Econet spread wings into game

Econet heralded its arrival on the football scene when it signed a five-year deal to sponsor the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League last year. But no sooner had the ink dried on the deal than problems within the polarised Zimbabwe football scene scupper the agreement with Econet Wireless pulling out after just one year. The domestic Premiership is still battling to get a sponsor for this season. Econet Wireless bankrolled the local Premiership through its pre-paid brand Buddie. However, despite the termination of its marriage with the local Premiership, Econet Wireless are still visible in the stadiums across the country at top-flight league matches. The company’s banners are still being placed in the stadiums, especially at Rufaro Stadium in Harare, after a deal struck between the firm and the Harare City Council. The city council owns the stadium and rents it out to football teams in the Premiership to use at a certain fee. Econet now pays the Harare City Council a certain fee, at every big match, to advertise their products in the stadiums. There have been reports that the company was considering coming back onto the local football scene, though not as the official sponsors of the league. But nothing concrete has come out so far as the Zimbabwe Premiership battles to secure a partner. Econet, though, understands the power of football and know that their rivals like MTN and Vodacom of South Africa have laid firm foundations in the game. “You cannot hope to make big business in Africa without marketing your product in football,” said an analyst in Harare last week. “With the 2010 World Cup finals coming to Africa in just four years, you can see that there is a massive turf war going on for space. “And the mobile companies are leading the big race with MTN now dominating the African football scene with their partnership with the Confederation of African Football. “So the company directors understand that this is the time to strike and that is why you see all this rush towards football from all angles. “There is a love relationship between football and the mobile companies right now and it’s growing every day and you will see big things in the few years to come.” MTN are the official sponsors of the African Cup of Nations, taking over the last edition held in Egypt from Finnish mobile phone gadgets manufacturing company Nokia. The South African company also sponsors the African Champions League and has spreading its wings on the domestic front through its sponsorship of such big teams like Mamelodi Sundowns. While MTN are dominant in Africa, their rivals Vodacom are dominant on home soil and their sponsorship of the two giants of South African football ‘ Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs ‘ gives them pride of place. The two Johannesburg giants are imposing figures in South African football. Econet Wireless do not have a licence to operate in South Africa but their activities are directed from their headquarters in Johannesburg. The Zimbabwean firm has already fought some bruising boardroom battles with rivals like Vodacom, notably for the Nigerian stake. And it appears the leadership of the Zimbabwean company is conscious of the need to keep their interest in football sponsorship alive ahead of the 2010 World Cup finals. Econet will this season sponsor the Malawian Super League ‘ the top-flight league in that country ‘ through their partnership with the Malawi Telekom Networks. Econet Wireless Global is now the majority shareholder in MTL after buying the entire stake that used to be controlled by Malaysia Berhad. Econet bought 60 percent of MTL at about US$24.5 million with the sale effected through the acquisition by Econet of Tess International. MTL was established in 1996 as a joint venture between the Malaysian firm and Malawi Telecommunications Ltd and the company operated a GSM service under a licence that is valid until 2014. The Malawian Super League was once bankrolled by the country’s former President Bakili Muluzi who also sponsored one of the biggest football clubs in that country ‘ Bakili Bullets. But he withdrew his funding from both fronts shortly after leaving office and the league has been battling to get the right sponsors on board. The Malawian league has largely been viewed as a breeding ground for clubs in Zimbabwe and South Africa who are able to offer their best players better salaries and working conditions. The best Malawian players ply their trade in South Africa with the prominent ones being Kaizer Chiefs captain Patrick Mabedi and John Maduka. The Malawians have always been lured by the rand since the early days when Ernest Mtawali, one of the country’s all-time greats, crossed into South Africa to further his career. A number of Malawians are also streaming into Zimbabwe, especially to CAPS United, whose owner Twine Phiri has big connections in that country. Midfielder Joseph Kamwendo, widely regarded as the cream of the generation that is emerging in that country, spent a year playing for CAPS United last season. Kamwendo was so impressive in his debut season that he made history as the first foreign player to win the country’s Player of the Year award. Another promising Malawian player ‘ Gift Makoloni ‘ is also in Zimbabwe while midfielder Peter Mponda briefly played here before moving to South Africa. Econet were the sponsors of the Player of the Year awards in Zimbabwe last year. The mobile company is also involved in football in Lesotho through their Ezi-Cel brand. There has been growing demand for Econet’s service in Lesotho and the company is upgrading its equipment in the tiny mountain kingdom. Econet Ezi-Cel Lesotho was established in May 2002. Then there is the Kenyan market and the Nigerian market and sources say Econet want to be involved, too, with football in those countries. “That is the way to go and when you want to court people in Africa then you sponsors their football,” said the same analyst. “I believe that the years of having a league without a sponsor in Africa, especially in the southern part, are behind us now and we will have a flurry of companies just fighting for the cake. “I won’t be surprised to see companies like MTN, which do not have a stake in Zimbabwe, coming onto that market just as part of the turf war ahead of the 2010 World Cup finals. “This is an exciting time for football in this region but my advice to the leagues is that they should not be hoodwinked into signing deals that don’t benefit them.” Two years ago the Zambian Super Division did not have a sponsor. Now the Zimbabwean Premiership is also battling for a sponsor. “It’s not a crisis here in Zimbabwe,” said PSL fixture-secretary Godfrey Japajapa. “It’s not like that we are desperate for a sponsor. Far away from that. “What we are desperate for is the welfare of our clubs in a gyper-inflationary environment and if we can get some partners to come in who can help the clubs in their transport and accommodation costs, then we will be a happy lot. “But mark my word, we will get a sponsor very, very soon and it will be a big one for the Premiership.” Of course, Econet Wireless are watching from a distance at the drama unfolding on their home turf. The last thing that this company would probably want is to see Vodacom come here and sponsor the league championship as part of the battle for space ahead of the 2010 World Cup finals. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of things happening in the background right now and we could be in a for a huge surprise.”

April 2006
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