It was practically a burst at the Agege Stadium, Lagos, on Wednesday night when Kano Pillars came calling on MFM FC in the Match Day 8 fixture of the Nigeria Professional Football League.
There has been nothing like it in the Lagos sports scene in years. The city dwellers had yearned for a premier league club in over a decade. They finally got two in Ikorodu United and MFM FC and the turnout on the night for MFM vs Pillars proved that the people really need league action.
The atmosphere was electric as it was energetic. The mini stadium with a sitting capacity of about 4,800 had to accommodate a pleasantly emotive crowd over 6,000 as the beautiful game called out the entire neighbourhood and fans from even distant parts of the city to spend the evening at its communal altar.
Interestingly, for their money and time, the two teams provided the fans a high octane performance that left them wowed.
There were doubts about the sense in staging a night match in a supposedly volatile Agege area of Lagos more so as it involved Pillars and the high population of Northerners in that part of the city. Cynics feared that there could be security breaches with a possible riot, many of them hemming their disapproval on the assumption that urchins and thugs would take over the process and molest spectators. Some even suggested that such encounter between a club mainly sponsored by a Christian faith based body as MFM and Kano Pillars from a mostly Muslim North could spark religious conflicts while, still, others feared that the conflict that recently occurred in the Mile 12 area of Lagos could be replayed by supporters of the two teams.
All those permutations were defeated by football. The night consumed and synchronized all the diversities of the people into a single nation united in the sport. That is the power of the game. At the end, not a few people asked of the LMC officials to do more night games.
“What would people be doing when they close from work? Hasn’t this shown that the people are willing and ready to be at the games if the setting and atmosphere is right?” One of the solicitors pointed out.
Spectators sure had their attachments to different religions and tongues but they also live in the same neighbourhoods, many on same streets and even same “yards” but they have a common baptism in football. And, when the service was ended, they all dismissed in peaceful order, holding hands and recalling the actions in mutual relish. The experience brings to live the NPFL motto of “One Nation One Game One Goal.”
It is projected that with good publicity and community engagement there would even bigger crowd could be recorded when clubs like Rangers, Enyimba, Heartland or Warri Wolves visit Lagos for any of the two teams.
The League Management Company has indeed been bold and positively constructive in expanding and deepening the frontiers of the league to reconnect with its fans but credit must go to the Lagos State Government which examined all the arguments for and against holding the night match and finally decided that the game must go on and proving, at last, that the fears of insecurity at the stadium are just old imaginations that have no basis in actual reality and the character of the people.
It is however to be noted that the peaceful atmosphere at the event also had its anchor on fair officiating and fans education. MFM FC took the lead while visiting Pillars equalised through penalty to end the game at 1-1. In times past, it was inconceivable to award a penalty against the home team but the referee was firm in doing so against MFM and the spectators all agreed that there was a foul. No scruples.
From what has happened in Lagos, it is obvious that the clubs have huge community platform to drive for commercial success. The fans are there. They love the game and they have started flowing out. The managements of Ikorodu United and MFM FC only have to constructively develop and deepen their engagements while also harmonizing targets, thoughts and efforts with the local football association to drive for actual success in league club business.
This applies to all the NPFL clubs across the country many of which are increasingly recording huge turnouts. From an average match attendance of 5,000 spectators last season, the 2015/16 season is already hitting 8,000 average in just eight match days. Kano Pillars, for example, have a steady attendance of between 20,000 and 25,000 just as Enugu Rangers is moving up from the 10,000 average it recorded last season to between 15,000 and 20,000. Ditto for Sunshine Stars of Akure which has maintained a full capacity attendance since last season and looking now like needing a bigger stadium to accommodate the overflow.
Notwithstanding the great experience and success of the Agege night match, there are still strains in the management of crowd excitement and the provision of windows for the upwardly sophisticated class to partake in the communion. The design of the Agege Stadium does not seem to provide that room. More still, despite the peacefulness of the fans it is undesirable that the players and officials do not enjoy a dedicated tunnel for entry and exit from the pitch.
There was also an issue with the pricing of the games ticket. Before now, MFM FC had indulged the fans with free gate through their journey from the lower division to the elite class, only collecting gate fees for just one game. It may have been a strategy to build a support base. So, the fans came into a surprise when they arrived for the Pillars encounter to find that ticket was at N500 for popular side and N1000 for State Box. Of course, there was price resistance with the sea of fans jamming the stadium entrances until the club management decided to reduce popular side to N200. Suffice to say that certainty of price and affordability by fans is a critical aspect of sports marketing.
More painful was the absence of any reasonable commercial activity in the stadium. With a gathering of close to 10,000 people the clubs and small businesses in the community can do with brisk businesses to refresh the spectators with drinkables and chewables. This is part of the deliverables in club business.
Most disappointing still was the fact that for all that momentous event at Agege Stadium, the many big companies and brands in the Ikeja and Agege business district of Lagos gave a blind eye. The list includes Guinness, Coca Cola, Cadbury to mention just few, all of which neglected to identify with and support the love and aspiration of the premier league club and the people of their operating community. Still, the fans had their fun.
Interestingly, the Agege night match was live on television and its success should put paid to attitude of naysayers who insist on putting down the league with their olden skepticism while the NPFL is steadily recovering lost grounds.