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AFCON 2021: Brands Brave Omicron Scare to sponsor Africa’s ‘Mundial’

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By the time you may be reading this, the Super Eagles of Nigeria may have begun their quest for glory at the 30,000 –capacity Stade Roumdé Adjia in the northern Cameroonian town of Garoua where they will be taking on the Pharaohs of Egypt on Day 3 of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, the 33rd edition of the biennial continental-wide international men’s football championship organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

Quite impressively and interestingly, the tournament being hosted by Cameroon parades a retinue of big sponsors, perhaps, longer and bigger than that of previous years the competition has seen. This impressive list is led by a major energy player on the continent, TotalEnergies. Total occupies the enviable ‘Title Sponsor’ position in the sponsorship of the continental soccer tournament.

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The interesting aspect of this sponsorship derives from the fact that it is very rare to cede title sponsorship for a sports property considered to be a mega-event like the Africa Cup of Nations. There are exceptions but the financial benefits need to be significant, activations robust, and circumstances unique. This is why it seems unusual that CAF ceded title sponsorship for AFCON to the French multinational oil giant Total. This followed an eight-year partnership the company signed with CAF in 2016, reportedly worth $116 M, according to veteran sports journalist Osasu Oabayiuwana. The agreement principally includes ten continental tournaments through 2024, with the option for a 4-year extension.

First, by tilting its premier brand as the “Total Africa Cup of Nations”, industry experts feel that it runs the risk of discouraging potential sponsors who might have been willing to pay a premium for access to a growing African market, but unwilling to place their brand in a “secondary” position. They also feel that associated brands who are willing to partner may attenuate activation programmes if title sponsorship has been fulfilled. This adversely impacts property exposure when programs are suppressed, limiting access to potential new followers within a growing property, they feel.

But these concerns have been allayed by the calibre of sponsors that have joined Total on the league of sponsors for this year’s tournament. They are joined by Tiktok, a video-focused social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance and Umbro, an English sports equipment manufacturing company, as Official Sponsors.

Additionally, there was excitement yesterday in the world of cryptocurrency and alternative finance when the logo of one of the largest cryptocurrency exchange platforms was displayed at the Bafoussam Stadium (Kouekong) during the match between the Teranga Lions of Senegal and the warriors of Zimbabwe, an official indication that the crypto giants have joined the tournament’s league of sponsors.

Others brands in this exclusive league include Visa, an American multinational financial services corporation; Orange, a leading provider of global IT and telecommunication services; 1XBET, international bookmaker and betting company and Continental, top automotive supplier worldwide.

This league of sponsors has braved the scare of what the European media has called an “impending onslaught” of the Omicron variant of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic and what it connotes on spectators’ attendance, viewership among other concerns. One could say of COVID-19 that it has the reverse of the Midas touch: It dims the luster of every event it touches. As with the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and every other sporting event since then so it is now with the Africa Cup of Nations, especially with Africa believed to be the epicenter of the dreaded Omicron variant.

Recall, the tournament was originally scheduled to be played in June and July 2021 but the CAF announced on 15 January 2020 that due to unfavorable climatic conditions during this period, the tournament is taking place from 9 January to 6 February 2021.

On 19 June 2020, the CAF stated it was undecided about when continental competitions would resume, and were prioritising new schedules for the 2019–20 CAF Champions League and the 2019–20 CAF Confederation Cup semi-finals, the postponed 2020 African Nations Championship and the 2020 Africa Women Cup of Nations, alongside the 2021 Africa Cup of Nation, as football competitions across the continent had been postponed, cancelled or suspended.

On 30 June 2020, however, the CAF announced the rescheduling of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations to January 2022 “after consultation with stakeholders and taking into consideration the current global situation” according to a published statement, with new dates to be announced at a later date. Subsequently, other continental competitions and events to be held were rescheduled or cancelled, including new dates for the remaining AFCON qualifiers, which were now to be completed by March 2021. On 31 March 2021, it was confirmed that the final tournament would take place from 9 January to 6 February 2022, exactly one year after its originally scheduled start date, whilst retaining the name 2021 Africa Cup of Nations for sponsorship purposes.

This was nothing strange as the cancellation of mass gatherings was one of the earliest measures implemented to combat the spread of COVID-19 – and that meant the sport and entertainment industry was one of the first and most severely hit. It has left rights holders contending with the financial implications of large and possibly complete reductions in revenue streams through decreased earnings in broadcast rights, sponsorship payments and match day operations. The financial sponsors that supply them are also faced with own reduced revenues and an increased focus on conserving cash.

And just as live sport has changed, possibly for the long term, so has sports sponsorship. The pandemic has put huge pressure on sporting bodies, as well as most of their sponsors. As a result, March 2020 saw a 40% year-on-year drop in the number of sponsorship deals, according to Sportcal, a GlobalData company. In 2019 there were a total of 4,709 deals globally, worth $22bn. In 2020 that count fell to 3,297 deals, worth $12.9bn.

Conrad Wiacek, Head of Sport Analysis at GlobalData puts the challenge this way: “Once the uncertainty came around how sport could restart, we saw a pause in sponsorships. Brands weren’t willing to commit. Sports sponsorship is a marketing spend – in a crisis, marketing budget tends to be the first thing that suffers. It’s an easy save. It makes the overall pot of money available to sport much smaller.

“From the grassroots level to the top tier of professional sport, there’s no doubt it has been an extremely challenging time” “and it doesn’t look like things will return to the way they were any time soon,” he adds.

Andrew Brember, Commercial Director for sport at Kantar explains further, “Even for those that have been able to stage events, the absence of fans in stadiums has cut off a vital income source for sports like football and rugby, and that has meant an increased reliance on sponsorship revenue. At the same time, the budgets of many companies involved in sponsorship have been under pressure.”

But CAF appeared to have done a good job in addressing this and allaying fears, enough for these sponsors to see value in sponsoring the tournament. CAF has a rigid regimen of regulations to contain COVID-19 in whatever variant, Omicron inclusive. Only a fraction of stadium capacity will be allowed. Players are regularly tested. And fans must present evidence of a negative COVID test obtained no earlier than 72 hours before the event they wish to attend.

Perhaps, based on the kind of sponsorship it got, CAF added a total of $1.850 million to the prize money from the quarter-final stage to the final for this year’s edition. This may be also to make the tournament more lucrative, competitive and maybe attractive.

Not only that, but the new prize money for eventual champions of the competition is $5 million – a $500,000 increase from the previous prize in the 2019 edition

It is hoped that the benefits accrued to the sponsorship of such a mega tournament like AFCON will be manifold, manifesting clearly, impacting massively on the bottom line of these brands, motivating other organisations to join the league of those supporting African football, tourism and development.

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