Is there room for Investment in sports?

Zimbabwe is open for business, but is it also for investment in sport?

By Tatenda Ziyambi

Zimbabwe is open for business! This has been the mantra of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government for the past eight months. The catchphrase is meant to instil renewed optimism in the Zimbabwean economy, and for the most part it is seemingly working, with numerous supposed investments into the country being announced. But can we honestly say the same for investment in sport?

Local sports organisations have struggled for the past 18 years in Zimbabwe’s harsh economic climate as the country has gone through its worst economic downturn in history. While the economic situation has not been easy to deal with, most sport leagues have had many instances of almost lackadaisical maladministration that has turned away potential sponsors.

This is a sad turn of events, given how much money can potentially be made through sport for both sponsors and the relevant sport leagues.

In recent years, the government has not been exactly supportive of sports, which is why there has been some level of scepticism regarding the ‘Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra being applicable to sports.

 

Regardless of the scepticism, it should be noted that both the sporting fraternity and the government will need to work hand in hand to enable Zimbabwean sport to be open for business as well.

So the obvious question is how can sport make money? The answer to this is that it takes a winning product to attract investment and (paying) spectators. In order to do this, there is a need to spend money to make money!

For example, we can look at the current set up in German football that, poor performance in the recent World Cup aside, led to them winning the 2014 edition in Brazil.

It was not an overnight success story, as it took years of planning to reach the desired goal. As early as 1998, the German Football Association began to overhaul youth development by setting up 121 regional centres in remote areas where otherwise overlooked youngsters could at least enjoy one weekly session under a highly-qualified coach and, perhaps, be spotted by a big club.

At present there are 366 regional centres and 54 certified club academies in Germany, where kids are educated in close cooperation with local schools. This programme cost approximately €130 million per year.

While it is a dream to imagine Zimbabwe being able to invest that much into sport, the way the Germans did it at least provides some insight for Zimbabwe and other countries to follow.

 

Some level of investment and competent administration is required to turn things around. After all, with all the problems Zimbabweans are currently facing, they won’t easily part with their hard-earned cash to watch and support a substandard product. Turning things around won’t be easy, since the local sport leagues have a number of systemic issues to deal with.

 

For example, in recent times there have been growing complaints by professional players over unpaid wages and poor treatment by their governing bodies. While this is nothing new in the country, the spotlight shone brightly after the Zimbabwe national rugby team, the Sables, opted to spend a few hours in the street of Tunis rather than sleep in accommodation that was not up to standard while on international duty in Tunisia in June.

The story gained worldwide attention and in the space of 24 hours, Zimbabwe Rugby and its leadership came under fire for not being able to deal with the incident before it got out of hand. Not only that, but several videos recorded by some of the Sables players’ went viral, most of which lamented the late payment of match fees.

It’s not just Zimbabwe Rugby facing problems with the non-payment of players’ wages. The Zimbabwe men’s cricket team, the Chevrons, went without a win in their tri-series against Pakistan and Australia. Five players (Brendon Taylor, Craig Ervine, Graeme Cremer, Sikander Raza and Sean Williams) reportedly opted not to avail themselves for selection, largely due to an ongoing pay dispute.

 

Even Zimbabwe’s most popular sport, football, has not been immune to these problems. The most recent high profile example is the protracted dispute between the Cameroonian striker, Christian Epoupa Ntouba, and Dynamos, which saw Ntouba leaving the club over unpaid wages.

 

Clearly paying players wages (on time and in full!) is the first thing local leagues must do if they want sponsors to take them seriously. But even then players’ wages are an issue that is just the surface of a systemic problem.

So how does Zimbabwean sport get out of this rut? The most obvious answer would be to look at the governing sport authority as a starting point. Currently, Zimbabwe has a Ministry of Sports, Arts and Recreation which has been recently overseen by the affable Minister Kazembe Kazembe. But a strong case needs to be made that his ministry needs to be split into two. Sports and Art are two very different things that need very different approaches which means that they need to have separate entities to deal with them.

This sentiment was echoed by Zifm Sport analyst Alois Bunjira, who highlighted the fact that if sport falls under a ministry that has “recreation” in its title, then no one will take it seriously!

While Minister Kazembe Kazembe is trying his best, a dedicated sports minister would likely go a long way in overhauling the current institutions that have kept Zimbabwean sport from progressing.

 

The next step, as mentioned earlier, would be to look at each of the major sport governing bodies. Since the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy in the early 2000’s, most of these organisations have gone through periods of debt and financial crisis, leading to a serious degeneration of infrastructure and even personnel.

 

This has led to promising young athletes changing career paths for financial stability, and in some cases changing nationalities altogether.

In rugby for instance, Tendai Mtawarira, David Pocock, Brian Mujati, and Scott Grey are all examples of excellent players who went on to play for other nations whilst Zimbabwe’s national team floundered.

This clearly shows that Zimbabwe is not lacking in talent, but lacking in structures and opportunities that have caused a lot of the country’s top talents to leave for greener pastures.

Ultimately, what will decide whether or not sport will also be “open for business” is a change of mentality. Whether or not there is enough money or resources, there needs to be a change in the way things are run in order for meaningful investment to come into local sport.

Apart from economics, there is a far greater purpose for sport. It unites people both on and off the field, creating a togetherness that is sorely needed in Zimbabwe right now. Whether or not this is recognised by those in responsible positions is another question that will, hopefully, be answered in the coming months as Zimbabwe moves forward.

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