Huge fan bases on the continent are causing English Premier League clubs to ramp up sponsorship deals with African brands.
Dozens of Arsenal fans gather around a bar in Addis Ababa's trendy Bole district, chatting and sipping beer. All over town, Ethiopia's obsession with the 'Gunners' is on display: minibuses adorned with the club's crest speed through busy streets; teenagers selling cigarettes sport Arsenal's red home kit; and business executives tune in to watch the match at airport lounges.
Africa is where we have a really significant number of fans. We believe we're the most popular club on that continent
The club, one of the most popular in England's Premier League, has taken a particular interest in Ethiopia. It signed a three-year sponsorship deal with local brewer Dashen Beer in September. Since then, it has been broadcasting commercials showing players doing traditional shoulder dancing and speaking in Amharic. The club also opened a training academy and sent former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour to coach young Ethiopian footballers.
Back in north London, from his office overlooking Emirates Stadium, Arsenal's chief commercial officer, Vinai Venkatesham, says the club has homed in on Africa as one of its target regions for expansion. "Africa is really, really high up our priority list," says Venkatesham. "All of the research we do [...] tells us that Africa is where we have a really significant number of fans. We believe we're the most popular club on that continent."
Africans are the second most common visitors to Arsenal's website after Europeans. The club's site attracts about three million African visitors a month, making up 22% of all traffic. Kenya is the largest audience outside of the United Kingdom, and Nigeria is the fifth-largest audience, according to data shared by the club.
Banks and beer
Over the past three years, Arsenal has signed a host of sponsorship deals with African banks, brewers and telecoms companies. These include partnerships with Kenya's Imperial Bank, Nigeria's Sterling Bank, South African brewer Hansa Pilsener, and Kenyan online gambling company SportPesa. Going forward, Venkatesham says he has prioritised marketing activities in Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt.
The love affair between Ethiopia and Arsenal is just one example of the popularity that teams in the Premier League – the world's most-watched soccer-competition with total revenues of £3.4bn ($4.8bn) spread across its 20 teams – enjoy on the African continent. From Manchester United in Zimbabwe to Chelsea in Côte d'Ivoire, more Africans than ever before are forming lifelong allegiances to English football teams. About 300 million Africans are estimated to regularly watch Premier League matches – more viewers than any other region except Asia, according to Repucom, a sport research outfit.
After analysing the number of followers that each club has in Africa, social media site Twitter's head of sport Alex Trickett wrote: "@Arsenal carry their European form into Northern Africa with Morocco – the home of long-departed former Gunner Marouane Chamakh. @ChelseaFC, meanwhile, have a stronghold in Ivory Coast, the home of Blues legend Didier Drogba (@didierdrogba). Further south, @ManUtd prevail, with South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe turning red."
Top teams have also attracted a host of famous African supporters, including Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, who took to Twitter in March to bemoan a string of Arsenal defeats: "Arsenal is still my team! But Leicester is the team to beat for this season's [English Premier League] trophy."
Dangote eyes Arsenal
Africa's richest man, Aliko Dangote, who says he has supported Arsenal since the 1980s, has said he would like to buy the team. "They are doing well, but they need another strategic direction," he told the BBC's Hausa service. Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza is said to be an ardent Chelsea supporter.
Other Premier League teams are zeroing in on African fans as well. After Manchester United made Nigerian telecoms company Globacom its official mobile operator for Benin, Ghana and Nigeria in 2009, it began sending video highlights and match footage to fans' mobile phones. The club signed similar deals with South African telecoms company MTN in 2010 and Indian giant Airtel Africa in 2014. Chelsea signed partnerships with commercial bank afb's Kenyan unit in 2013 and Egyptian mobile phone operator mobinil in 2014.
That number could swell after the broadcasting rights for Premier League matches in sub-Saharan Africa were bought by Econet Media, owned by Zimbabwean telecoms magnet Strive Masiyiwa, on 17 March. Beginning next season, the deal will make one Saturday afternoon Premier League match available to viewers for free in 50 African countries on the network's new platform Kwesé Sports. "Premier League clubs enjoy passionate support across sub-Saharan Africa, and these rights are important for ensuring that as many fans as possible can follow and enjoy our competition," Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore told media at the time.
Compared to European clubs, teams in African leagues are worth much less money. According to Transfermarkt, the three most valuable clubs on the continent are Egyptian side Al Ahly, which is worth €19.3m, followed by two Tunisian clubs – Espérance Sportive de Tunis, worth €12.8m, and Club Africain with a value of €11.8m. In sub-Saharan Africa, two South African teams show promise: the Kaizer Chiefs are worth €10.5m and Mamelodi Sundowns are worth €10.4m.
If African teams are to grow their market value, they will need to find money to keep the continent's best players from moving to Europe. African players bring masses of African fans along with them. When the Premier League began in 1992, there were just three African players. That number has since skyrocketed to 57 in the current season. A total of 35 Nigerian players have played in the Premier League, more than any other African nationality.
Arsenal's January 2016 signing of Mohamed Elneny, an Egyptian midfielder, has boosted the club's popularity in Egypt. "In the run-up to him signing, we saw our Egyptian numbers really start to grow," says Arsenal's Venkatesham. "On the day he signed, they completely exploded." ●