THE ROAD TO COMPLETE SPORTS
By Dr. Mumini Alao
On December 18, 2020, Nigeria’s first all-sports daily newspaper Complete Sports, celebrated its 25th anniversary, having been established on December 18, 1995. In this historical narrative, the group managing director, Dr. Mumini Alao, takes us down memory lane on the birth of the newspaper.
Complete Sports was inevitable. For Complete Communications Limited (CCL), it was the next logical thing to do. Fortunately for us, it was sanctioned by the Almighty God. And in December 1995, the paper was born.
When I joined CCL straight from completing my national youth service in Enugu in 1988, the only sports publication on the stable was Complete Football. Sports Souvenir, the forerunner to CF, had been suspended while Climax magazine, a weekly soft sell, had only recently been launched and was the centre of attraction.
To get a chance of working on Complete Football, I gambled by offering my services for free when the publisher, Mr. Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase (now Pastor Dr. Emmanuel Sunny Ojeagbase), said there was no vacancy. Later, I was to be considered for the post of sales representative and posted to Owerri in Imo State.
But after five weeks working with Frank Ilaboya who was then in charge of Complete Football, the publisher called me into his office towards the end of September 1988 and told me I’d got myself a job.
About six months later, the publisher again called me to say that I had been promoted as assistant editor, I would be in charge of CF and I would now report directly to him.
I couldn’t believe it, Climax magazine was struggling and Frank, a workaholic, was to be moved over to assist in stabilizing it. That was how I found myself “editing” the best football magazine in Nigeria barely six months after joining the stable.
Frank, meanwhile, didn’t particularly like the idea of being moved to Climax and he told me so. From the short period I had worked as his under-study, I could see that CF was his life, his blood. The passion and commitment he put into producing the magazine were palpable and infectious. I came already with my own bags of passion, but I was infected by Frank’s commitment to the job. My immediate assistant was Sunday Orelesi and, later, Simon Kolawole.
Frank took the same commitment to Climax, but it was obvious he didn’t have the same passion he had to CF. Looking back, I surmise that would later contribute to his departure from CCL.
Meanwhile, Climax continued to struggle despite the efforts to keep it afloat. Finally on Friday, September 6, 1991, S.O. (that’s what some of us call the publisher) decided to pull the plug on it and to refocus fully again on sports publishing. It was a landmark episode in the history of CCL.
Being a society publication, Climax always drew a lot of crowd to our premises. I got to meet the likes of Zeb Ejiro, Richard Mofe Damijo and the rest of the emerging movie stars of what is today’s “Nollywood” on a regular basis.
I also got to deal with some tricky situations such as songstar Majek Fashek’s wife coming to create a big scene on account of a story published about her family in Climax.
For my kind of person, Climax was a little bit over the edge if you know what I mean; I barely flowed with the crowd.
Anyhow, the week after the Climax was shut down, you should have been at CCL. From an ever-burstling, hyper-active premises, always jam-packed with human bodies, CCL became like a ghost town. From a work-force that was not less than 60 or thereabout if I got my figures correct, fewer than 10 of us had the “priviledge” of reporting for work the following Monday, September 9, 1991. With the benefit of hindsight, that was the day that the story of Complete Sports truly began!
By refocusing exclusively on sports reporting again, CCL began life anew. Not only did Complete Football get the attention it required and deserved, other sports titles soon started to sprout, leading ultimately to the birth of Complete Sports in 1996.
International Soccer Review, ISR for short, had been introduced by S.O. in February, 1990. Back then, our readers could not get enough of international football from CF and we always received a lot of letters in this regard. Satellite TV stations were a rarity then and the internet existed only in people’s imagination.
There was a local market for international soccer news and ISR provided it. I produced the first two editions of the magazine. But the first substantive editor was Ehi Braimah who had worked as general editor on Climax and adapted quickly on ISR.
Ehi was my soul mate as we shared one office and one hired official car! The only thing Ehi didn’t succeed at was getting me registered as a member of “GBN” (Glamour Boys of Nigeria!) at Niteshift Coliseum.
However, not too long after Climax packed in, Ehi resigned from ISR to go and pursue a career in public relations at Ideas Communications. “Mumini, I think I’ve had enough of mainstream journalism,” he told me. “I need to change course,” he concluded with his usual boisterous laughter.
Ehi was succeeded as editor of ISR by Eniwoke Ibagere who published a “textbook” for each edition and would keep adding information until the magazine was practically rolling in the press. Our computer manager then, Segun Owa used to taunt him that if Ibagere could have his way, he would retrieve ISR from the vendor’s table so he could add the latest news!
Ibagere left ISR at short notice and it was my lot again to package the magazine side by side with Complete Football for several months. I was assisted by Morakinyo Abodunrin who later took over as editor before it (ISR) was finally rested in 1994.
Before then in 1993, Samm Audu who had edited Complete Football and left before my arrival in 1988 had returned to the stable as special project editor. We needed little introduction. I had always enjoyed reading his “Star Soccer” magazine which he published in Kaduna. But he had to pack it up because the business side wasn’t adding up. He had also been following my work in Complete Football and we jelled very quickly, our respective weddings eventually taking place within two weeks of each other in November 1993.
Apart from his writing, Samm’s biggest asset was his excellent page planning and lay outs. It would be many years later that I would discover that he was also an artist while in school. No wonder.
Samm packaged a couple of special editions for CF while I focused on the regular monthly editions and ISR. Our countdown to the USA ’94 World Cup witnessed a lot of very exciting moments, both for us the writers and the readers as we churned out classics after classics, sometimes three or even four magazines in a month, CF and ISR. It was great fun as our readers kept snapping up everything we came up with all the way to USA ’94.
Meanwhile, S.O, the man of a million ideas, was thinking again. He had decided to revive Sports Souvenir and he wanted me to be a part of it as a shareholder. He suggested that he wanted our relationship to move from employer-employee to business partners. How can I refuse?
S.O said Samm Audu would also be a part of the team which was perfect with me. And that was how Sports Souvenir began its second life cycle in February 1994. It was a fait accompli that Samm would be the editor as my hands were already full with CF and ISR.
A lot of planning went into the relaunch of Sports Souvenir. The national football league was not well reported then and we decided that the new SS would fill that vacuum and also report the exploits of Nigerian footballers abroad.
“Keshi Goes To America” was our lead story for the come-back edition. But unfortunately the printing was messed up by the Daily Times press. It was a big anti-climax for us, but from the second edition, we got a new printer and Sports Souvenir simply hit the roof in terms of circulation and acceptance.
Also in 1994, riding on the crest-wave of Nigeria’s first qualification for the FIFA World Cup finals in USA, and partly in response to the coming of “African Soccer” magazine by Emmanuel Maradas, S.O came up with the idea of setting up Complete Football International which was printed in the United Kingdom. I was again the pioneer editor and now that I’m writing about my experiences at CCL, I must say that my greatest challenge was getting CFI on the street every month.
Because the magazine was printed abroad, we always had to do the production early to leave enough time for the long process it would take to finish it in London and fly it back to Nigeria. And so even before one edition was out on the streets, we would have started production on the next. In fact, we were virtually in perpetual production. Yeah CFI was tasking so say the least. It stretched me to the limit.
However that didn’t stop me from adding yet another responsibility in January 1995 when we introduced Complete Football Extra. If I can recollect correctly, I would say CFE, as it came to be known, was born within minutes of a discussion I had with S.O in his office.
Sports Souvenir was doing okay as a weekly, but CF and CFI as monthly magazines were not generating the kind of turnover that the business desired. We thought another weekly could do the trick and so CFE was born.
If CFI stressed me up, the paper I have enjoyed editing the most at CCL is CFE. For one, I had the joy and satisfaction of conceptualizing it from start to finish and also sourcing the man-power to package it. With Sports Souvenir focusing on the league and foreign based players, CFE instead turned its search-light on the Nigerian football establishment. It became an instant hit with football fans every Wednesday and I still have great pride in the editorial team we were able to assemble.
Sam O’Femi Festire, Mark Ogagan, Pius Ayinor, Henry Okoduwa and a host of others were recruited as freshers with little or no experience in journalism. Philip Balepo was our production man and, together, we had tremendous fun on CFE and took it to great heights.
It was the success of Complete Football Extra that got us thinking again that we should make the final leap and publish a daily sports paper. Around this time, Demola Olajire, Kayode Tijani and a few other guys were making an attempt at doing what they titled “Daily Sportlight”, but it was obvious to us they couldn’t handle it. If anyone could handle a daily sportspaper then, it had to be CCL.
Once the decision to go daily was taken, everything we had was thrown at it. Picking a name for the daily was very easy. We decided to pick “Complete” from CF and “Sports” from SS and so we had Complete Sports. This would be our biggest test yet, and it was!
To be honest, I wasn’t keen at editing the paper. By contrast, I observed that Samm was keen and so at our inaugural meeting with S.O on the project, I simply broke the ice by suggesting that Samm should edit the daily. Every other thing fell into place thereafter. Samm would hand over Sports Souvenir to Vincent Alumona while most of my staff on CFE would be transferred to Complete Sports. I felt a bit emotional during the transition and hand-over “ceremony”.
When we kicked off the promo about the coming of Complete Sports and revealed that Complete Football Extra would be rested to make way for the daily, a lot of people were surprised. My co-presenter on Mastersports television programme at the time, Jenkins Alumona actually told me: You guys are crazy! How can you stop such a successful paper (CFE) to gamble on a daily?!
It would appear that Jenkins was initially proved right because on the eve of the 1996 African Nations Cup in South Africa, the government of the late General Sani Abacha pulled the Super Eagles out of the tournament over a disagreement with the South African government, thus putting Complete Sports into trouble from Day One!
We had launched Complete Sports on December 18, 1995 in anticipation of the Nations Cup finals in January 1996. But the moment it was confirmed that the Eagles would not be participating, local interest in the competition waned and Complete Sports, suddenly with nothing tangible to report on, was looking down the barrel of a gun.
The following months were tough, to say the least. Unlike a weekly or monthly publication which gives you some breathing space even in times of poor sales, a daily is suffocating and gives you no space at all. And as hard as we tried to keep the paper going, our accountant, Ayoola Adeleke would come to management meetings and declare in his usual cold-blooded manner: “For everyday we are publishing, we are simply losing money.”
Complete Sports got a reprieve during the Atlanta ’96 Olympics Games when Nigeria won the golden medal in football, beating Brazil and Argentina along the way in dramatic fashion. In 1997, the paper feasted throughout on the France ’98 World Cup qualifiers and news of the constant friction or “naked war” between the then Sports Minister Chief Jim Nwobodo and NFA Chairman, Col. Abdulmumini Aminu. Everything was fine, business was good. Then came 1998.
We had pulled out all the stops to take advantage of what we hoped would be a bountiful World Cup finals in France only for the tournament to end up in a fiasco for Nigeria. Against all expectations, Denmark thrashed the Eagles 4-1 in the second round to leave a sour taste of discontent in the mouths of our readers. By the time the dust settled in December 1998, CCL was mirred in a mountain of debts running in excess of N11 million.
Going into 1999, we became hopeful again that Nigeria’s hosting of the 10th FIFA World Cup Youth Championship would provide an opportunity for us to rebound. However, the Nigerian team handled by coach Tunde Disu crashed out in the quarter finals against Mali in Enugu and all our hopes of revival were dashed again.
By this time, Complete Sports had reduced from a daily to a weekly publication while Complete Football had been suspended. We resurrected CFE edited by Tunde Sulaimon in a vain effort to shore up the company’s finances, but soon packed it up again after a few months. To cap it all, the colourful CFI also went into the cooler. The times were really, really bad.
As the year went by, things became more difficult and unpaid salaries started to mount. Inevitably, a massive exodus of staff resulted, news was flying around and observers started looking out for CCL’s obituary.
Unfortunately around this time, Samm Audu was unhappy about a couple of things and he also resigned. I had been promoted as acting managing director while Samm was director of publications. “I’m happy for you, you deserve it (the appointment), but for me, my work here is finished,” Samm said to me on his departure.
Prior to this time, S.O had got more involved with Success Digest magazine and he had left the running of CCL to me. With the turn of events, I naturally was contemplating my future, too, and S.O had to step in to supervise the weekly Complete Sports directly. But he soon gave up. Then God stepped in!
Towards the end of 1999, S.O called me to his office and said I had a choice to give Complete Sports another shot at revival or he would close it down completely! He said: “Look, Mumini. I know you must have your plans but I want you to consider this as your own business and give it another shot. If you choose to leave, I will shut down the place, cut my losses and find ways of paying back the debts gradually. The choice is yours.”
I wouldn’t know whether he meant it but putting it that way, S.O had me cornered. Although I didn’t respond immediately, I knew there was no way I could walk out on him. We had come a long way and our relationship had gone beyond employer-employee. He had given me a lot of opportunities to build my career and had become like a big brother to me. I couldn’t just bail out like that now that things were rough with the business.
I consulted with my wife and my dad and they both agreed with my position. A few days later, I went to S.O and said: “OK sir, I will give it a shot.”
“Complete Sports’ come-back strategy was simple: Build a sound and sustainable readership base. To achieve this objective, the paper was repackaged and down-sized from 16 to 8 pages; cover price reduced from N40 to N20. Dare Esan was appointed associate editor under my supervision and we relaunched in January 2000 for the African Cup of Nations co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana.
Luckily, Nigeria did not pull out this time but actually went all the way to the Final where the Super Eagles lost to Cameroun in a controversial penalty shoot-out. It was the shot in the arm that we needed. We have not looked back ever since. We have since paid off all our debts and we are moving to new horizons. Our greatest strengths have been the unity amongst the staff from top to bottom.
Dear readers, after the Almighty God Himself, you (the readers) are the next secret behind the birth and successful comeback of Complete Sports and indeed of the Complete Group of Publications. But for your unwavering support and patronage, the Complete Group would not be celebrating 20 years of sports publishing in Nigeria today. May God bless you all, amen.
*Dr. Mumini Alao wrote this piece on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Complete Communications Limited and 9th anniversary of Complete Sports newspaper in 2004.