Home » Empty stands at Safari Sevens point to fading allure of Kenyan rugby

Empty stands at Safari Sevens point to fading allure of Kenyan rugby

Twelve years ago, the country witnessed rugby shift from its traditional ground of the Rugby Football Union of East Africa (RFUEA) to the Nyayo National Stadium and later the Moi International Sports Centre (MISC), Kasarani.

Mwangi Muthee, who had just been elected the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) chairman, thought it wise to move Safari Sevens venue so as to create room for the growing numbers of fans, corporates and interest.

The championship that attracted over 8,000 fans was now attracting quality teams, some from the World Rugby Sevens Series besides Kenya for instance Samoa, winners in 2005 and 2011, Argentina, Fiji, Spain and Portugal.

For the first time since inception in 1996, Safari Sevens left RFUEA with the 2011 and 2012 editions that were all sold out, being staged at the Nyayo National Stadium. 

“I remember we had to close the gates with queues snaking along Lang’ata Road with over 30,000 fans coming in,” says Muthee. “That time Safaricom CEO, the late Bob Collymore, who were the main sponsors, hawked airtime on the side of Russia.”

Rugby fans

Rugby fans cheer during the Safaricom Safari Sevens quarter-finals at Nyayo Stadium on September 24, 2012.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Kenya could now dream of hosting a leg in the World Rugby Sevens Series then International Rugby Board (IRB) Sevens Series. 

“We then prepared the bid as we relocated the event to the MISC for the 2013 edition,” says Muthee, who had his deputy Sasha Mutai as the chairman of the Local Organising Committee for the 2012 and 2013 editions. 

“We had 45,000 fans in 2012 and 48,000 on the first day in 2013,” said Mutai, who is now the KRU chairman.  

Muthee says moving the event to Kasarani proved the ultimate test for Safari Sevens with 48,000 fans attending the first day despite the Westgate Mall terrorist attack and over 35,000 coming on the final day.

“The atmosphere in and outside the stadium on the two days was simply phenomenal as we presented our bid for the series with support from the government, Safaricom, Kenya Airways and Coca Cola among other corporates,” notes Muthee, who resigned in December 2014 after wrangles erupted at KRU Board.

Kenya Shujaa's Billy Odhiambo evades a tackle from Western Province's Andre Smith

Kenya Shujaa’s Billy Odhiambo evades a tackle from Western Province’s Andre Smith during Safaricom Safari Sevens rugby tournament semi-final match at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani on September 22, 2013. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The 2015 tournament almost failed to take place with governance issues taking centre stage at KRU as title sponsors Safaricom pulled out and Kenya’s bid for the World Series event went up in smoke. 

Poor attendance returned to haunt the tournament in 2016 at the MISC as the tournament failed to take place for the first time in 2017 only to return in 2018 and 2019 with the venue reverting to RFUEA.

Covid-19 saw the event fail to take place in 2020, but it returned 2021 with poor attendance with last year’s edition aborting due to lack of sponsors. 

“We had huge public support for rugby and it was an adventure for the people, who want to identify with success. Our biggest ambassador was the national sevens team, Shujaa,” says Muthee, who hopes the new dispensation at KRU will help rebuild and retrace that journey.

But does KRU chairman Sasha Mutai, who was elected in March this year, still have the Midas touch of the 2011 to 2013 period?  

Former Kenyan international Collins Injera

Former Kenyan international Collins Injera (right) follows the action during the Safari 7s at RFUEA ground in Nairobi on November 19, 2023

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Mutai came in at a time when Safari Sevens doesn’t have a permanent date geared to attracting World Rugby Sevens Series core sides. The country is also coming to terms with Kenya Sevens team relegation from the World Series in May for the first time in 23 years.

It goes without saying that not only Safari Sevens is battling to attract fans and sponsors but also some of the country’s top local tournaments like Impala Floodlight, Great Rift 10-a-side and Kenya Cup league that are struggling to draw numbers  and sponsors.

For instance, Mutai estimated a turnout of 4,000 fans on Saturday, most who came in in the evening after the matches for the after-party show. Less fans were witnessed on Sunday where Kenya Sevens Shujaa retained the Robin Cahill Trophy, beating Samurai Barracudas 19-0 in the final.  

Infrastructure has also been a major underlying factor with the RFUEA, Impala Sports Club and Nakuru Athletic Club among others that are private entities still having facilities that have not been improved in line with the changing times.

KRU and clubs will now have to strike well between their commercial and technical muscles so as to pull the right codes that will bring back not only sponsors, but also increase fan base that is unique with the rugby lovers and social ones. 

Rugby fans follow the action during the Safari 7s

Rugby fans follow the action during the Safari 7s at RFUEA ground in Nairobi on November 19, 2023

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Arguably, television is what drives major sports events across the world but the environment is getting interesting with events being streamed live, giving people a variety and enabling them to watch events on smartphones anywhere.  

Quality teams both at Safari Sevens and local tournaments like Impala Floodlight will be key in driving fans back to the stadiums. Fans are keen to know the kind of teams coming for tournaments hence they will stay away when quality lacks.   

Facilities ought to be improved for better experience and lasting memories for fans and players, something that was missing at Safari Sevens and local tournaments.

Designated area for players at this year’s Safari Sevens looked dilapidated as players and their technical staff were left lounging on dirty concrete slabs. 

Impala Floodlit was even worse as players and the technical staff were either left standing or seated on grass with the poor lighting system making it no better. 

 Johann Eschenbach

Germany’s Johann Eschenbach tackles Shujaa’s Vincent Onyala during their semifinal match of the Safari 7s on November 19, 2023 at RFUEA ground.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Both local and foreign media should be provided with basic facilities at the press centre that include reliable internet, power among others things. The one at Safari Sevens fell short with Impala Floodlit having none. 

Impala Floodlit used to attract over 8,000 fans but they barely surpass 3,000 nowadays. 

“The attrition in rugby really dealt the game a major blow but we want to fix that with good governance, something that should also trickle down to clubs as well,” says Mutai, adding that brands want to be associated positively.

“We are trying to woo our partners back and we are glad Tusker is back, which is quite nostalgic since they started with Safari Sevens as main sponsors,” says Mutai, adding that they want to grow the event so as to revive their ambitions for a World Series leg.

Cheerleaders entertain rugby fans 

Cheerleaders entertain rugby fans during the Safari 7s at RFUEA ground in Nairobi on November 19, 2023

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

But first things first, Mutai, intimates that the dates for Safari Sevens could go to October in view of luring the World Rugby Sevens Series, and invites will be made on time to give teams ample time to prepare.

Mutai says they are in talks with RFUEA, a move that could see the facility getting a facelift as KRU pushes for the title deed of the 50 acres that the government has allocated them in Kasarani. 

“We shall make Kasarani our home the moment we get that title deed. We are already talking to sponsors since putting up a 30,000-seater isn’t cheap with over Sh5 billion required,” said Mutai. 

Mutai says that to attract top quality, finance and planning will be crucial since they will need to pay for accommodation and flights for the World Sevens Series core sides that might come for Safari Sevens.

“We must start planning now so that it becomes easier to approach a company and strike a deal to adopt some of these top teams,” says Mutai, explaining that their commercial and technical committees will meet early for planning next year so as to erase challenges experienced this year.

Raila Odinga

Opposition leader Raila Odinga (centre), Sports CS Ababu Nawamba and KRU chairman Sasha Mutaic celebrate with Shujaa players celebrate after they won the Safari Sevens title at RFUEA grounds on November 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Tournament Director Godwin Karuga, who is a World Rugby certified Match Commissioner said that having Safari Sevens back was the most important.

“The fact that we have been able to hold a smaller version of Safari Sevens to tell everyone we are back, it gives us time to plan for next year well,” said Karuga, adding that limited funds forced them to have a lean event.

“Having the dates clear and the best time next year will be key to a successful event next year besides having non-traditional rugby supporters coming on board too,” added Karuga.