner indicating better days ahead, we probably should expect another storm, a trend that defined the past two ministerial regimes. But, no matter the friends and access we have in high places, let’s always keep facts sacred and truth be told in whole. That is nobler.

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