In his piece in the Daily Nation, Roy Gachuhi speaks of how the failure to build strong institutions in Kenyan sport has left even the most successful teams vulnerable to the financial shocks caused by the withdrawal of a major sponsor. He is referencing the troubles caused by sports betting firm SportPesa’s pulling all its sponsorship of local and national teams following the failure of its legal challenge against the government’s move to raise taxes on betting profits. It is a move that may ground a large number of the country’s favorite sports brands.
“Fifty years down the line, AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia should be evaluating the suitability of the many organizations lining up to associate their brand with them,” Gachuhi says. He also reminds us that “Kenya’s sports politics closely mirror our national politics”. One obvious similarity is the dependence on the dirty money that is generated by selling false dreams to poor people.
According to Moses Kemibaro, a digital marketing professional based in Nairobi, SportPesa, the largest of them all, rakes in over Sh300 million a month. A GeoPoll survey of youth between the ages of 17-35 in sub-Saharan Africa found Kenya had the highest number of youth who were frequently gambling and that they spent Sh5000 a month on the habit, the highest on the continent. This in a country where, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, three-quarters of those in formal employment earn under Sh50,000 a month.
So the sponsorships whose loss many are bemoaning are a small fraction of the billions being taken from millions of poor people who are fed the illusion that sports betting is, as SportPesa’s slogan goes, “Made of Winners”. Only the betting companies make money when bets are lost, not when they are won.
But what they make is a pittance, and the suffering they cause is negligible, when compared to the outrageous fortunes and misery generated by the, to borrow Hilary Clinton’s phrase, “basket of deplorables” to whom we’ve mortgaged our national political life. They have taken to a whole new level the art of throwing around a relatively tiny bit of cash in exchange for the chance to make gazillions. Presidential election campaigns spend an estimated Sh5 billion which, including all the other races down the order, could add up to Sh36 billion. This is undoubtedly a lot of money. But considering that the country is estimated to lose Sh600 billion from corruption each year and that a large chunk of that is pocketed by the politicians in power, you can see how it works out to be a good deal.
Why must we feed the baser natures within society in order to be allowed a few crumbs for its better sides? Why is it necessary to procure resources for our sport from industries that sacrifice millions of youthful futures? Or to offer up our sovereignty, wealth and even lives to scoundrels in return for patronage posing as “development”?
I think it is actually a good thing that SportPesa has pulled the sponsorship. A deal with the Devil is not how we should seek to support our sportspeople. And maybe once the band aid is removed, we can we will be able to see and deal with the real, festering source of our public woes. The money that companies like SportPesa pump into sport tends to paper over the state’s under-investment in sport as well as its preying on athletes as was graphically illustrated during the 2016 Olympics.
But there again, our deals with devils, this time within government, stand in the way. Sadly, we won’t be exorcising the demons in Parliament or in State House anytime soon. And even if we did, there are others pretending to be angels of light waiting to take their place. Like with SportPesa, we need to change the terms of the deal and radically raise the bar for what is acceptable in terms of governance.
No more false promises. We must demand tangible action, whether it is to improve the lot of the sports fraternity of to reform the electoral system or to implement the report of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Report. To do this, we must be willing to risk the political class withdrawing the few parochial benefits it offers just as SportPesa has done. But if we are firm and refuse to succumb to the blackmail, the rewards would be much greater than what we have become accustomed to settling for.
Now that’s a gamble worth taking.