At 6.03 p.m. on July 3rd, 2023, the referee took one last look at his watch, and in three quick breaths, blew his whistle. Sporting Lagos, the team in the blue jersey, had won by 2 goals to nil against Abeokuta Stormers.
Sporting Lagos had gotten an important job done. Their win meant they’d successfully completed what they set out to do at the beginning of the season. In less than two years, they’d become a top-flight team with a social media following of over 35,000 and would play in the Nigerian Premier Football League (NPFL) the next season.
How did they do it?
Let’s Go Sporting: The Beginning
On February 3, 2022, Sporting Lagos was introduced to the world and started its race to play first-division Nigerian football.
When a new football club is created in Nigeria, they start in the lower tiers of club football and work their way up to the first division. Sporting Lagos started their journey in the Nigerian National League (NNL), and like any ambitious club, wanted promotion into the Nigerian Premier Football League (NPFL) in their first season.
But such a feat doesn’t come easily. For context, Remo Stars FC, also a privately-owned club, played in the NNL for six years before their promotion into the first division in 2016.
On February 13, 2022, The Sporting Lagos team filed out at Teslim Balogun Stadium for their debut match against Go Round FC of Rivers State. That match ended in a 1-1 draw. Sporting Lagos would endure a tough first season, winning only eight out of 24 matches played, and finishing in the bottom half of the table.
Although Sporting Lagos didn’t gain promotion, they were building something they could be proud of — a community of supporters.
Let’s Go Sporting: A Community of Young Football Fans
Every football club is made of directors, players, coaching and non-coaching staff, but the supporters bring it all together. Any team that has a strong fan base plays with an extra sense of confidence. The supporters are the driving force, the engine.
The most successful football clubs and tournaments are well known because of the effort they put into fan engagement. The clubs regarded as the biggest aren’t always the richest, but those with the most fans. Even the World Cup is driven by building a community of fans. With a global audience of over 1.5 billion viewers, it’s one of the most commercially viable ventures in the world.
Sporting Lagos’ understanding of the fan community is clear in the way it engaged them.
Rector, an event management consultant, has worked with Sporting Lagos since 2022 and helped the club build a fan base of match-goers in Lagos State tertiary institutions, especially the Lagos State University of Technology (LASUTECH). He’s part of the club’s strategy to attract fans to match venues and provide the best match-day experience.
“Many people aren’t interested in watching local live matches. We have to find a way to convince them. After enjoying themselves at one Sporting Lagos match, it’s a lot easier to convince them to come for another one,” he said.
“Sporting Lagos targets the student community in higher institutions in Lagos — University of Lagos, Lagos State University, Federal College of Education, Yaba College of Technology and Lagos State University of Technology (LASUTECH).”
Rector, a LASUTECH alumnus himself, had been organising parties in and around Ikorodu since 2021, which made him the ideal candidate to preach the gospel of Sporting Lagos to young people in the area.
To build a true football-loving community, Sporting Lagos understood that universities are hotspots for young passionate people, so they invested in consultants like Rector with networks in Lagos-based higher institutions.
Sporting Lagos provided the students with transportation to and from the Mobolaji Johnson Arena, the club’s current home stadium and this made the persuasion process easier. By their second season in the NNL, about 1,000 students attended Sporting Lagos games.
These days, a convincing indication of Sporting’s appeal to the public is the array of fans that come out to watch their games. A staggering number of Gen Zs and millennials troop in on every match day. The spectators are not short of older folks either, but a bulk of the fans are young people.
Matchdays at Sporting Lagos’ home stadium feature celebrity appearances and performances. There are also several halftime games. One that’s particularly attention-grabbing is a raffle draw to pick fans who are given a chance to play penalty kicks and win cash prizes of up to ₦100k if they score.
With ticket prices ranging from ₦50k for VIPs to as low as ₦1k, everyone is guaranteed their money’s worth.
Sporting Lagos’ commitment to creating the best matchday experience works so well that people who were passive football followers have been converted into passionate fans and now have an incentive to go to these matches.
“I don’t even like football like that, but I love going to these games. It’s like a party where you just come to have fun. You meet and vibe with other fans,” Aminat, a LASUTECH student and Sporting Lagos fan said.
Sporting Lagos’ Second Season and How Big Dreams Are Sponsored
While the Nigerian League isn’t on the same level as its European counterparts, there’s been a conscious effort to boost its reputation. A major problem the league faces is most of the clubs are government-owned, and most administrations see sports as a secondary venture, preferring to focus the budget on other sectors. Where medical doctors are often owed salaries, for example, the renovation of a football team’s training ground is an expense that can wait.
Private football clubs take the burden of sports administration off the government while giving the fans what they want — a strong, well-established team they can rally behind. Private clubs need money, and for Sporting Lagos, this meant they needed sponsors.
March 2023 was a turning point in Sporting Lagos’ NPFL ambitions, chronicled by two announcements. Sporting Lagos had bagged multiple partnerships with big brands, but none bigger than an e-commerce tech company, Klasha, its official sponsor. They also appointed a new coach, Paul Offor, to lead the team to first-division glory.
The NNL also had some news, announcing changes to the league structure. The league was divided into two conferences: Northern and Southern. There’d be four groups of six teams in each conference, and the teams that led their respective groups would qualify for the promotion round of games, called the playoffs.
Subsequently, the eight teams that made the playoffs would be split into two groups of four teams. The top two teams from each group would gain promotion to the top division — The Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL).
And the race started again.
Perhaps due to the world-class equipment accessed through the Klasha deal or the appointment of the new team coach — Sporting Lagos ended the new season with a spot in the NPFL playoff.
By their final game for the season, Sporting only needed to top Ijebu United’s result as they were tied on points to advance to the playoffs. Their 4-0 victory over Smart City FC at home on June 13, 2023, was enough to do this. Although Ijebu United beat Joy Cometh FC 3-1, it wasn’t enough to guarantee a playoff spot for them.
Sporting Lagos advanced to the playoffs on goal difference.
In the three-game-long group stage of the playoff round, they won their first game, earning a hard-fought 1-0 win over FC One Rocket, before storming past Abeokuta Stormers Sports Club in a 2-0 victory. They lost the last game of the group 2-1 against Heartland — the eventual NNL champions. But they finished second in the group, and it was all they needed to book their spot in the NPFL next season.
Winning the NNL would’ve been great. However, if you had told them at the start of the season that they would gain promotion into the NPFL, they probably would’ve missed a heartbeat.
Let’s Go Sporting, Let’s Go!
We’re witnessing the fastest organic growth a Nigerian football club has seen in decades. But regardless of how well Sporting Lagos does in the NPFL, the story of a club that prides itself in fan-focused entertainment is one that will interest people for a long time to come.
“Sporting’s mix of football and the Lagos fun culture is a glimpse into what is possible if grassroots football is taken seriously in Nigeria. Hopefully, many well-run football clubs in the NPFL will spring up from the Sporting example and make Nigerian football fun again,” Ayoola, a writer at Pulse Sports, told Zikoko.
Perhaps the culture of Sporting Lagos — one that builds a fanbase from the ground up, makes tough decisions like hiring a new coach, and closes deals that propel dreams — is efficiency. According to Rector, the event consultant, one of the reasons why he enjoys working with Sporting is the efficiency of salary payment.
“If it was one government club now, they’d say the head of financial affairs or something hasn’t signed off on our payment yet,” he said, laughing at the idea of carrying out the same job for a government-owned club.
Apart from the money, he stressed how organised the whole setup is. “This team will gain promotion soon. I can feel it,” he said.
He was right.
Rector is not the only believer in the Sporting Lagos project. Jidechi, a journalist, told Zikoko that he’s been impressed by Sporting Lagos’ growth in the past year.
“I’ve been at most of their home matches, and they understand how to run a football club like real professionals. When you’re fan-centric as a football business, the results will show. Not many clubs in Nigeria understand this, but Sporting — despite being just barely over a year old — are hacking it already,” he said.
The 2022/2023 season was an unprecedented fairytale campaign for Sporting Lagos, but two years of work, growth and courage from everyone involved with the football club got them here. The good thing is that the story isn’t over, and as this chapter of Sporting Lagos in the NNL ends, the one that tells the story of their journey in the NPFL is set to begin.
Writer: Olayoyin Olorunmota