As the glow of the London Olympics starts to fade, brands and marketers start to look ahead to the long-term positive opportunities that emerged from The Games. On the team sports side, the surprising qualifying run of Nigeria in men’s basketball raised many eyebrows and showed how quickly the game is growing on the African continent. While casual fans may think Hakeem Olajuwon when they hear Nigeria, in reality the country has perhaps the largest contingent of players in North American high schools, colleges and the NBA of any nation, a number which is growing exponentially every year. Basketball got a huge boost in the eyes of the general public with their surprise qualification for London, and went 1-4 in the Games despite only having a few weeks to prepare after making the field.
The manager of the Nigerian Team is Dozie Mbonu. A native Philadelphian who had a standout career at Lehigh University, Mbonu played professional basketball for 17 years in Europe and now lives in Cyprus. We caught up with Dozie to ask him about global hoops and the growing gem that is basketball in Nigeria.
As someone who has participated in sport around the world, what was the Olympic experience like for a country that has never had a basketball team qualify before?
The 2012 London Olympic experience was everything I imagined it would be and even better. To have our (Nigeria) men’s basketball team (Team Nigeria) qualify for the Olympics the way we did was completely amazing! Being a part of and having a hand in the planning, preparation, training camp, FIBA pre-Olympic qualification tournament, obtaining one of the three remaining Olympic tickets, culminating with our participation in the Olympics was perhaps one of the best pure euphoric adrenaline rushes an individual can experience. The whole experience was so uplifting and life changing. This was by far greater than anything I experienced as a player.
We literally had the whole country of Nigeria (approximately 160 million people) and many Nigerians who are based around the world, following, encouraging, and supporting our team’s efforts. To be the only team sport representing Nigeria in the Olympics was truly fantastic. The overwhelming response we are receiving for qualifying and participation in the Olympics is still pouring in from various outlets. Our team made history for Nigeria and our hope and plan is trying to qualify for each Olympics going forward in the future.
How big is Nigeria in terms of interest in basketball?
The interest in basketball in Nigeria is growing at an extremely fast rate, especially at the grass roots stage. Many young boys and girls have taken to the sport of basketball. I believe basketball in Nigeria represents fun and also opportunity to many of these young persons. We are one of the few nations in the world who is blessed with an abundance and wealth of raw athleticism.
This summer has helped created huge interest for basketball in Nigeria at all age levels. We have been able to attracted many new followers and fans of basketball within Nigeria and also outside the country. This is a huge step for our basketball program in moving forward. Transforming this interest into growth at all levels of the sport is very crucial to where the game of basketball will go from here in Nigeria. Many persons are looking at Nigeria and Africa in general to find the next big / talent in basketball.
Many may know of Nigerian sport because of guys like Christian Okaye and Hakeem Olajuwon. What would surprise people about the level of interest there?
The most surprising thing I believe in the level of interest in sport in Nigeria is the recent existence of a professional ice hockey league. All sports in general are of important interest in Nigeria. I do not think there is a single sport we will not make an attempt at learning.
Are there any brands that you have seen take advantage of the exposure they can get through sport in Africa?
Nike has done a very good job of taking advantage of the exposure they get through sports in Africa, especially basketball. They are our kit sponsor and they are benefiting from our men’s national team success this summer. I know other brands such as Puma and Adidas are also taking advantage as well.
Why has Nigeria produced so many basketball players vs. other parts of the continent?
The answer to this is in the numbers. Nigeria has a population of 160 million people and these figures are growing. This is by far the largest country population in all of Africa. We have a lot of people to choose from (or should I say who choose) to play basketball. Height and athletism seem to just grow on trees in Nigeria.
You are also very active in European basketball. How has the downturn in the economy effected Euroleague play?
The downturn in the European economy has affected not only Euroleague play, but almost all of the leagues on the continent. Teams in general are offering lower value contracts from the previous season. Certain team budgets have continued to tighten each year, which means cut backs in all phases of team operations. The top players end up switching to teams in different countries based upon where they can receive top (dollar) euro for their services. I have recently witnessed in this years’ market, ninety percent of a very prestigious Euroleague’s roster jump to other teams based upon a forty – five percent decrease in the team’s budget. This will continue to happen in the countries where the economic downturn is having drastic effects.
Is there a club that you see as under marketed for American brands?
In Europe, I have seen many clubs who are under marketed as far as American brands are concerned. This is the case not only for basketball, but in other popular sports such as football (soccer) as well. European clubs are beginning to think about and explore the American brands now. This is an untapped market for lots of these clubs. Figuring out which American brands will do well in European sports culture is key for many of these clubs. I know for sure these clubs would welcome American brands.
What are the next steps with the team now that the Olympic run is over?
The next steps are, A.) Planning for next summers’ FIBA Africa Championships, which is the qualifier for the 2014 FIBA World Cup. B.) Seeking investment in our program through finding strategic sponsors and partners. C.) Producing our strongest team possible to represent Nigeria with good results. We have never taken the gold medal at a FIBA Africa Championship event for our men’s team. It sure would be nice to be associated with another first in our countries history, we’ll see.
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