When the NBA and FIBA first planned their inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL) back in 2019, the striking bronze oval of Rwanda’s newly built Kigali Arena was slated as one of seven host venues across the continent.
But when Covid-19 hit, the logistics of moving players and support staff between multiple African countries proved impossible to surmount and it was Rwanda that emerged at short notice to take on the sole responsibility of hosting the NBA’s first competition outside the US.
Following the tournament’s successful conclusion in May, that decision looks like a smart move for all concerned. The BAL finished its first season without any Covid-19 infections among players, while the continent’s basketball stars – and Rwanda itself – were broadcast to a global audience.
After staging the BAL under tricky circumstances, Rwanda is hoping to capitalise on its success by advertising itself as one of Africa’s major destinations for international sports events, according to minister of sports Aurore Mimosa Munyangaju.
“It was a very positive experience for us and for hosting this kind of event in terms of standards, planning, communication, and marketing. It went well, as expected, under the Covid-19 conditions.
“We believe future seasons will be under different conditions from today’s, and some of the skills gained will be applied to hosting other games like the BAL. What we gain from the BAL will be used and applied for the hosting of other events and in other disciplines, not only for basketball.”
At the heart of Rwanda’s bid to assume responsibility for the entire tournament was a strict Covid-19 testing regime which began even before the players landed in Kigali.
Visitors were required to undergo PCR tests in their native countries prior to further testing on arrival at Kigali airport. They were then dispatched to temporary isolation hotels for around three days prior to entering a secure bubble environment of team hotels, transport and training facilities.
Crucial to the planning was a local organising committee that featured representatives from various government departments. The onerous but ultimately successful process has allowed Rwanda to demonstrate its fitness to host similar events, believes Munyangaju.
“Covid-19 has had negative consequences but on other hand it’s increased trust in Rwanda’s capacity to host such events under the current situation.
“It’s really disrupted the sports industry in terms of organising locally and hosting international games, but with the preventive measures we put in place across the country we’ve been blessed in terms of being given the trust to host this competition. We had guidelines put in place that were really strict and all the measures put in place were discussed with the BAL, the NBA, their management and our management.”
Is it worth it?
Yet with Covid-19 limiting the potential for large crowds – BAL games had only a small number of spectators – sceptics question whether the vast efforts required to organise sports events during a pandemic are worth the cost for host nations.
In a year in which the Tokyo Olympics received significant criticism for its controversial decision to forge ahead without spectators in apparent defiance of Japanese public opinion, governments and sports bodies are having to work hard to justify the costs and public health risks of staging global events during a pandemic.
Nevertheless, Munyangaju says that numerous benefits will accrue to Rwanda from hosting such events.
“The end result of all those things is promoting Rwanda as a MICE [meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions] destination. This means the sport industry is one that can play a significant role in the country’s economic development. Hosting this kind of event is proof we’re moving in the right direction. It brings attention to the country and promotes the visibility of Rwanda and the good image of our country.”
Aside from the intangible boost to the nation’s image, Munyangaju also says that Rwanda is seeing direct economic benefits from its status as a sports host. From part-time jobs to permanent roles for players, coaches, technical and managerial staff and opportunities for local companies, hosting events offer more than the temporary glow of national prestige, says the minister.
“We want to see the private sector really involved in investing in sports, and hosting these kind of international events are opportunities for local businesses to partner with international brands during the BAL.
“It also opens pathways into new business ventures, not only for sports, and gives them room to partner and think outside the box…
“The good thing we learned from hosting this event is who do you engage to make it a success, how do you negotiate with the media, how do you make sure you’re bringing the private sector onboard as marketing partners to make sure you’re sponsored? This was something we learned a lot about.”
Investing for success
Still, hosting international events requires major investments in sporting infrastructure. In 2019, construction was completed on the 10,000 capacity Kigali Arena, which can host indoor sports such as basketball, handball, volleyball, and tennis, as well as concerts and conferences. Built by Turkish contrator Summa at a reported cost of $104m, the arena hosted all the BAL games.
The government has also begun work on upgrading the neighbouring Amahoro National Stadium, a 1980s-built complex used for football, rugby, concerts and events, to a 45,000 capacity from its current 25,000.
The government hopes that such investments will pay off and attract attention from other sports. Rwanda is currently bidding to host cycling’s UCI African Road World Championships in 2025, building on its hosting of the UCI Africa Tour’s annual Tour du Rwanda. In July, Rubavu hosted the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour for both men and women. In August, the country hosted FIBA’s Afrobasket 2021 men’s continental championships, having hosted a qualifying tournament for the women’s Afrobasket 2021 in July.
“Based on the good experience we were able to show [with the BAL] many people have come to us asking us if it’s possible to host their event,” says Munyangaju.
The government hopes to use such events to increase sporting standards in Rwanda and expose its own athletes to a high level of international competiton.
“[In the BAL] we had our local club, Patriots BBC. They were able to show it’s possible, they put up a good show for the spectators, but we still need to raise our performance across the board, not just in basketball but in other disciplines. So by investing in the right infrastructure and bringing different events, we’re expecting our local players to raise their standards. We are investing in youth development and talent development, especially from an early age.”
The minister’s words of encouragement for young athletes could equally apply to the country’s ambition of becoming major sporting host.
“We’re always trying to motivate them by telling them it’s always good to compete with the best. By competing with the best, you will be there one day.”