Slam-dunk apps for basketball in Nigeria

Nigeria prides itself as a footballing nation. Of all sports, football easily weaves itself in folklore about the west African country; and it is for the reason every citizen is ostensibly regarded as a fan, hence the term “200-million fans”.

Frank Osayi fell within this category, and it wasn’t until he was 13, when he moved to the Netherlands, that he first played basketball. 

Basketball is a growing sport globally, but its reach tends to be impeded, particularly in Africa, by a dearth of supportive systems and infrastructure, not only at professional levels but at grassroots level as well.

“I fell in love with basketball. I just felt excited about playing basketball and I wanted to be good, I wanted to be better. And eventually, I wanted to make it to the NBA [National Basketball Association]. And that was my dream. Right? Just like every other basketball kid,” Osayi told Mail & Guardian.

He made several pushes to aid his dream, the most ambitious being a move to the United States through a scholarship at Pennsylvania State College. “I played there for a year. And it didn’t really work out because the guys in America are just too good and they started early,” he said. “I only started at 13, but they started when they were like six or seven and so they have a lot of the fundamentals. And I was good, but I wasn’t as great as I expected that I would be compared to the American standard. In Europe, I was okay.”

He returned to Ireland and played for several clubs “for fun”, and also branched into coaching. But when setting up training sessions proved difficult, even with emailing and social media, his Master’s degree in software development came in handy. Alongside a team of developers, he built the app PGRaters two years ago, drawing inspiration from similar apps in the US.

According to 30-year-old Osayi, setting up basketball games could be strenuous due to several factors: the search for courts, the best-fitting players and awareness. Tasks such as these are delegated to PGRaters and could translate into more games, which in turn means a lot more activity for players — and awareness of the sport, especially in a football-crazy country like Nigeria.

“It’s easy to focus on the national team and the league, but we also need basketball to grow as a culture. That’s something the US has as an advantage over the rest of the world,” sports management executive Adedamilola Adedotun said. 

Solving a database problem

“I was very disappointed to hear that there is no application in Nigeria – a database that has information on basketball players, which I thought was crazy,” said Osayi.

“I’m like: ‘So there are many basketball players in Nigeria. Is there a website I can look into and see basketball players and their stats and see what team they play for, what they look like?’ When I heard it’s not available, I was shocked.”

PGRaters was launched in Nigeria in June. The app is free and available to download on smartphones. It addresses the problems observed by Osayi.

Uniquely, it appeals to a diverse audience in urban or rural areas within a set radius. For basketball fans, it’s a basketball-centric form of social media, while coaches can monitor and organise sessions for players. For organisers, it makes setting up games easier and is a valuable resource for international scouts looking to unearth talent.

Alex Okore, a small forward from Rivers State, was introduced to the app a month ago by a friend. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, he has only organised one session and participated in another. But he has met new players and has started to create a community using the app.

“The app is great for grassroots awareness as people become more aware of games and competitions around them,” Okore told M&G over the app’s chat functionality. 

Concerns about the rating and review functionalities were raised by the Rivers resident, highlighting how susceptible it could be to manipulation. However, Osayi explained that with aggregation, this would soon cease to be a concern.  

For instance, the PGRaters developer has an active account on the app. Osayi is listed as a 1.7m-tall point guard who has organised 32 sessions and taken part in 94 others. He has been rated by 31 other users based on his offense, defence and other attributes. These ratings were made by co-players after a game that was set up on the app. Reviews, however, provide more context to these ratings. 

The first review Osayi ever received two years ago was a user raising concerns about his fitness. A year on, another review raved about how tough a competitor he was in a game, a portent of how his fitness has progressed.

“One can see how players have improved from when they started to where they are now,” he says. “And eventually, I’m going to find a way to add colour-coding graphs to showcase the journey of the basketball player.” 

Apps for stats

Hot on the heels of PGRaters, StreetballCrown made its entrance a few weeks later, thus becoming the second basketball app in Nigeria.

For the past year it’s been in use in Spain and Italy and Victor Komonibo, a Nigeria-based professional basketball player, helped to adapt it to a Nigerian market.

“StreetballCrown is creating a database for players’ profiles and stats-keeping, because that’s something we are struggling [with] within the Nigerian basketball scene,” Komonibo told M&G. “After every game, stats are handed out or printed out, that’s all you get. You can’t go out to check on digital platforms.”

The app allows users to host “leagues, tournaments and pick-up games, but stats-keeping is major”.

The statistics are used to compute rankings for teams and individual players. Just like PGRaters, rankings are the byproducts of information fed into the app.

Post-Covid plan

Launching in the middle of a pandemic has meant a slow burn in growth across the country but there are a number of users already, and this will likely grow with the commencement of contact sport in the country. Last week, the Nigerian federal ministry of health lifted restrictions on non-contact sports and contact sports are expected to follow suit soon.

While these apps can’t function properly yet while most basketball courts are closed, plans are ongoing. 

The basketball top-flight league in Nigeria has been on hold for the past three years due to political infighting and a leadership crisis. Players such as Komonibo have been left to make do with a few remaining competitive fixtures, mini-tournaments and pick-up games, while some have even switched careers. 

The Hoops and Read point guard has begun plans to organise a tournament with the StreetballCrown app. Osayi has the same plan, with a PGRaters tournament billed for female, and later, male teams in Kaduna. So doing, he hopes to gain insights into the basketball landscape in Nigeria, which will inform his decision on what new features to implement and what to improve in the app. He says he also has future plans to branch out to other African countries.

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Tolu Olasoji
Tolu Olasoji is a Nigeria-based journalist covering sports in Africa, and its intersections with human being and social issues

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