Higher Institutions Football League: A Powerful Youth Engagement Tool For Brands





L-R: Alhaji Ahmed Shuaibu Gara Gombe, CEO, GWG Sports Centre Limited and Technical  Consultant , Higher Institutions Football League (HiSL); Mr. Sola Fijabi, Director, PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing; Dr. Maryam Sali, Director, Student Supports Services, National University Commission and Prof. Stephen Hamafyelto, President, Nigerian Universities Game Association (NUGA) at the signing and international press launch of the Higher Institutions Football League held in Lagos recently.
By Tunji Faleye


It is a known fact that football in Nigeria has passed through many phases and varied lifespan. It is a rallying point in the country‘s sporting history commanding a near-cult following in the youth segment of the country.

In a recent survey, Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy shows an unparalleled interest and participation in the sport. According to a 2013 poll by marketing research Repucom and as published by Bloomberg in 2014, 83 percent Nigerians report interest in football and 65 percent play the sport. Both results put Nigeria atop 33 nations polled. Surprisingly, international football powerhouses such as Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and Argentina pale in comparison. The United States, by comparison, has 27 percent interest and 10 percent participation.

Higher Institutions Football League

In a bid to grow collegiate sports in Nigeria, PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing, recently launched the Higher Institutions Football League (HiFL®) for football teams in higher institutions in Nigeria. HiFL will be the first organised private sector-led collegiate football league in Nigeria creating opportunity for various brands as the biggest platform for optimal visibility with increase in market shares across the over 200 higher institutions operating across Nigeria. The league is planned to be covered live with prospective broadcast partners like Super Sports and African Independent Television.

L-R: Alhaji Ahmed Shuaibu Gara Gombe, CEO,GWG Sports Centre Limited and Technical Consultant, Higher Institutions Sports League (HiSL); Mr. Sola Fijabi, Director, PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing; Dr. Maryam Sali, Director, Student Support Services, National University Commission and Prof. Stephen Hamafyelto, President, Nigerian Universities Games Association (NUGA) at the MoU signing and international press launch of the Higher Institutions Football League held in Lagos recently.

L-R: Alhaji Ahmed Shuaibu Gara Gombe, CEO,GWG Sports Centre Limited and Technical Consultant, Higher Institutions Sports League (HiSL); Mr. Sola Fijabi, Director, PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing; Dr. Maryam Sali, Director, Student Support Services, National University Commission and Prof. Stephen Hamafyelto, President, Nigerian Universities Games Association (NUGA) at the MoU signing and international press launch of the Higher Institutions Football League held in Lagos recently.

No doubt, the popularity of the game of football in Nigeria is massive and that is why the lofty idea of PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing to contribute to the development of youth sport by organising an annual Higher Institutions Football League, HiFL®, in the country is commendable and a quintessential example of a forward-looking organisation.

It will be recalled that there has been in existence, Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA) which organizes university-level sports events in Nigeria. NUGA was founded in 1966 at the University of Ibadan following the first West African University Games (WAUG) in Ibadan in 1965. In 1970, NUGA became a member of the World Federation of University Games (now called International University Sports Federation – FISU), and in 1974 was a founding member of the All Africa University Games Association (FASU). In spite of being the first to be in charge of organising games among Universities in the country, NUGA has wholeheartedly thrown its weight behind HiFL®.

Alhaji Ahmed Gara Gombe delivering his speech.
Alhaji Ahmed Shuaibu Gara Gombe delivering his speech.

Interestingly, the support extended to PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing on HiFL® by NUGA, Committee of Vice Chancellors (CVC), National Universities Commission (NUC), Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and others is an attestation to the confidence they have in the capacity of the organisers to capture the youth segment of the country.

With Nigeria experiencing arguably the world’s largest ‘youth bulge’ as her population reached 182 million last year with more than half of her people under 30 years of age coupled with football interest and participation rate among adults that are next to none in the world according to research published by Bloomberg, PACE Sports strongly believes that football and Nigeria’s vibrant youth segment are a perfect match. No doubt, for the youth segment what a better place to begin than the organised walls of the academia! HiFL® is where the ability of youth, organisations, academia and a nation undying love of football meet.

Indeed, HiFL®’s goal is to package football, Nigeria’s biggest passion in the most entertaining format to this segment of its population – youth in an unmatched experience that will be excellently produced and delivered as a contact for global consumption. The aim is also to grow collegiate football among the youth in Nigeria’s higher institutions.

The maiden HiFL® matches are scheduled to hold from July 28, 2018, to October 27, 2018. The league will commence with universities, zoned into the Atlantic Conference (South) and the Savannah Conference (North) for reasons of proximity and effective administration.

The breakdown of the HiFL® shows that there is going to be a total of 30 games in 14 weeks after a set of qualifying rounds among 79 universities. 16 universities will play intra-conference return legs elimination matches with 8 teams from the Atlantic (South) and another 8 teams in Savannah (North) while the four-team league will be played at Teslim Balogun Stadium Surulere, Lagos.


The benefits for the participating teams are numerous. As agreed with the partners, the winner of HiFL® will participate in the International University Sports Federation (FISU) games. During the league, arrangements have been made to have local and international networks of scouts, coaches and trainers watch the games particularly for the players who wish to grow their careers in football. Part of the incentives for participating institutions is support in the area of development of their sporting facilities but such support depends on their level of participation and availability of funds. There is also the availability of unique team brands and jerseys. There are other incentives for the schools, players and other team officials.

Speaking on the project, Mr. Sola Fijabi, Director, PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing said, HiFL® has been designed for the purpose of youth development in Nigeria through sports. HiFL® will also place collegiate sports in Nigeria on the same pedestal as their counterparts in other climes that have recorded successes and build a strong ecosystem of young, home-grown football talents that may become invaluable for future national engagement.

According to Fijabi, “HiFL® is designed to engage and showcase exciting sporting talents from tertiary institutions in Nigeria. HiFL® is a part of a bigger body, which is the Higher Institutions Sports League (HiSL). The quest to establish this platform was borne out of the great desire to engage Nigerian youth. At present, a significant number of this set of youths are in the universities spread across the country. These talents must be identified and nurtured for sustainability.”


Commenting on HiFL®, Prof. Stephen Hamafyelto, President of the Nigerian University Games Association (NUGA), expressed delight about the initiative and promised that the body will support the league. He says, “This initiative is long overdue. We need to engage our youths to better focus on their all-round development. HiFL®’s format is brilliant with an even more interesting execution plan. HiFL® will complement the efforts of NUGA to bring back the good old days of competitive inter-school games with all the excitement therein. Interestingly, we are starting with football, which may be described as the pivot of Nigerian sports in an arrangement that we hope will spread to other sports later,” Hamafyelto said.

Dr Maryam Sali, Director, Student Support Services, National Universities Commission, adds, “the passion that football generates is overwhelming and the youths in Nigeria have found a common ground in the excitement that the sport provides. We aspire to contribute our quota to the development of sports in Nigeria and we are glad that HiFL® is providing a viable platform for private-public partnership that keys into the agenda of the Federal Government for youth and socio-economic development in Nigeria.”

Similarly, Mr. Amaju Pinnick, President of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) lauded the initiative saying, “HiFL® is a noble and maiden project that we are looking forward to it becoming an annual event.”

Also speaking, Ahmed Shuaibu-Gara Gombe, the chief executive officer of Green White Green Sports Centre and Technical Consultant to HiFL® says, “HiFL® comes at a time when there should be concerted effort to develop football in Nigeria and the place to start is the higher institutions. The universities are reservoirs of football talents and HiFL® is here to harness them.”

For Felix Awogu, General Manager, SuperSport West Africa, “Innovation is at the heart of sustained success. Collegiate Sports is big around the world and the success potential of HiFL® as an engaging broadcast content can only be imagined, especially considering the audience and reach.”

 Benefits of HiFL® to Brands/Sponsors

Gone are the days when football is regarded as a unifying factor and entertainment alone, today, football has metamorphosed into a real business and a marketing tool by which brands can leverage on the popularity of the sport to engage their customers/ consumers.

Interestingly, companies in all fields are fast turning to football to drive awareness of their own products – with increasingly impressive results because football sponsorship wields transformative power that is capable of driving exponential growth in brand awareness and affinity. As the whole country awaits the commencement of the HiFL® on July 28, 2018, quite a number of credible sponsors have shown interest in supporting this initiative across every market segment as the organisers promise them interesting returns on their investment.

Nowadays, sponsorship is everything in football and brands are in a pole position to grab this opportunity by collaborating with HiFL® because brands are critical to creating business value, and the sports business is no exception. Strong brands command customer loyalty and premium prices, constituting valuable assets that drive company’s revenue and growth. They are central to many sports business transactions, especially sponsorship deals and product merchandising. In addition, at the heart of branding lies trademarks.

Sport is a big business in a more dynamic society. A recent PwC report estimated that in 2015 global sports sponsorship reached $45billion – out of which Africa contributed less than $2billion – with South Africa shelling out the lion share. A different report by Repucom estimates that global sponsorship reached $62billion by 2017. South African companies also played a leading role in Africa after investing about 9m rands (N243b) in sponsoring sports in 2016.

It is saddening that rather than investing in building our domestic sports, big Nigerian brands pump billions into foreign sports. Our penchant for sponsorship of the English Premier League tells the story best. Every year, Nigerians spend about N50billion on TV rights and subscriptions, tourism, merchandising, etc, to feed the EPL in the United Kingdom. Business leaders, who should be interested in improving football in Nigeria and how they can build a global brand out of Africa and increase their bottom-lines, are the ones at the forefront of the EPL sponsorship and tourism. Top political leaders, who also should be mindful of creating jobs for their electorate locally, fly themselves to England on private jets to watch football games.

All these need to stop and with the beginning of HiFL® in July and brands, organisations and individuals should leverage on this lofty ideas and support it.

Kudos should be given to one big Nigerian company, Aiteo which is playing a different game in football promotion in Nigeria. The Aiteo Group’s recent N2.5billion sponsorship of the Nigerian Federation (FA) Cup is an exception. Most big Nigerian brands detest anything “local”, pointing to massive corruption and incompetence in the industry as a major turn off. While no one can argue that domestic sports need more professional and transparent management, weakening the local economy by sponsoring Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United instead of local brands would make our society neither richer nor better.

Precisely eleven months ago, the idea of Higher Institutions Football League was born, and it is interesting to know that it has become a reality with the formal unveiling of the league to the media and other well-meaning Nigerians in Lagos. What Aiteo, is doing to the Nigerian football can also be replicated by other brands, organisations, and individuals with HiFL®. For instance, the number of people who knew Aiteo before coming into football some years back was relatively small but today the brand has great visibility and goodwill. More than anything else, however, the organisation has put many Nigerians to work by this act. The Aiteo Cup (FA Cup) is being played smoothly and getting great coverage.

This is what brands and individuals including government agencies and parastatals who collaborate with HiFL® in form of sponsorships and advertisements will reap through the league. Banks are not excluded. Nigerian banks, companies have a lot to learn from South African Brands and Aiteo as a Nigerian brand.

Nigerian companies must realise that when they invest in local sports, they benefit themselves greatly. Sponsoring domestic sports must be seen as a business imperative; a means of survival, and not merely corporate social responsibility. In the most progressive countries, both the public and private sectors invest heavily in sports because of their unique power to engage populations: inspire achievement, create jobs, engender camaraderie and unity, ingrain a culture of healthy living, reduce crime, and arouse national pride on the international stage.

South Africa is arguably the most modern country in Africa and it stands out on the continent when it comes to private sector investments in sports. Their approach is one that the rest of Africa, and most especially Nigeria, must emulate. The North Africans also invest heavily in sports.

Though many companies have very sensibly demanded that standard of sports administration be raised, in all honesty, the calibres of individuals who are on the board of HiFL® are trusted and tested individuals. In addition, Sola Fijabi who is the director of PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing is one individual whose managerial ability has been tested in all ramifications.

Right from the outset of muting the idea of HiFL®, the promoter has put in place global standards in form of transparency and standards. One thing that should be noted is that the reason why PACE Sports is embarking on this project is to create an avenue for a win-win situation for the entire stakeholder universe of the project.

It is crystal clear that even if one advocates that the top 20 companies in Nigeria invest one or two billion naira each in our sports annually, that would still leave us quite some distance behind the South Africans. However, a way to start improving Nigerian sports is that brands and all Nigerians should see HiFL® as their own and render all the needed support it requires to succeed.

While everyone drums support for the success of the project, it is also regarded more as a business strategy for self-preservation than an appeal for corporate social responsibility. The support will definitely ensure a much wealthier society, and ultimately, increased business for these companies and brands. Worthy of note is that the investment in HiFL® will open up countless opportunities for brands in the youth segment.

After the first and second year, it is believed that HiFL® will transform the domestic sports industry as PACE Sports also has plans to incorporate other games into its sports portfolio.

This would also open up business opportunities in several industries, especially in the host cities, institutions and the country at large. With our youth population exploding almost unchecked, initiatives like this are imperative to position our youth for greatness. Definitely throwing money into the EPL will not do that for any brand.

Brands need to understand the power of sports sponsorship and the benefits they can derive from supporting HiFL®. For instance, South African brands understand the logic behind sports sponsorship better than the brands in Nigeria.

The SA Rugby body, for instance, has over 20 big local sponsors. Some of these companies include Castle Lager, FNB bank, RAM, Southern Palace Group of Companies, Supersport, Vodacom, Steinhoff, MTN, OutSurance, Land Rover, Tsogo Sun, Virgin Active, Energade, Rhino, Nashua.

Others are, Asics, Gilbert, Coca-Cola, Direct Axis, Powerade, BSN Medical, Fly Safair, Springboks Atlas and Bidvest Car Rental.

Apart from this, their football league, The Premier Soccer League (PSL) has its own fair share of big local backers like banking giants ABSA, who is the major sponsor and has been for the last ten years. All over the world, banks play a leading role in sports sponsorship and our banks must wake up to this clarion call.


By far the most popular sport in Nigeria is football, yet the big brands shy away from putting their resources into sponsoring the game at the local level. It is not only football that is facing this lack of patronage. Other sports are virtually comatose because the nation’s big brands would rather pump their money into foreign sports. This is the beginning of another phase as PACE Sports and Entertainment Marketing has so far lived up to the task of cracking the governance and operational codes to attract partnerships and deliver on its promises.

With the support of NUGA and other well-meaning partners, it will be worth every penny and attention as we prepare for the maiden edition of HiFL®, Nigeria’s biggest collegiate football competition.

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