Ugo Udezue, the chief executive officer of the newly formed African Basketball League (ABL) x-rays the journey so far and expectations for the franchise set up to give basketball a big lift in Nigeria and beyond.
How has the ABL been going so far?
The ABL has been going very well, we have exceeded all our expectations and projections, our fan base is growing, our All Star weekend attracted hundreds of fans from outside Nigeria while the All Star game itself had more than 3000 people in attendance and we have been successful in redefining the value of sports and entertainment in Africa, but most importantly we are proud that our fans find value in this one-of-a-kind innovation. In an era when so many countries are experiencing economic downtime, ABL has created over 300 jobs across Africa in such a short time with our emphasis on local content and the local manufacture of our products in a space that never existed before the ABL.
Do you think Nigeria is ripe for this new innovation of redefining sports entertainment?
Nigeria is ripe for any innovations that have nothing to do with oil and every little bit counts. Entertainment is a big part of our culture. Our slogan is “more than a game”, because sports and entertainment are one and the same. Our challenge is changing the mind-set and perception of sports as just about winning a medal, we also want our fans to come out of our games with the memory of the half time shows, the ambience, the social environment, food and drinks and the whole fulfilment of an evening out with family and friends that captures all the elements.
Most importantly, credit should be given to various sports organization in Nigeria and Africa for growing sports to the level it is now. All we are trying to do is to contribute towards the growth and development of sports and entertainment by coming up with sports entertainment models like the ABL that will capture the entire ecosystem which has already proved mutually beneficial for the citizenry and the economies at large.
What are the benefits of the league to Nigeria and Africa in general?
After being a partner at one of the top sports management firms in the U.S. for 15 years, I have understood the value of private driven sports enterprise in an economy. I was just in Houston for the NCAA final four games in March and the city of Houston generated 300 million dollars in one weekend because of basketball. The NFL generates billions of dollars every year to the US economy and NBA both privately owned sports enterprises. It is very unfortunate in Africa and Nigeria that we have never been able to tap into the huge potential of sports. In my opinion the issue is mostly perception of sports as a viable business enterprise, the belittling of the participants status in society and the categorization as a social responsibility program. Africa has the richest sports talent of any continent, yet our talents go to other countries and leagues to other continents to make them rich, to add to that we spend millions of dollars to buy merchandize from those countries to make them richer when we can create the same opportunity here. There has to be privatization of sports for Africa to reach its potential in the industry, sports has to be seen as a viable business and there has to be equity representation for this to work. ABL provides a litmus test for everyone. We are where the Music and entertainment industry was 20 years ago and our hope is to slowly change the narrative for generations to come.
Does the ABL have government support (Minister of Sports)?
The Nigerian economy and society needs any positive help it can get in this difficult economic climate. The mantra for change is not a miracle, it starts with each and every one of us and our contributions to our country. The ABL has added another chapter to entertainment in Lagos and has added value economically in just a few months of existence. The Minister of Sports, Solomon Dalung, and the Lagos state government, Hon Deji Tinibu are all progressives and from what I see they want to make positive changes but change takes time and it’s very hard to upend the status quo because people will be afraid of what they don’t understand and will make challenges but with time everyone will actually benefit from change.
What is your take on Olumide Oyediji’s comment on the African Basketball League?
I have a lot of respect for Olumide Oyedeji, he has been an integral part of basketball in Nigeria for a very long time. His contributions through his foundation and fervour has earned him a hall of fame status in Africa in my opinion and I think he means well. But at the end of the day I know as a former player Olumide is very proud of what we have achieved so far with the ABL, because the ABL is not about me or my partners, it is what we all have been dreaming for years that has been brought to reality so regardless of what side he is on I know he is very proud. He had mentioned that he was concerned about Nigeria being banned because of the ABL, that’s very unfortunate and I pray that is not the case but our main concern should be the growth of an industry, our people and value to our society. If we organically grow the industry we will not need to assemble a national team without one local player to represent us in international competitions, what happens after that? What sustainable value have we created? We have to weigh the two sides and figure out a compromise that is in the best interest of Nigeria
Is this a Lagos affair? Why no teams in other parts of the country?
The Lagos State government has provided a sports environment for the ABL to be successful. Our goal is to attract privately owned franchises in different countries and states. It is very important for us that our partners have equity representation in the business because that is the only way a business can grow. We are not limited by geography or any categorization but by people that want to invest privately. There are some state owned franchises that if they get privatized will be a gold mine. Lagos Islanders and Lagos Warriors are privately owned and Lagos State still gets the full benefit from a PR and economic standpoint while only providing institutionalized platforms for the teams to succeed.
Where do you see the ABL in the next two years?
Our plan is to organically grow the game of basketball here in Africa and not just as sport but to capture the whole ecosystem that comes with sports, entertainment and lifestyle as a facilitator of economic growth. We want to position our games as a social environment opportunity for families and young adults. The strategic plan we have for arena and infrastructure development across Africa will largely add to real estate value among others.
The opportunity, potential and future are tremendous for our sponsors, our fans and us.
When is your next game?
So far, we have played 12 games in our regular season. We have two games on the 29th of April, the Lagos Warriors will take on Abidjan Ramblers at 6pm and Lagos Islanders will take on the Stallions by 8pm. On the 2nd of May, the Lagos Warriors will play against the Stallions by 4pm while the Lagos Islanders and the Abidjan Ramblers will go head to head by 6pm. All home games are played at the Landmark Centre.