No sweetness: Why sugar-sponsored KPL clubs face a bleak future
Sony Sugar FC pose for a photo before clashing with City Stars FC during their Sportpesa Premier League Clash ending at a draw 1-1 at City Stadium on Sunday, Nov 1, 2015. PHOTO: JONAH ONYANGO/STANDARD.

Feature: Is this the end of top football clubs in Nyanza?

Sony Sugar was expelled from KPL last year after missing three matches as struggling Chemelil Sugar stare at relegation.

The Kenyan Premier League has been dogged by sweet and bitter memories since its inception in 1963.

The situation that Kenyan football finds itself in, especially in Nyanza which bristles with talent glut, is worrying.

And it all boils down to reliance on single sponsorship and lack of sports marketing.

Now almost 57 years after independence, the story line is still the same: players lacking professional contracts and lack of sponsorship for the league and clubs.

Very few players rode on KPL as a stepping stone and went on to establish successful football careers abroad like Mike Origi, Dennis Oliech, Victor Wanyama and recently Michael Olunga.

But behind their impressive CV’s in Europe and Asia lies a constellation of talents getting thrown to the dogs in Kenya.

Lack of finances and management wrangles have headlined KPL woes in the last five decades.

Unlike the European leagues, local clubs have had to go without broadcasting revenues since the departure of South Africa’s satellite channel SuperSport International in April 2017.

They lost close to Sh1 billion following the termination of their extended contract which was to run until 2022.

No sweetness: Why sugar-sponsored KPL clubs face a bleak future
Chemelil sugar players after they were beaten 2-0 against Gor Mahia during their KPL match at Kenyatta Stadium, Machakos on Wednesday 02/01/19[Boniface Okendo,Standard]

SuperSport signed their first deal with KPL in 2008, five years before KPL landed a three-year title sponsors deal worth Sh170 million from East African Breweries through their Tusker brand.

SuperSport ended their ten-year partnership with KPL amidst a protracted battle between Football Kenya Federation and the league organisers over the running of the league and its composition.

KPL again signed a four-and-a-half-year title sponsorship deal worth Sh450 million with gaming firm SportPesa.

No sweetness: Why sugar-sponsored KPL clubs face a bleak future
Chemelil Sugar team photo: Boniface Okendo

However, things appear to have gone from bad to worse barely two months after SportPesa pulled the plug on all its sports sponsorships including football (FKF, KPL, Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards) in the country following a prolonged tax dispute with the Government.

Furthermore, it is painful to note is that this is an era where every league across the globe is making impressive strides to better the standards of their leagues.

However, for Kenya’s football, the current economic crisis in the country have turned clubs into beggars more so the sugar-belt clubs which struggling to honour matches, pay players and manage the operations of the club. Some, like Mumias Sugar FC, became extinct ages ago.

At the moment, a dark cloud hangs over football in Nyanza as the region might not have a team in next season’s Kenya Premier League (KPL), despite this being home to some of the country’s greatest footballers.

Should the Sports Disputes Tribunal (SDT) uphold Football Kenya Federation (FKF) decision to relegate Sony Sugar FC and Chemelil Sugar FC when it ended the season 2019/2020 season on April 30 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the region will not have a team in next season’s top flight league.

Muhoroni Youth FC is on its deathbed. When they began flopping some three years ago, many thought it was an isolated case not knowing it was just the beginning of things to come.

Since then, Muhoroni who shocked the Kenyan football fans by overcoming Gor Mahia in the Kenyan Premier League Top 8 title at Nyayo Stadium three years ago are currently struggling in the third tier league, FKF Division One League.

Having being relegated from the KPL in 2017, the club’s downfall continued  after being relegated from the National Super League in 2018 following failure by the club to honour three consecutive matches in the second tier league.

Muhoroni Youth struggles followed its sister club Chemelil Sugar for the better part of the 2019-2020 KPL season after giving out two walkovers and failing to pay players.

The financial woes were replicated in the KPL table standings where by the time the league was suspended, Chemelil were bottom of the table with nine points after 18 matches. Out of the 23 matches, they conceded 65 goals –the highest in their history.

Muhoroni Youth and Chemelil Sugar Club Chairman Moses Adagala compounded the troubles to the financial struggles the sugar sector has been facing in the last four years.

He said the respective Muhoroni and Chemelil Sugar companies have been struggling to pay their farmers and sales have been low for the past years, a situation that has greatly affected the clubs.

“Players can’t be paid because there is no money. And when you are not paid, there is no morale to perform at your best. These sugar woes have greatly affected the teams,” he said.

Adagala, however, proposed transition of the company owned clubs to community based clubs so that the national or county government can support the clubs.

“Right now the operations of the club are being controlled by the company and there is no way the county governments can chip in. Therefore, if they can be transformed into community clubs I believe they will get sponsorship,” he added

In Migori County, Sony Sugar FC, a one-time KPL champion in 2006, has since gone under, being relegated to the second-tier league, thanks to the financial problems facing the mother company Sony Sugar Company Limited that made it hard for the football club to honour some of its league matches.

The former champions were relegated to the National Super League last November after failing to honour three matches – against 13-time winners AFC Leopards, Tusker and Zoo FC.

According to Sony Sugar chairman Gabriel Otiende, their downfall from the premiership also resulted from a biting financial crisis after the taps of their sponsors, Sony Sugar Company, ran dry due to financial challenges in the sugar industry.

Although KPL confirmed that they have been relegated, Otiende hopes the petition they filed to KPL is considered.

“We were relegated due to financial constraints. It was painful but that was the case since we also lost good players but rebuilding is not that hard,” he said.

Immediate former Sony Sugar coach James Nandwa has called for county governments to come out and rescue the teams before they join the now extinct Mumias Sugar FC.

The former AFC Leopards coach also said the sugar belt teams should be allowed by their respective companies to form a parallel board different from the company that can run the clubs without interference.

“When you have a different body mandated to run the club, it will be easy to run the operations of the club and also these companies need to allow clubs to look for other sponsors to beef up the team since they have been struggling for long.”

“Furthermore, sponsorship from the county government is the only way to go right now if we want to rescue these clubs,” he said.

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