By Robson Sharuko
While some of his fellow corporate leaders were either playing golf or fishing, NetOne’s new chief executive Lazarus Muchenje was leading a fire-fighting exercise on Sunday in a refreshing demonstration of the changes sweeping across a domestic football landscape finally divorcing itself from the bondage of mediocrity.
Muchenje led a powerful team from NetOne, which included the chief operating officer Brian Mutandiro and executive director marketing communications, Eldrett Shereni, at a Sunday morning media conference pregnant with a lot of significance for the domestic Premiership.
For one, rarely do we see corporate leaders in this country choosing to sacrifice their off-days on Sundays to convene a meeting to address issues related to their marriage with either a football club or a sporting discipline.
Two, rarely have we seen sponsors in our football taking such an active front-line role to try and resolve damaging disputes that might have engulfed the clubs, or sporting disciplines, where they would be pouring their funds.
And, three, rarely have we seen such top-level engagement between sponsors, and the clubs or sporting organisations in this country which they sponsor, launching such a combined effort to try and restore normalcy in times of turmoil.
One thing is for sure — it’s no longer business as usual in domestic football and the three-day shift which the NetOne leadership put in from Friday evening to Sunday morning to try and resolve the issue related to the stand-off between Dynamos and their Cameroonian forward Christian Epoupa Ntouba — shows that things are changing.
Muchenje is coming from a background at Vodacom in South Africa where sponsors attach a lot of value to their relationship with the sports organisations or individuals who will be part of their stable of investment.
Vodacom, the giant South African mobile operator which is part of British conglomerate Vodafone, have revolutionised football in that country by investing billions of rand into Soweto giants Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs since 1998.
The new NetOne chief executive also understands that turmoil at one of the clubs which they would be sponsoring, as has been the case with Dynamos during their fallout with Epoupa, turns to also significantly damage his company’s own brand.
“As NetOne, this partnership is very critical for us as we anticipate the big three clubs to play their respective roles in promoting and protecting our brand in a manner that is endearing to their multitudes of supporters,” Muchenje said.
“While this matter is purely what we would like to believe, a misunderstanding between Dynamos and Epoupa, the prolonged stand-off between the two parties has become a cause for concern for our brand.
“To this end we went over and above our contractual obligations and called for an all-stakeholders meeting with Dynamos and Epoupa’s manager on Friday evening to seek clarity on the matter with a view to assisting both parties to find an amicable resolution that is mutually beneficial for all brands.
“NetOne takes pride in its contribution towards the beautiful game of football thus far and are committed to improving the quality of sports and culture as this is not only the bedrock that unifies our great nation but resonates with our vision of connecting communities through our widest network coverage and affordable tariffs.”
NetOne poured $1 million into the coffers of Dynamos, CAPS United and Highlanders at the beginning of the year in what was unveiled as, initially, a one-year marriage although The Herald understands the new leader now wants the initial deal to run for three years and a substantial increase in what the clubs are getting.
While CAPS United and Highlanders have been an oasis of calm, with the two giants enjoying a good campaign in their league campaign, DeMbare have been blighted by challenges both on and off the pitch and the Glamour Boys — the country’s biggest and most successful football club — now sit in an unfamiliar position second-from-the-bottom of the table.
Lloyd Mutasa and his men have just two points from five matches and have only scored in one of those games, the three goals which they got in a 3-3 draw against Shabanie Mine at Rufaro, while conceding in all but one game.
On Easter Monday, some DeMbare fans staged a protest against their club’s leaders outside Rufaro after a demoralising loss at the hands of bitter rivals Highlanders.
But should sponsors plunge into disputes which would be raging in clubs that they are sponsoring or should they raise the red flag in the event some of those clubs punch before their weight as is the case with Dynamos right now?
NetOne’s intervention at the weekend is in line with international trends in football sponsorship and, crucially, also shows that DeMbare have to reform quickly or perish in the new climate — dominated by clubs bankrolled by rich corporates like the country’s major platinum miners — where professionalism is now the key.
The days when the Glamour Boys would just stagger in the darkness, and hope to reap dividends at the end of the day because they were Dynamos, are long gone and they are not the first ones to face a backlash from their sponsors to get their house in order.
Just four years ago, Adidas, the giant German sports company, told Manchester United they had to return to the Champions League before the end of the 2016-17 season or face the prospect of a 30 per cent reduction in their £75 million-a-year kit deal with the firm.
United, who announced what was the world’s biggest kit manufacturing agreement with the German sportswear giants, were warned that the £75m-a-year payment from Adidas would drop to £52.5m if they failed to qualify for the Champions League for two successive seasons.
Another clause in the Adidas deal stipulated that the company could reduce by half their payments to Manchester United for every season the Red Devils would spend outside the Premier League in the event of relegation.
United would get a £4m bonus every year if they won the English Premier League, FA Cup or Champions League.
English Premiership chief executive Richard Scudamore also warned that year that Manchester United’s poor defence of their Premiership title, under the guidance of David Moyes, was harming the league’s top-flight’s worldwide brand. Scudamore’s warning came with Manchester United in seventh place, 18 points adrift of leaders Chelsea, after 10 defeats in 31 league matches, with the Red Devils having been knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round and also knocked out of the League Cup in the semi-finals.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Scudamore. “When your most popular club isn’t doing as well, that costs you interest and audience in some places.”
“There are lots of fans around the world who wish Manchester United were winning it again.”
British Formula One racing team, McLaren, lost seven major sponsors at the beginning of the year because of their poor performances.