Why Are Nigerians Betting Big on Sports?
When news filtered in that my neighbour, Frank, a 27 year old trader at Alaba International Market won N15 million from sports betting, with just N12,000, I knew it was time to lift my self-imposed ban on gambling/betting.
I was determined to play and win. I knew so little about sports betting or the detailed analysis of the popular English Premier League. My feelings towards football fanaticism had always been ambivalent. I did have Chelsea FC as my favourite club but I did not cry or make merry when they lost or won a game.
So when I walked into one of the sports betting shops in my street that Saturday morning, the only information I was sure of was that Chelsea were at the top of the EPL table and that there would be other EPL matches to be played that day. But it didn't matter, I could as well be coasting home with my own millions of Naira by the end of the match day.
The betting shop was a standard room with three large TV screens on the wall. One screened match highlights, the other two displayed what seemed like results or status of previous bets or even EPL table. Those did not matter to me either. It was to play and win.
The agent was a busy man that morning, attending to some bettors, people like me who had come to try their luck at winning millions with so little. It was not long, my turn came and I staked N200, for a chance to win N45,000 if I predicted eight games correctly. N45,000 did not look like much if one compared it with Frank's N15 million but there is always a first time.
Like me, there would be millions of people who would be betting for millions of Naira across Nigeria on a typical match day.
A researcher with the sports betting company, who preferred anonymity, confided in me that, "If four big teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona are playing other teams, there should be nothing less than 100,000 bettors. If these teams were to play each other, the number could go as high as 150,000. That means 100 to 150, 000 tickets in a single match. But some good matches like the Derby or El Classic matches, go up to 300,000 bettors." "The value of these tickets," he said, "could be in the range of N40 to N50 million."
But Nigeria's economic woes are beginning to take its toll on the business as well. Even though the recession had compelled more people to take to sports betting for an alternative source of income, bettors are staking even less and less amounts. This means less revenue and profit for the betting companies.
"People are not just staking as much as they did before now," the researcher tells me. "Before the recession," he says, "stake was like N1.3 billion. But now, wagers hover around N1 billion per month." That is still a staggering amount by any standard in Nigeria's current economic situation.
But the recession is not the only setback of the sports betting companies. Ponzi schemes have mushroomed in the country in recent times, offering instant wealth at even far little stake. More so, sports betting firms and other virtual gambling firms such as Nairaspin are proliferating faster than ever, thereby fragmenting the market. (There are more than 20 sports betting firms in Nigeria).
The researcher tells me, people are beginning to understand the game more and are able to predict correctly more than ever. For his firm, winnings go up to more than 400 million per month.
According to him, "The business is becoming tougher for companies into it despite the huge revenue. People keep winning huge sums. I have seen N15 million before and someone won N9 million the other day. Take the N1 billion revenue for instance, winnings take over 400 million, staff payment, rents, utility bills, etc take about N150 million. We also pay software providers and the lottery board - these take about N200 million. Then we spend over N50 million monthly on advertisements - both digital and offline."
As we spoke, some of the matches I betted on, had kicked off and I held my breath. But one of the bettors I met at the betting shop, Olamide tells me not to count on it. He tells me EPL matches are still difficult to predict correctly and it would be rare to win the first time I predicted.
"I have been betting for more than a year now," he says. "But I have won only once - N40,000. The first time I betted, I wagered N100 for a chance to win N7.5 million if I predicted ten matches correctly. Guess what? All the matches went in my favour but one. In that one match, I predicted that the team will win their away match plus an extra one goal. They did win but there was no extra goal. That was how I lost out," he explained in a way you would think the pain of that loss still ate away at him.
"I was sick for more than a week. I had come so close to getting out of poverty. After then, I do not count on any bets. I just do it for the fun of it," he added.
But that didn't diminish my expectation. For the first time in my life, I paid undiluted attention to a football match. When players misfired, I got angry and even called them names. I had become a fanatic overnight. But as luck may have it, the team I wagered on, won the match by two goals to one. But it was not yet uhuru, there were still seven more matches to decide my fate.
But not everyone wants to be part of sports betting. Outside the betting shop, I met Emeka who tells me he would never try it.
"Gambling is gambling. It can ruin your life by making you lazy. This gambling trend is destroying a lot of lives today. If you go to our markets, people are not minding their shops, they are busy gambling and arguing about football. Even our offices are not left out," he says.
The researcher agrees. He told me sports betting is fueled by passion mixed with desperation and greed.
"Yes, it has brought some people out of poverty but what about many more that it would enslave and who may never win. Won't it sink them into deeper poverty?" he said.