Manchester United head to South Africa this week for a pre-season tour, just as competition to dominate the African football market heats up.
The Red Devils will take on Amazulu on Wednesday in Durban, and Ajax Cape Town in their home city on Saturday.
Meanwhile their arch rivals, Manchester City, have also been busy. The English Premier League champions hosted a coaching clinic in Lagos, Nigeria, earlier this month.
Arsenal have also targeted Nigeria. The Londoners had planned a friendly against the Super Eagles for next month, but postponed the game amid logistical concerns. Sunderland have been active too, and penned an agreement with Invest in Africa to be their shirt sponsor for the next two years.
Indeed, English clubs appear to be having an African awakening. Andrew Walsh of the sports research group, SPORT+MARKT, feels that what is happening now is an “increasing awareness of the scope for growth in Africa’s key football markets”.
It seems that this fervour is coming just as the race to dominate Asia has been settled. A recent survey by market research group Kantar, suggests Manchester United dominate the Asian market with 325 million out of their 659 million followers coming from there. Teams will continue to tap the market in Asia, but it will be difficult to usurp the 19-time league champion’s fanbase.
Walsh believes that Africa has been neglected in favour of Asia: “It is fair to say that the region has been overlooked slightly by Europe’s top clubs in the past as many of them have largely focused their international marketing activities in Asia.”
However Walsh argues that since clubs have woken up, there are opportunities for them to reap rewards.
“Africa is a hot-bed of untapped potential for clubs due to the sheer numbers of fans there. No other continent on earth harbours such a high ratio of football interest,” he added.
The figures do not lie. In a 2011 study, SPORT+MARKT revealed that 72 per cent of Africa’s 738 million people, aged between 16-69, have an interest in football. The study shows that 55 per cent of them are interested in the Premiership, while 39 per cent actively support an English top flight team.
If Nigeria – the continent’s most populous country – is to be taken as an example, then the competition is fierce. The SPORT+MARKT study shows that while Manchester United has the largest share of Nigeria’s fan-base with 28 per cent, Chelsea and Arsenal are not far behind with 26 per cent and 22 per cent respectively.
The desire to increase support in Africa will only get more intense according to Nairobi-based investment Analyst, Aly Khan Satchu. He insists that Africa is a “deep ocean for the English Premier League to swim in.”
Satchu contends that the African market is growing rapidly and will consist of 2 billion fans by 2050. He feels the best way to take advantage of this is through exploiting mobile digital technology.
“The ubiquity of the internet enabled mobile phone will allow the Premiership to leverage the new Digital World in order to deliver bite-sized mobile football content direct to their fans in a way which will be profitable and worthwhile.”
Arsenal have recognised this and just last month signed a three-year partnership with African mobile operator Airtel. The deal will mean Airtel can utilise the club’s merchandising, hospitality and content rights in five markets including Nigeria and Ghana.
Whether this strategy will be fruitful and spur other clubs to follow suit remains to be seen. But what is clear, especially after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, is that football is deeply ingrained across the continent.
Which club will triumph in the battle for Africa is anyone’s guess for now.