Sports personalities can have economic and social influence

Kenyans are known for many things, yet one attribute that particularly stands out is the natural talent we possess for long distance running and our ability to bag all the available international marathon top prizes. After every win, our sports stars get the prerequisite headlines in the sports segments of the news. Occasionally they may be recognized with a national headline after being received at the airport by a small contingent of their immediate family ready with the Christmas decorations, and complete with a three man traditional dance troop as well as the lone freelance journalist to capture the moment.

Contrast this to countries that celebrate their superstars with homecoming parades that would make a Third World dictator proud, and attract the highest levels of leadership who turn up to say thank you for carrying our flag up high, promoting our national values and inspiring our children.

When Lebron James (the best basketball player in the world) returned to his home city Cleveland to rejoin the Cavaliers who had originally drafted him in 2003, he did it because he wanted to bring back hope to the city. He had previously made a controversial move to South Beach to join the Miami Heat and chase his dream of winning multiple championships in the footsteps of Michael Jordan. He eventually led the Heat to win two NBA championships before heading back to Cleveland.

Cleveland had been suffering from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis and in 2010 Forbes honored the city known as the ‘Mistake on the Lake’ as America’s Most Miserable City because jobs had vanished, people were leaving the city and no major professional sports team from there had won a national championship in nearly half a century.

Lebron promised to help the area where he grew up both on and off the court. A reality TV show that he and his business partner executive-produced matched four out of twenty competing companies with local business leaders who helped them open physical shops in the city. One of the winners was able to open up a brick-and-mortar store and do three times the revenue they were doing with a purely online store, and they now plan to open one store a year around the US going forward.

Since his return, business is booming for the bars and restaurants dotted around the Cav’s home arena as they are now seeing two to three times more business during home-game nights, unlike before when there wasn’t much going on downtown. The fortunes of the Cav’s went up in the first year of Lebron’s return when they reached the NBA finals. They then proceeded to win the NBA championship in the second year and the city has seen a corresponding increase in spending, hotel nights, and 97 percent occupancy downtown.

His family foundation supports 1,100 students and their families in the neighborhood that he grew up in and due to this and other activities of the foundation, he was ranked 12th after Apple’s CEO Tim Cook in Vanity Fair’s New Establishment global influencers list.

Getting to the top of the game in US sports isn’t easy. I’ve been recently inquiring about the people that make it in pro sports and what they have to go through to get there. Last week at Newark Airport I met an ex-college football player who  explained that the process is built to identify talented kids early, and it includes a system of sports scholarships for college education which eventually end up as the biggest source of talent for the professional franchises. By the time someone makes it into the draft, they have competed with the best-of-the-best through the line and have come out on top, ultimately driving up the quality of the game — the reason why we turn up at the stadiums and spend money.

A proportion of income from spectators, merchandise and advertising is invested in actively promoting the sport and leveraging on their superstars because they fuel our passions, capture our aspirations and they are the people that we want to see performing at their best at every game.

Our runners deserve immense credit for boosting Kenya’s positive visibility globally and inspiring other local sportsmen and teams to think big. There still remains incredible potential for building profitable sports franchises in the country that leverage on the unmet market need, and the advertising and sports sponsorship that follow audiences. We must apply the insight gained from booming franchises, take the long term view, and focus on building a strong grassroots operation that recognizes budding talent in our schools and nurtures that talent in order to bring the best to the fore. We can thus create a highly competitive sports industry that grows superstars, creates jobs, keeps our population enthralled and drives tourism.

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