Towards A Sustainable Sports Financing Model in Uganda

Published on 10th August 2021

Micho is back! There is an air of excitement as the controversial Milutin Sredojević returns for another stint at the helm of Uganda's soccer as coach of the national team. His return aroused quite the online banter and some have wondered whether this is the segment for his pro-bono work. All this is not without a background as his previous stint is still fresh in the hearts of Ugandans. After decades in the soccer doldrums, Micho got us to the continental soccer platform, the Africa Cup of Nations. It had been a long dry spell for Uganda but he finally did it and that alone endeared him to the hearts of Ugandans. However, this did stop his unceremonious and some would argue, acrimonious departure from Uganda's soccer scene. Interestingly, the circumstances surrounding his departure are as unclear as those around his return but well, that's water under the bridge. He's back and back to work so now we focus on the road ahead.

The elephant in the room

The real issue is what that road ahead looks like. Is it one of hope and promise for a struggling sports ecosystem or one where the status quo of trial and error persists? It is imperative that we address the issues that plague sports in Uganda and at the heart of this is finance.

Sports financing is the crux of the matter if you will. We need money to organize and develop sports across the board. If we appreciate sports as a means to an end, we need to have a good picture of what that 'end' looks like. What benefits can sports accord a nation? If these are clear, we then work backwards and chart a path in which we deploy resources appropriately and at the right time in order to achieve the desired results. For a country to deploy peanuts and expect something short of a miracle is foolhardy. Continental and global tournaments are littered with evidence of this reality. One picture that should cease to be is that of teams seeking handouts to enable them participate in tournaments. Athletes representing their nation are not doing the nation a favor but are rather a national asset and represent a moment of pride for any nation.

In this context, a nation has the responsibility to look after its asset. Those who fly the nation's flag should do so with great pride and dignity. Uganda’s experience is quite troubling and if Micho and others long forgotten don't epitomize this notion, certainly Julius Sekitoleko will do it justice. Julius went missing from the Olympic training camp. In fact, its highly probable that had it not been for the requirement to periodically administer Covid-19  tests hence frequent access to participants, it might have taken longer to notice his absence. On the other hand, Peruth Chemutai is a now a sensation, going down in history as Uganda’s first woman Olympic gold medalist and yet until this massive feat, she had gone by largely unnoticed. Now she’s a household name with various tribes in Uganda trying to lay claim to her.

Why would a young man choose a life on the run, an obscure life over the pride of representing his country and doing his kin proud? To answer this question, we must acknowledge our own agency as a country in failing this young man. To thoroughly appreciate this, we need to take the focus away from Tokyo and focus on the bigger picture at home.

Let us lay the foundation

What value do we place on sports at the micro (right in our homes) and macro (national) levels? How many of us make room for sports in our homes, demonstrated by investment in even just basic sports infrastructure for our children?  What is the stock of public sports facilities in our country?  How much has this stock grown over the years as a demonstration of government's commitment to sports? How many of us  take children to schools with minimal or no play spaces? Do Uganda's thriving housing estates have spaces for sports from which children right from their early years can benefit from? 

Given the above picture, we shouldn't be surprised by the challenges we see in the sports value chain. Do we value progression in a sports discipline the way we do academic progression or do we consider sports peripheral? Failure to transition this perception has consequently given sports a non-prioritized status even in the finance world. It is therefore not surprising that for years, the lifeline of sports has rested in the goodwill and social responsibility programs of well-meaning people and organizations.

To form a strong case for sport financing, we must then examine the value proposition from sport in what can be deemed the Return on Investment (RoI).

A country as one!

One of the most remarkable sights is groups of people glued to TV screens punctuated with moments of tension in support of teams or sports personalities they are rooting for. In these moments, there is no divisive chord, simply an aura of unity. It is amazing how sport provides something people are able to unite around, it has a way of bringing people together and I don’t know many things that are able to do that, certainly not politics. Sport is unifying even in times of crisis as is the case today. How do we price this kind of value?

Sports for life

The benefits to our physical and mental health are invaluable. Sports encourages an active lifestyle and fosters physical and mental agility. The benefits of a healthy population are immense and include a more productive work force, less strain the health and social welfare system, and these benefits are clearly seen where sport has been prioritised.

Some of the most important life skills and disciplines are well demonstrated in sports: leadership, negotiation, decision making, crisis management, and team work, which are in turn transferred to our professional and business journeys. Consider what sports do for our children beyond providing an outlet for their energy. Sports could just as well be one of the most important schools for children, teaching vital life skills long before they meet them in a classroom. Leadership skills as team captain, the value of teamwork, the reward of hard work and joy of success. Even learning very early how to deal with loss or failure as well as the value of preparation and resilience. Sports deliver these lifelong lessons in a way the classroom never can. In fact, another invaluable lesson from sports is the idea of one's "shelf life", that knowledge that the season when you can and will be at your best is finite and comes to an end. What a way to put retirement into perspective!

Sports is good for business

Global multinationals have cracked the secret of sports. When big brands clamour to be associated with sports, it is for the reason that they appreciate how sports have evolved to become an integral part of society and as such, the business ecosystem. Sports provide an inroad into the mind and heart of the consumer. Consider how sports have always been a good conversational starter or ice breaker. Association with sports is an enabler for market penetration.

Sports provide a massive living billboard even for a country. If Uganda paid Peruth Chemutai for the publicity she has given the country, she would be set for retirement. In effect, investment in sports delivers that dual benefit of a marketing platform and opening up the country to diverse opportunities notably in the tourism and hospitality space. Now that’s an investment worth making!

In addition, sports value chains  need financing and that's business for financial institutions. In fact, the state of sports in our country suggests that we have barely scratched the surface and there is still large growth potential in that ecosystem.

Sports for foreign policy

Sports present a credible pathway for building, enhancing and even repairing relations between groups of people or countries. Sports allow for the channelling of soft power if you will. Merkel (2016) cites that for most of the post-Second World War period, the hosting of and participation in international sports events have been dominated by three major patterns. First, the United States, West Germany, the former Soviet Union and East Germany, used the outstanding success of their top-level athletes to demonstrate the ideological superiority of their political systems. They also used sports to consolidate international recognition, promote relations, and win support among developing countries.  Second, as a cheap but high-profile means of publicly expressing disapproval of another country’s actions, for example through boycotts or attempts to marginalise states in the world of international sports. Third, as a vehicle for building, reinforcing and promoting a distinctive national identity and gaining international recognition. We certainly still see much of this today.

Sports can facilitate international cooperation, increase understanding and help bridge profound differences. The two Korean states provide an example of this in the past. Sports provide something that people easily rally around.

What has worked elsewhere

In a bid to rise to the helm of global sports, the Chinese State Council released a memo in September 2019 outlining actions to be taken to realise that goal. These are; coordinated efforts to build more venues for exercise; tax breaks for companies in the sports industry; focus on fitness for “key groups” – teenagers, the elderly, farmers, and the disabled; increased allowances for private sports organizations, specifically those specializing in basketball, football, and volleyball; encouragement to build a more complete sports industry chain with more support for developing and manufacturing sporting equipment; more general sporting events for the public and increased international sports exchange.

China has deliberate policies towards harnessing the potential of sports as they churn out talent in an almost similar fashion to their massive manufacturing engine. China sent the largest number of athletes ever to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This is the result of a deliberate policy back at home that makes possible the identification, development and support of talent.

The UK has curated a model that combines the treasury and revenue from lottery to finance the sports ecosystem in a structured manner. A quick look at How UK Sport funding works shows how the UK has been deliberately strategic about funding sports over the long term. "It reflects our ambition to develop a more sustainable, healthy and efficient sporting ecosystem." UK Sports created three investment streams that structured its intervention; Podium that targets building potential for medal success and preparation for athletes to thrive in international competitions, Academy focuses on achieving more rounded results of physical, mental, knowledge and cultural preparedness of athletes and Progression seeks to accelerate the development of sports by stimulating change in their performance development system and culture.

UK Sport also runs a National Squads Support Fund to build credible national sports squads and it's Support Services has a strategic focus on sport management and administration such as development of coaches as well as talent acquisition. Partnership is also important to their model signifying the importance of backward and forward linkages in the ecosystem.

Now that's what it means to 'put your money where your mouth is'. In order to tap into a $1.1 trillion global sports market (according to SIGNA Sports United and Boston Consulting Group), those are the kind of deliberate and strategic actions that must be taken.

Next steps

Government should not relegate itself to a position of cheerleading. It is not enough to congratulate and host our sports personalities to dinners when out of largely their own struggle, they bring medals home. Tokenism is not the solution but merely a band aid for that momentary high. The best gift to our sports personalities is to develop the sport ecosystem, to design a path that validates sports, values its contribution to society and integrates it into the economy.

Government should lead this charge and a very strong start could actually be an independent Sports Ministry, thus providing the requisite focus on supporting and developing the eco system. A vital incentive for action is quantifying the potential of sports holistically. Having a good idea of what that number looks like is a vital policy input because that helps to spotlight the value proposition and strengthen the case for investment.

It would also be of value to draw our scholarship and finance community into this conversation with the view of soliciting their expertise to accord this subject greater depth. Hopefully leading to pragmatic policy proposals that can translate into actions, programs, synergies and finance programs that will ultimately deliver sustainable financing for sport. It is certainly a worthy endeavor in view of righting the wrongs that have plagued our sports ecosystem for decades.

There is consensus as to the cohesive force of sport and if for that alone, this great need ought to be interrogated and solutioned for in order to rightfully position sport as a viable path for our children and generations to come.

Over to you!

By Edgar Azairwe Rutaagi

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