SportPesa sponsorship termination triggers Kenyan football crisis

Kenyan football is involved in the escalating tax dispute between the Uhuru Kenyatta government and the betting industry, after SportPesa – the title sponsor of the Kenyan Premier League (KPL) – confirmed that it has terminated all national sports sponsorships.

Closing Friday trading, SportPesa issued a media statement confirming that it would withdraw all sports sponsorships, as it had been ‘subjected to punitive measures by regulators’ which had a made the Kenyan market ‘extremely challenging’ for its business operations.

The bookmaker’s cancellation has triggered an immediate crisis within Kenyan football, as KPL officials indicate of a lack of funds, three weeks before the start of a new football season (30 August).

During the weekend, KPL Chief Executive Jack Oguda issued a statement detailing that league governance was unsure whether it could guarantee kick-off being sponsorless.

“We had already planned to kick off the season on August 31 but now we will have to convene a meeting, maybe earlier next week to chat the way forward, but what I know it will not be possible to start the season without a sponsor,” Oguda told national media.

“We have been thrown back to those days [1995] when we used to run the league without a sponsor, it is very difficult to make it now and the next move will be decided by the owners of the league, who are the clubs.”

SportPesa’s actions represent the second time Kenya’s leading bookmaker has suspended its sponsorship activity, disputing the Kenyatta government’s governance of the betting industry.

In 2018, the operator withdrew Kenyan sponsorships protesting an ‘unworkable’ 35% blanket tax on all forms of gambling.

This protest of the tax regime would be supported by KPL stakeholders, with football club leadership stating that SportPesa sponsorship funding was needed to support all levels of Kenyan professional football.

At present, SportPesa sees itself at the centre of a revised tax dispute with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), which seeks compensation of KSH 14 billion (€125 million) in relation to unpaid taxes on player winnings.

Pursuing a four-year dispute, the Kenyatta government has implicated all government departments – in addition to national business stakeholders – to implement severe operating restrictions against betting operators.

A frantic July saw the government withdraw license renewals of thirteen operators, while Kenya’s Betting Control & Licensing Board (KCLB) enforced that Kenyan telecom and banking incumbents terminate all payment processing provisions for the betting sector.

SportPesa maintains its position that the KCLB has acted illegally in its enforcement against its business, pointing to ‘the existence of a court order prohibiting the regulator from taking such actions’.

It adds that it ‘remains positive’ that its dispute can be resolved ‘amicably and urgently’ with the government, who as yet have offered no statement on its industry restrictions and its impact on Kenyan wide sports funding.

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