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Polishing African sporting diamonds

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Polishing African sporting diamonds

Africa is bursting with sporting talent. Some eventually find their way into the big-time in Europe or the US but many others bloom unnoticed. One company has set out to change all this by taking charge of African talent to help realise its full potential. Report by New African.

Christian Bassogog, the Cameroonian footballer who was named Player of the Tournament as he helped his country win their 5th Africa Cup of Nations title in 2017, is today playing in the Chinese Super League, where he’s one of the best- paid players. 

Bassogog was discovered and developed by an African company, Rainbow Sports. It took him through domestic soccer, a stint in Denmark, to national representation and being a professional in China.

Now, says founder Kingsley Pungong, the company wants “to leverage the Bassogog experience to create a pipeline of African superstars, not just in football but also basketball and other sports.”

The continent is blessed with some of the world’s best athletes. But sports are an unrelenting business and the journey to the top requires planning, structure and organisation.

Despite the Bassogogs, Salahs or Manés of this world, too often, either through lack of capital, lack of nurture and a dysfunctional system, some of our best talents never make it to the top. Rainbow Sports is determined to change all this.

International clubs, says Pungong, have been scouting African talent for many years. The French soccer league has a long history of recruiting some of the best players from across Africa. Despite this, the percentage of tier-1 football players from the continent is much lower than from Latin America or Europe.

Sports today are about much more than raw talent, he explains, and the science of sports and talent management is much more sophisticated and methodical than it’s ever been. His organisation is looking at fundamentally transforming the underlying structure of the sports ecosystem.

The way the system is perceived also needs to change. “The media, rightly or wrongly, has made the industry out as unscrupulous. What we are trying to do is change this and highlight the positive contribution sports can bring to society as a whole as well as ensuring that we are developing not just a potential sporting star, but someone with the skills to succeed in life – what we call the Rainbow Way.”

Far-reaching impact of sports

Sports are a business and their company works on risk-adjusted returns in the same way that a private equity or venture capital company would. But sports, he explains, have a far-reaching impact. They can help change the perception of a country globally.

Cameroon is still remembered through its 1990 World Cup heroics, with Roger Milla personifying the free spirit and creative genius of a whole continent – playing with grace, intelligence and exuberance despite being 38 and past any normal footballer’s peak. Sporting soft power cannot be underestimated; it can really strengthen the links between Africa and the rest of the world, helping develop a certain affinity between two countries or two continents.

“This is why Rainbow Sports is also venturing out beyond football into basketball and other sports popular throughout the world,” says Pungong.

But sports also engender important values: teamwork, perseverance, focus, the ability to bounce back after disappointment.

The philosophy at Rainbow, says James Woods, Regional Director for Malawi and Southern Africa, where the group is looking at investing in the football infrastructure and scouting players, is to prepare their talented players not only for the ruthless world of sport but also to be able to succeed outside sport.

Like venture capital, sports is a percentage business. Out of 100 potential stars, only a very small fraction will hit the heights. But Woods explains that the Rainbow Way is not just about developing future stars but contributing to their cohorts’ personal development, “so that those who don’t make it will become better individuals, equipped to make a positive contribution to society as a whole.

“Right now,” he explains, “the whole industry is too opportunistic and murky, with many middlemen coming from the outside, monetising an opportunity and disappearing.” It’s a take-and-run system.

Fascinating journey

The Bassogog experience was a fascinating journey for Rainbow, says Pungong, but their longer-term objectives is not to rely on one or two stars making it to the top.

In many respects, Bassogog is an outlier, he adds. “We discovered him quite late in his development, at the age of 18. Our model is based on scouting and developing players much earlier in the process.”

The rationale behind the group is to ensure they control the whole value chain, to enable their players to progress to the top seamlessly.

The group has recently bought a second division club in the Czech Republic, where they can blood their young talents and expose them to European football.

“We are listing a bond which will allow us to buy at least four European clubs,” Pungong explains, “and we want to set up a developmental system within 10 African clubs. The idea is to create the premier infrastructure for transitioning top-level African athletes into top-level professional sports.”

“Winning is as much physical as mental,” he goes on to say. “Today, how you conduct yourself, how you manage your money and how you speak to the media has a true intrinsic value in terms of your career.

“We want to educate the athlete not just physically, but also mentally, and intellectually, to make sure that in the beauty contest of international football, where we are competing against other European nations, against Brazil and Argentina, the African athlete can emerge as the most complete.”

Today, like we do with our minerals and other natural resources, he says, we are exporting our wealth in its rawest format and not capturing its true value.

The group has a club in Cameroon, which also acts as an academy where they teach talented kids about nutrition, leadership and financial literacy. They have also recruited former superstars such as Patrick M’Boma to act as mentors.

Rainbow Sports is looking to replicate this model, not just in Ethiopia where they’re also present, but developing it across a network of 16 countries, moving into places like Malawi, Zambia and Senegal. 

Today, Rainbow has over 50 players across its clubs and partner clubs, of whom approximately 10 a year will move to professional clubs. They intend to feed through 50 players a year to African clubs and the global system.

In basketball, Pungong sees Tanzania as a sleeping giant. Neighbouring Kenya has a longstanding history of producing world-class athletes. Often all that’s missing is the supporting infrastructure and something to ignite that national interest and to attract talent to a sport.

Rainbow Sports has recently signed a deal with the newly formed NBA Basketball Africa League franchise to help develop African talent in the sport.

Basketball is slowly but surely gaining popularity in the continent, especially following the success of Masai Ujiri, the Nigerian basketball star and president of the Toronto Raptors, who have recently won the Canadian NBA.

The big money in sports is abroad. Africa can benefit from the best practices in the West as well as the large resources of the foreign leagues, he explains. “It may appear paradoxical, but exporting players can actually help us build our leagues.” 

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