It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Lagos and as you drive down the narrow street lined with cars to attend the naming ceremony of your colleague’s newborn son, a horde of young men come rushing onto the street from a nondescript building at the corner.
Your first reaction is to slow down and watch their next move, another part of you wants to quickly get out of the way to avoid any untoward occurrence. There is a brief and palpable fear inside the car as you scan the faces of the crowd passing by, trying to make out their words and expressions. Suddenly, your eyes light up. Alas! The furore is a simple football banter.
Scenes such as the one described above are a regular occurrence in Lagos and most parts of Nigeria; welcome to the weekend ritual and the allure of the Football Viewing Centre.
From mid-day on weekends and some midweek evenings during the European football season, you will find young men crammed into halls, rooms, makeshift theatres, sports lounges and every available space to watch football, mainly the English Premier League (which is the most popular league), the Spanish La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. It is a thriving multi-million naira industry born of the love Nigerians have for football and the widely available broadcasts from Multichoice (DSTV) in Nigeria.
The public viewing of football matches taps into the communal nature of Nigerians that makes viewing matches alone uninteresting and very ‘unNigerian.’ The period of DSTV’s entry into Nigeria coincided with the peak of Nigerian football when the Super Eagles were African Champions and qualified for their first World Cup. Stadium attendance was very high. The public viewing centres became an extension of the Stadiums and sprung up in locations all over the nation.
A typical viewing centre is a bungalow-like structure or shed with rows of wooden benches arranged to face the different tv screens showing the matches on offer. Outside, a handwritten display on a chalkboard shows the scheduled matches and their viewing times for the information of the prospective attendees. To keep out the prying eyes of those who want to watch matches for free, a tarpaulin cover is installed around the structure to ensure only paying customers can watch the matches.
Consequently, giant fans are provided to ease the inevitable heat from a mass of bodies all crammed together. These days, UPS and Inverters are installed to keep the decoder running before the generator is put on; when the inevitable power cut occurs. This ensures the audience does not miss out on any exciting moments of the match while the decoder reboots after a power cut.
Payment is made at the entrance of the hall, most times per match but regular patrons are allowed to make payment ahead for the total number of matches they might wish to view. Patrons are handed a ticket as proof of payment and the cost of viewing a match on average is N100, while N200 is charged for matches showing simultaneously. Average occupancy is between 50 – 100 patrons and for eagerly anticipated matches, viewership can be even beyond the original occupancy levels of the centre. A typical Saturday line up in the EPL has the games scheduled one after the other and patrons are encouraged to pay a flat rate of N200 for 3 games in a row or pay N100 for each individual game. At the end of each game, the centre is emptied out and paid customers let back in before the commencement of a new game.
Viewing centres have evolved over time from single-screen locations in the early 2000s to multi-screen locations, with some of them offering other forms of entertainment such as snooker tables and video games like PES and FIFA to maintain patronage. In the age of sports betting, many viewing centres have also incorporated betting shops as one of their offerings. People place their bets and are encouraged to stay behind to watch the games and see the progression of their betting tickets.
Once the patron has made the requisite payment and is allowed entry, he gets to sit in one of a row of seats (mostly wooden as rowdy fans have been known to occasionally destroy plastic chairs), usually seating up to 5 persons. The screens are arranged in a way to create the impression of being able to watch multiple matches at the same time; though, in time, the patron finds out that it is easier to focus on one match.
It is a raucous, stadium-like atmosphere with banter, laughter, pre-match and post-match analysis that sometimes become heated. As is typical of any place where young Nigerians are gathered, there is always the inevitable shift to politics and other burning national issues.
Viewing centres do not sell alcoholic beverages but sell other kinds of drinks to provide refreshment to the patrons and act as a source of additional income for the owners. On a typical weekend in the thick of the Football Season, a regular-sized viewing centre that can sit between 50 – 100 people showing an average of 4 matches per day can rake in upwards of N56,000 over a busy weekend before deducting expenses and exclusive of income from drinks and other refreshments.
In most middle income / affluent neighbourhoods, sports lounges have emerged as both an alternative and another form of the viewing centre. The sports lounge is basically a watering hole that encompasses drinks, food and other edibles in a cool and comfortable environment. Here, the patrons do not have to pay an entry fee but are required to purchase drinks or food.
The typical patron is a young, urbane and upwardly mobile professional looking for fun and an alternate way to unwind. The attraction for patrons is the ambience, comfort and the ability to mingle with friends while watching their favourite team play. Due to the availability of space, the arrangement of a sports lounge is markedly different from that of a viewing centre. The seats are plush and more comfortable and are arranged around tables in small clusters with a TV screen as a focal point.
The drinks are usually pricy with alcoholic beverages starting at N1000 per bottle and high-end spirits selling from as much as N16,000 per bottle. Due to the absence of a gate fee, the onus is on the operators of the sports lounge to find new innovative ways to attract more patronage and to increase the sale of their different offerings.
The key expenses for both the viewing centre and the sports lounge are the cost of subscription for DSTV, generator costs and rent. These costs differ substantially based on the location, availability of public power supply and any ancillary cost peculiar to the establishment. Power is an ever-present cost for any business operating in Nigeria and consists of both the cost of powering and maintaining a generator (either diesel or petrol) and payment for public power consumed (prepaid or postpaid).
All in all, the viewing centre business, though a cyclical one dependent on the Football season in Europe, is a lucrative one if well run and managed.