Basketball meets Afrobeats: Should Football administrators be worried? [Pulse Explainer]

The continued drainage of the ‘cool’ from football amongst young fans, could open the door to basketball and the NBA.

LeBron James and Messi. (SportKeeda)

Between February 5, 2022 and February 7, 2022, the NBA took things a step further in Africa by hosting a three-day event. The idea was deeply entrenched in how the NBA has slowly gained ground over the past few years: a celebrity/pop culture-led approach to marketing, filled with cool, eye-catching moments and players.

The first event was held on a floating court while the last event was held on the beach. Side attractions included pop culture friendly commentary, esports, food, drinks and celebrities.

Players on both days included Vector, DJ Consequence, DJ Tunez, 2003 WNBA Champion Astou Ndiaye, 2015 AfroBasket Champion and former NBA player Olumide Oyedeji, and Wakanow CEO and former NBA player Obinna Ekezie.

Mayorkun performed on the floating court, while Olamide joined the audience on the beach. Most importantly, it was another step in strengthening the ties of basketball with Afrobeats, as the NBA looks to cement a bright future in Africa.

On December 16, 2021, ABC News described Afrobeats as the new pop. It’s gone from a genre to a product, with Wizkid, CKay and Fireboy scoring Billboard Hot 100 hits in the last 10 months alone.

Financial institutions like Alat, Flutterwave, Chippa Cash and more, have increasingly tapped into Afrobeats to improve brand visibility, and to obtain some cool. With the history of how American sports has thrived with a celebrity/pop culture-led approach, which has also led to increased visibility for the NBA - and basketball at large, it’s only natural to target the next frontier for global advancement in music and technology.

Africa has a healthy young population with diverse interests. Internet penetration is on a high across the continent and Gen Z/Gen Alpha kids are increasingly invested in cool concepts like Hip-Hop, American pop culture and more via social media. It’s only natural that the NBA seeks to lay some groundwork as it continues its great work on the continent.

While football remains the dominant sport of interest in Africa, stats are beginning to show a slight shift in interest amongst U-21s across Africa.

An article on TISA Group notes that, “It seems that the sports industry hasn’t recognised it as a big issue yet. However, as time will pass, more and more people in various disciplines will start noticing the consequences of losing young people to other entertainment alternatives.

“If you don’t want to drop a significant market share in the next twenty years, you need to start acting now. The National Basket Association [NBA] management understood it very early. They created a model, which is very appealing to Gen Z.”

NBA and Africa

Michael Jordan’s rise coincided with the rise in popularity for basketball across the world - he was a phenomenon. But Hakeem Olajuwon’s success was where everything truly changed in the mid 90s, after Jordan briefly retired. Other NBA stars like Manute Bol, Dikembe Mutombo also sustained limited interests in basketball across the continent.

At the time, people mostly followed the NBA in newspapers, magazines and on the slow internet, or via Hip-Hop videos. By early 2000s, a lot of the members of D’Tigers and other African national basketball teams at the Olympics, FIBA or Afrobasket played in the NBA, but they were still not enough to even rival football’s popularity.

By the late 2000s, ESPN would broadcast some games on DSTV, but most of them happened in the early hours of the day. NBA initiatives like Basketball Without Borders then started to aid talent acquisition, and so was the presence of NBA star, Luc Mbah A Moute and exec, Massai Ujiri, to drive interests and a next wave of African NBA superstars like Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam and more.

Over the past 10 years, the value and popularity of an African NBA star has skyrocketed on the continent, alongside the impact and popularity of NBA culture in Africa. In 2013, Multichoice sports channel, Supersport jumped on the rave to start televising three games per week. It was premised on the rising interest in the NBA across the continent, but it also converted more fans toward the sports post-2013.

At the time, the youngest Gen Z person was 17 or 18 years old.

In 2019, the NBA announced its first collaboration with the International Basketball Federation to establish the Basketball Africa League (BAL). In 2021, J.Cole played some weeks at highly publicized weeks at the competition in Rwanda, as part of a roll-out for his last album, The Off-Season - once again, igniting pop culture with basketball.

The collaboration between Hennessy and the NBA shows that the NBA recognizes three things;

  1. The NBA is now ‘cool culture,’ which represents a part of pop culture. 
  2. A reported 55% of the world is U-19. 
  3. These young people are interested in sport, but only ‘cool’ sport, which football is struggling with. 
  4. Supersport and internet-based consumption of NBA content is on the rise. 
  5. Basketball as a whole, could benefit from the success of the NBA on the continent. 
  6. Africa is on the rise as the next frontier for global advancement. While football administrators are sleeping, let’s take advantage. 

Over the past few years, the National Basketball League has been taking giant strides to establish itself - and basketball as a phenomenon - as a global competitor for football, the UEFA champions league and the English premier league.

While Football remains the most followed sport in the world, it has a problem of ‘coolness,’ especially among young people. Its administrators have become so comfortable in the endless streams of income that the game is at risk of playing catch up to basketball in 30-50 years.

Honestly, it’s not their fault. Football is so entrenched and basketball is so far behind that it’s almost unfathomable that basketball could even overtake football one day. But during the European Super League debacle, Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez uttered something we’d known for a while, “Young people are no longer interested in football.”

While that might be a hyperbole, it’s a reality that beckons.

The overall point of the European Super League was to bring some American cool to football. Football has become so random, institutional and flat that it threatens itself. These days, the biggest genres of music are Hip-Hop, R&B, Latin-Pop, K-Pop and Afrobeats - none of them are European by origin.

Even though South Americans have a love affair with football, Europe is its epicenter. So a lack of genres is dire. Even when EDM owned the world, Europe did little with it, to aid football.

And a lot of these genres have successfully made inroads into America over the past five years alone, before they trickled down to the rest of the world. It would be foolhardy to remain ignorant about the influence of American pop culture on the rest of the world, and how Europe is no longer the center of ‘cool.’

But unfortunately, Europe is the center of football while America is the center of basketball. The former is losing its battle of cool while the latter is soaring recklessly.

Several reports claim that 40+ people across the world can’t detach from football because it’s a way of life, while a lot of U-23s aren’t as invested because basketball has become a persuasive alternative, just behind social media.

A lot of this has to do with the image around Basketball’s pop culture-driven approach to content, branding and marketing. Leading the way for Basketball is the NBA. Like football, the NBA, which is heavily driven by urban culture, has its institutional lifelong fans, but what it understands unlike football administrators, is incorporation of young fans into the zeitgeist for long-term success.

Writing for TISA Group, Michael Wapinski notes that, “We must be aware that athletes’ rivalry in the United States must be closely connected to entertainment. Otherwise, it has no chance to win a large part of the market.

“Start perceiving your sports club (league/brand) more like an entertainment hub rather than only as a team of competing athletes.”

When I spoke with three of my young male cousins; aged 22, 19 and 17, their interests ranged from social media, esports, girls, Trap music and basketball. While the 22-year-old plays football regularly, he spends his time watching the NBA more than football, pillaging YouTube for Stephen A. Smith content, someone he claims to dislike but respect.

When millennials were at their age, we liked football more than anything. Our other sporting interests only took under 5% of our interests. But at the time, we used to watch a lot of television.

Writing for The Drum in June 2021, Amelia Brophy, the head of account management at YouGov revealed some interesting facts, “Comparing football fans aged 18-34 and over-35s reveals key differences in viewing preferences. While TV is still the most popular way to watch the game, older fans are more likely to turn on the telly to watch live football (87% v 82% of 18-34s) and highlights (67% v 61% of 18-34s).

“Younger fans are more skeptical of the box. While four in five watch sport on live TV (82%), some may be doing so reluctantly. Three in ten (31%) say live TV is a thing of the past (compared to 20% of over-35s), and nearly as many say streaming is better than live TV (28%) compared to one in seven (14%) older football fans.”

In comparison, Khoros reports that YouTube has two billion users and 81% of people ages 15-25 use YouTube. Think With Google reports that 30% of sports fans stream live sports on their smartphone, computer or tablet. While purchasing power and affordability will abridge the mainstream actualization of that reality in Africa, internet penetration and reliance for content is definitely growing and the NBA is positioning itself to further take advantage.

Can the NBA really dominate?

February 10, 2022 marked the close of the NBA trade deadline. It saw James Harden and one other trade the Brooklyn Nets for the Philadelphia 76ers, who also parted ways with Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first round draft picks.

The aftermath has seen a barrage of social media videos, moments and quotes. First, LeBron James couldn’t hold his laughter and pleasure, as Kevin Durant pettily picked Rudy Gobert over his recent former teammate, James Harden, much to the pleasure of Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith.

Then Joel Embiid of the 76ers - a known ‘troe-ll,’ posted a timely image just after his former teammate - with whom he enjoyed a troubled relationship, got traded to the Nets. All of these moments became the talk of social media.

I think there is a difference between Americans and Europeans. We have always had a 360 approach to the cultural penetration of our sports. Whereas Europeans seem to prefer maintaining both as independent entities,” says an NBA official who refuses to be named. “I think what people before my time realized was that the American way of life was impacting the global way of life. I think they also realized that they could further use pop culture and the internet to introduce popular American sports and dominate by playing the long game.”

At the centre of it is a pop culture friendly approach, which uses social media, entertainment and content to drive the interest of young people.

Social media

Khoros reports that, “42% of the world's population — a whopping 3.2 billion people — use social media.

Even though Facebook continues to battle appeal, retention and stickiness problems as opposed to Twitter and TikTok, Khoros also reports that 86% of people ages 18-29 use Facebook, 77% of people ages 30-49 use Facebook and that 96% of users access Facebook via mobile devices.

It continues that Instagram has 500 million daily active users: 67% of people ages 18-29 use Instagram. On average, they all spend 53 minutes on the app daily.

Twitter has a reported 330 million users and 38% of people ages 18-29 use Twitter, 26% of people ages 30-49 use Twitter.

In January 2022, Omnicore Agency also reported that, “Roughly 50% of TikTok's global audience is under the age of 34 with 32.5% aged between 10 and 19. 41 percent of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24. TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the app. In less than 18 months, the number of US adult TikTok users grew 5.5 times.”

That’s a lot of young people, digesting content by the day.

Content and branding

For TISA Group, Michael Wapinski notes that, “In the early 1980s, their league was floundering. That’s when NBA Entertainment, a new in-house video production company, changed the rules of the game. They started creating short and long video formats, which aimed to promote watching NBA as an activity bringing a lot of joy, fun and sometimes even prestige.”

He also notes that the NBA's content strategy is simple: League supports clubs. Clubs support players. Players support the league.

During the last NBA All-Star voting rounds, Giannis Antetokoumpo used Real Madrid stars to canvass for European votes, while Golden State Warriors used K-Pop stars. And a lot of that isn’t done under wraps and under the ‘organic’ guise, which is prevalent in the music industry. NBA teams do it publicly, because they know that content like that informs popularity and interest.

As shown by the above stats, the world is dominated by young people and young people populate social media. TikTok’s success has been attributed to being a post-internet product, driven by babies of the internet, who understand the importance and resonance of ‘cool content.’

These days, Drake is central to the Toronto Raptors. There’s an ecosystem around basketball content - mostly driven by social media, that aims to showcase a 360 approach to its iteration with six pointers;

  1. How the game is played. 
  2. Who the fans are.
  3. The players: On and off the court - lifestyle, commentary and sports content.
  4. How the fans react. 
  5. Zoom in on the profile of these fans
  6. Use them to inform the profile of games.

The page of the average football club’s Instagram page is way more boring than the average basketball team’s page.

Basketball teams understand the importance of three things;

  1. Electric highlight reels
  2. Lifestyle angles to in-game moments like dancing, euphoria and so forth. Football teams do this, but not with the same efficiency. 
  3. Throwback content, specifically driven to link the past with the present, not just ‘On this day’ content - as we often see in football. 

A lot of Basketball’s success has to do with the NBA, and in turn America, as the cultural ‘big brother’ of the world, but simply placing it at the root of that would be lazy.

With the 360 approach to documenting games and the NBA’s understanding of the aforementioned important points, American basketball is gaining ground.

In 2013, the NBA generated around $4 billion while the English Premier League, the biggest league in the world, generated $5 billion. But by 2021, both leagues are projected to generate $10 billion for their respective 2021/2022 seasons. According to Elijah Odetokun for El Futbolero, the only difference is media rights: the NBA generates $2bn while the EPL generates $4.3bn.

Moreso, the cool extends beyond the games, the content or the superstar fans courtside, there’s the coolness in NBA apparel and sneakers. For example, throwback jerseys are a real thing in America. So are current NBA jerseys. When young people see these things in music videos from their favorite artists, they want to indulge.

While purchasing power is a problem for large parts of the world outside America, sneakers are still desirable. And some of them have the branding of NBA stars. Thus, there’s a lifestyle branding to the content.

Entertainment

Entertainment is mostly dominated by music, movies and social media.

As noted earlier, no European genre leads the world. When TikTok released its 2021 report, Hip-Hop/R&B were the most popular genres on the app, taking around 50% of the usage rate. There’s a synergy between American Basketball and Hip-Hop/R&B, which allows lines to be dropped about NBA stars, their lifestyle or headlines around them.

Sometimes, huge culturally impactful songs like ‘Mo Bamba’ or ‘Tyler Herro’ are made specifically around NBA youngsters, who aren’t even all-stars yet. Because American Hip-Hop/R&B is so desirable, a lot of young people are subconsciously keyed into the zeitgeist.

Their curiosity is also piqued: they want to know why their favorite Hip-Hop stars are rapping about random sports stars, and they proceed to google these stars, and possibly become invested. To them, NBA has become ‘cool.’

We can argue that football has two centers: culturally and mileage-wise. Culturally, we could argue Brazil is the cultural center of football while England owns all the exposure and mileage. Latin-Pop is a huge genre across the world, social media and the internet have improved music discovery and YouTube is huge in Latin America.

However, which Brazilian Latin-Pop star is as huge as Drake or Kanye West, who both rapped about Giannis Antetokoumpo on their respective last albums. Even if a Brazilian Latin-Pop star or J Balvin or Bad Bunny rap about Neymar - for example, language could be an impediment towards even understanding the line.

In 2015, We Forum reported that English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with 1.5 billion speakers. Spanish is spoken by a reported 500 million people. As a point of desirability, Latin-Pop isn’t as big as Hip-Hop/R&B across the world as a genre or culture.

Even if we could understand J Balvin and Bad Bunny - who aren’t even Brazilian, chances are they still wouldn’t be as impactful. Being huge on a streaming platform like J Balvin is simply not the same thing as having cultural impact like Drake or Kanye.

Moreover, Kanye’s line about Messi on ‘Off The Grid’ was simply not as impactful as his line about Giannis on ‘Junya.’

As regards England, English Rap is simply not big enough. And it’s not on brand for their biggest stars: Adele and Ed Sheeran to sing about football stars. Even if they made a reference, we’d probably still not care. A sports reference is better passed with Hip-Hop, R&B or a pop genre with heavy urban appeal.

For example, in 2003, Austin Milano’s ‘Super Eagles Carry Go’ or P Square’s “Play like Okocha, dey score like Ronaldinho…” line on ‘Temptation’ are far more resonant, than if it comes from Praiz, Tems or Bez.

Dave made a record about Thiago Silva, but it didn’t even scratch the surface. Moreover, there is a power dynamic at play. In England, the football stars dwarf the artists in terms of impact and influence. When that happens in Rap/Pop genres that are simply not globally appealing, football has a problem.

Even though Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho appeared in a cross-continental hit like Dave’s ‘Location’ featuring Burna Boy, those moments are simply too few and far between to truly impact anything like Jay Z’s LeBron appearance in ‘Death of Auto-Tune’ alone. The mind of fans has also been trained to expect and appreciate the Jay Z case more than the Dave case.

If a British Rap star or even a Latin-Pop star wears a Liverpool jersey in a music video, it wouldn’t be as impactful as Drake wearing a Liverpool jersey or Drake wearing a Raptors jersey.

Thus, the cross-polinatory effect of football into pop culture, a key element in today’s social media journey, which truly impacts how ‘cool’ is subconsciously weighed, is in serious jeopardy.

Let’s not even get started about movies, where America dominates. A lot of people can’t even tell the difference between American and European actors. Culturally, American and the Asian movie industries are more impactful. The British movie industry is huge, but it’s not as culturally impactful. On the global stage, the South American movie industry has no relative standing.

As an aside, every year, American Football, which is only an American Sport, creates a global moment with everything related to the Superbowl: From the announcement of headliners of the halftime show, to the business analysis of the Superbowl, to the halftime performance itself and the social traffic it creates.

Any random viewer will be forced to go read up about American Football and watch older superbowl performances for one reason: celebrity and pop culture made football desirable. Tons of NBA fans in Africa don’t even totally understand the sport, but it’s a cool idea to talk about basketball.

Let’s even forget that for a minute: during the last superbowl, social media was filled with celebrity content, from the attendees: LeBron dancing, Jay Z dancing, Kawhi and Paul George united in injury, Shaq pulling his tongue out, Odell Beckham Jr. crying with his mom and partner and many more.

2006 was the last memorable performance at a World Cup final or opening. For one, FIFA always selects the wrong artists, based on regional stardom and it ruins everything. Zara Larsson is dope, but why did she make the headline record for Euro 2016?

It should have been someone bigger. Why does the Champions League final not have a halftime show?

When you compare the football content on YouTube, versus the basketball content, you notice a problem of attractiveness of content, which clearly favours basketball content. For one, ESPN has analytical commentary shows for both football and basketball. But the quality chasm in content differs greatly. Football analytical commentary has a problem of ‘cool,’ and it’s boring, compared to ESPN’s basketball shows like First Take, NBA Today and more.

First off, ESPN FC has a dearth of cool personalities like Kendrick Perkins or Stephen A. Smith: people who can talk Hip-Hop or fashion. They come to the studio wearing jordans, chains and hoodies sometimes.

Even though Sky Sports football content is slightly better with Gary Neville, Ian Wright and Jamie Carragher, it’s still not cool enough. A lot of that might be due to the limited diversity of analysts in age and race, which automatically affects interests.

For example, Kendrick Perkins is a black man in his 30s. JJ Redick is a white man in his 30s as well, and they both analyse basketball on ESPN. Compare that to analysts of football, and the availability, popularity and coolness of football analysts on Skysports and ESPN.

The Micah Richards and Ian Wrights are simply not enough, if football has any chance to sustain its popularity, that has to change. The profile of analysts has to change. Sports and pop culture are now one and the same thing. You miss that and you’re making a mistake.

As part of the content drive on ESPN’s First Take, Stephen A. Smith analyzed Dr. Dre’s Superbowl halftime show with historical context and cultural awareness. First off, football doesn’t have cultural angles to itself like the halftime shows at the superbowl. Secondly, the producers on Skysports and ESPN FC wouldn’t even think to add that to talking points. Thirdly, most of the analysts on those stations aren’t that culturally inclined.

The future looks grim for football, if the 360 approach to it as a cultural phenomenon doesn’t change. Europe should have all-star games by turning FIFPRO squads to tournaments, backed by major performances. There should be a talent draft introduced into the system - if that means copying the American style, then so be it.

If not, even if football doesn’t die, American Soccer could really take the lead in 20-25 years. Focus should be shifted to how younger audiences consume content. U-19s represent over 55% of the global population. The way football currently operates will kill it faster because the need for ‘cool’ content or a cool approach to sports looks likely to intensify over the next decade.

In Africa, governments must take their hands off or reduced their power in football administration.

FIFA assumes that everybody loves football, but that theory might be defeated once nuance is applied. A lot of young people can be easily converted. For one, barring Burna Boy - who isn’t even the biggest football fan, most of our Afrobeats superstars aren’t really football fans. And that’s a big problem.

With their forays into America, they would soon start appearing at basketball games. Whereas, the UK, which is a key center for football, was the earliest foreign springboard for the growth of contemporary Afrobeats. Yet, it did nothing about tapping into the power of that genre.

Final thoughts

Nobody is saying that football will roll over and die. But football could really start playing catch up to basketball if something doesn’t change. As things stand, the NBA is the only major basketball league, but most of the European and Asian basketball leagues are reportedly taking a cue - especially the Asian leagues.

But if the NBA wants to expand in Africa, it needs to treat it like a basketball decision, not an NBA decision by doing the following;

  1. Start a league away from the government’s control. 
  2. Fix timing issues to expand reach: In the past only the EPL was played during the day. But over the past 10 years, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A have moved kick off for a lot of their games from nighttime to daytime and it’s helped the popularity. 
  3. Make FIBA Afrobasket more appealing, but place NBA characters at centre of it all.

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