Fan apathy threatens to choke the life out of Safari 7s
Francis Kivathi, a soft-drink merchant who has been a permanent fixture at the annual Safari 7s extravaganza since 1999, wore a face of pain and despair on Sunday as the three-day event wrapped up at the 60,000-seater Safaricom Stadium in Kasarani.
The businessman was among vendors who took a massive hit when fans voted with their feet to keep off the annual Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) flagship event that had grown to be among the biggest sporting and social events in the Kenyan calendar.
Kivathi, the middle aged entrepreneur cut a lone figure in the inside perimeter of the stadium with a huge stack of unsold sodas lined against each other, hours before the action concluded as he counted his loses baring the premium price he had to pay to the Union to set up his stall.
The shocking decline of numbers of Safari 7s may have been fodder to social media throughout the weekend but for Kivathi and his peers, it hurt the pocket most as he stared into the abyss, contemplating how he will move the extra stock and recoup his investment.
“Mwaka jana kama saa hizi ningekuwa nimemaliza hii stock yote iko hapa, (last year, I would have already finished my entire stock!)” a visibly dejected Kivathi told Citizen Digital.
According to him, he did not manage to push 200 PET plastic bottles of soda in the three day event compared to his average turnover of over 4000 bottles of the product he managed when the event attracted its usual numbers.
A few meters away, Samantha Mwedekeli, the director of a mobile food truck selling burgers turned purple as she grieved over how her hopes of making profit at the event dissipated when the supporters kept off.
She had shifted her business from the peri-urban area of Westlands to Kasarani aspiring to make a kill in an event that is traditionally, a social standard for folk residing within and in the immediate surroundings of the Kenyan capital.
“In Westlands, we sell about 300 burgers each day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday but here, we sold only 30 in the three days. It made a big difference to our business and we feel we have missed out a lot on trade. We are very disappointed to be honest we will not be doing this event again,” the first time vendor at the event decried.
The tales of the two merchants perhaps best illustrate the full impact of fan apathy at the 21st edition of the international invitational event that gave organisers a big kick in their teeth leaving them scrambling to salvage the signature event.
There was a tongue-in-cheek joke doing rounds at the 60,000-seater Stadium that claimed suppliers and players were more than the fans in the stands.
It was a harsh and perhaps exaggerated observation but not far from the truth as the event witnessed a significant drop in fans.
The stadium was sparsely populated with the top and bottom tiers virtually empty.
The middle tiers and the corporate boxes had numbers but a far cry from the previous editions where a sea of humanity would complete a Mexican wave that would go full circle capturing the circumference of the stadium, illustrating the carnival atmosphere that has been a prevalent feature in the annual event since 1996.
Devoted supporter and rugby aficionado, Joel Kabiriu has never missed an edition of the sevens showpiece since inception.
Citizen Digital bumped into him on his way out even before the Main Cup final featuring Shujaa and Samurai International, saying he had a prior engagement to attend but expressed his dismay at the organisation of this year’s tournament.
“One of the things that they’ve done is taken fans for granted. They expected fans will always come to support us but we still need to invite them,” he pointed out.
In 2013, at least 60,000 fans thronged the Kasarani on Saturday and Sunday.
The following year, the turnout stood at least 40,000 for both days and dropped significantly in 2015 to at least 10,000 and this year the figures are the worst witnessed in memory even before the release of official statistics by organisers.
“Obviously there are many factors you could look at. Spectator fatigue is among them, we had six weeks of sevens series and internationals and that is nine weeks of back to back action,” the Safari 7s Tournament Director, Godwin Karuga told Citizen Digital at Kasarani.
Sceptics have claimed the stadium which is nestled 8km in the outskirts of Nairobi’s Central Business District is not ideal for the tournament and undermines the fans experience in comparison to the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) Grounds along Ngong Road which hosted the event last in 2010.
“The venue, we’ve tried this venue it’s worked in the past, but I think we need to re-engage in it and ask ourselves is this the right place to be?” Kabiriu pointed out while also faulting the calibre of teams that have graced the tournament in recent times.
However, organisers are adamant that the tournament will still remain at Kasarani in order to maintain international standards for hosting an event of such a stature as Kenya battles to have a leg of the World Rugby HSBC World Series hosted in Nairobi.
“The balance of having a facility that international teams would have to play at and the balance of having the satisfaction of the fans has always been a challenge. Some of the teams will not come based on where we are going to host the event,” Karuga explained.
The KRU has penned significant sponsorship deals in the past two years with several corporate organizations and the Safari 7s, the marquee tournament of the Union, was one of the key events that ate up a huge chunk of their budget.
Some tough decisions had to be made according to the chairman Richard Omwela who admits this year’s tournament lacked a clear marketing strategy to rally the masses.
“The fully funded budget was Ksh60m and when we looked at the numbers we had to cut off part of advertising and marketing but again, it’s always the chicken and the egg, do you cut off the advertising and not get people in or do you balance your budget?” Omwela posed.
The decision not to adopt a robust advertising and marketing campaign to rally the fans, whet their appetite and urge them to Kasarani was to the tournament’s detriment.
Businesses that paid steep prices to set their stalls at Kasarani hoping to make a huge killing in the three day tournament ran huge loses as the ramifications of empty seats and woeful numbers impacted negatively on its profile.
The usually packed Safari Village, the designated traditional meeting point for socialites where fans mingled with their peers having a meal, imbibing their preferred drink with music belting out from the huge speakers was almost deserted.
There were just a handful of patrons and in some service points only empty seats and the yard which served as the dance area was bare. It stood out like a sore thumb with hawks who swooped down to scrounge for left overs the only keen patrons.
“We needed numbers here, we needed the carnival atmosphere and Safari 7s is the biggest tournament of rugby that we have in this country,” Ken Waudo, an ardent rugby fan remarked as he mourned the inactivity around him.
The national sevens teams registered mixed fortunes with Kenya’s Shujaa clinching the Safari 7s title while the Morans finished third in the Africa cup sevens.
Organizers have all to do to stop the slow death to an event that used to resonate with supporters long after the final try had been grounded as the number one social event in the Kenyan capital.
Some hard decisions will definitely have to be made in order to restore the confidence and end the fan apathy.
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