Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a big fan of the English Premier League club Arsenal.
The London-based club penned a multi-million-pound sponsorship deal to market tourism in the East African country in 2018, with the “Visit Rwanda” tagline well displayed on the club's shirt sleeves and around the Emirates Stadium during home matches.
President Kagame often tweets any time that team is playing. And the country recently signed a similar five-year deal with German giant football club Bayern Munich despite the criticism that has dogged the marketing campaign at home and abroad.
Using sports to market a destination is a time-honoured tradition. Remember countries competing to host the Olympics or the World Cup? It’s not about games only but marketing too. Hosting such events puts all eyes and ears on a country.
The blitz created by such events makes a country known and that can create demand for goods, services and tourism.
Don't we all recall Qatar for hosting the recent World Cup, or South Korea previously? Add South Africa to the list. Why does Qatar easily give citizenship to well-known athletes?
Rwanda seems to have leveraged sports to market itself. Sport, mostly soccer, is close to the hearts of many, especially the youth. Add the fact that such obsession or addiction keeps our minds busy.
It’s a good distraction from our personal and national problems and failures. We even “own" local and particularly English Premier League teams. Most of us have never been to the UK, but we know quite a lot about these teams and their players.
What we often forget is that money in sports is not in the playing field; it’s in sporting rights and adverts. The right to broadcast live matches is where the money lies, and there is plenty of it.
Think of the premium paid by those who advertise during such prime time. Team merchandise brings more money.
The last time I visited Manchester United and Man City stadiums, I passed by their stores where they sell caps, t-shirts and other items that celebrate the teams. How many tourists want to visit the stadium where “their team” plays?
Back to Rwanda. Sporting and clever marketing has made the tiny African nation a popular tourist destination.
Have more tourists visited Rwanda after the deals with Arsenal and recently Bayern Munich?
Rwanda's image has changed with most foreigners thinking Rwanda is a bigger and more vibrant economy than ours. Why can’t we learn from Rwanda?
Most entertainment joints, including golf clubs, have sports bars, where most English Premier League matches are shown.
Some firms like Kenya Breweries Ltd (KBL) have leveraged Kenyans' love for sports to sell their products. Very few patrons of sports bars take water!
Who would hate to see “Visit Kenya” during the English Premier League matches or even the US Super Bowl?
The beauty of sports marketing is that children grow up with it. This creates a future pool of visitors and consumers. Noted we grow up with Western movies, products and lately foods?
We could ask why we have not leveraged our athletes. Unlike football and other sports, which are team-based, athletes are Individuals, making marketing harder. Once an athlete gets off the stage, it’s over.
Which country has athletic teams with names like football clubs? Football clubs ensure continuity irrespective of who the players are. That is why their marketing allure endures.
The same applies to golf. Even very poor golfers are proud to be associated with certain golf courses. But all is not lost.
Can we focus on stadiums where athletes train? Where does 1,500m and 5,000m world champion Faith Kipyegon train?
Clearly, Kenya is known for runners, mostly mid and long-distance. But we have not packaged it like football to make money from adverts and TV rights.
The "personal" nature of athletics makes it hard to bring investors unlike in football. The English Premier League attracts lots of investors, so much so that owning a team was once a status symbol.
Some think the distribution of efforts in football and the teamwork make the game captivating. In athletics, the fun is usually at the finish.
Athletics has more nationalism compared with football. We have the season of transfers in football, none in athletics.
It is unlikely that children or adults will "own" an athlete the same way we “own’ football teams.
Clearly, the legacy of football teams and the universality of the game make it easy to market and make money.
Perhaps that is why we should develop football in Kenya. When are Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards getting into the stock exchange?
Think of the money that would flow into the country and the spillover into other sectors. Rwanda seems to have got it right despite echoes of sport washing.
Finally, food for thought: why don’t we have a national sports university like Taiwan?
Maybe through research and development, sports would rival tourism, tea and diaspora remittances as sources of foreign exchange and national pride.
The weekend is here, time for my favourite sport.