With her sports marketing agency SWA Sports, Aisha Shuaibu, a US-born, Abuja-based entrepreneur, is looking to fill the gaps in Nigeria’s sporting sector.
●13th March 2023
On a pleasant February evening in Lagos, Aisha Shuaibu, a US-born entrepreneur is seated across from me in a tiny room in our head office in Lekki, dressed in a dark headwrap and a tailored, beige suit. In about half a dozen minutes after we got introduced, in addition to her elegant Northern lilt, I could also tell she’s smart, well-read and proficient. She holds two degrees: a Bachelor’s degree in Business Studies from the University of Bedfordshire and a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management from Bahcesehir University. She also runs a successful, chic breakfast and brunch restaurant in one of the more upscale areas in the country’s Federal Capital along with a Business Management and Brand Development service. But all the while — exchanging pleasantries and filling me in on a little background — I could sense a growing eagerness that she wanted to skip to the part where we finally discussed sports and her unabating love for it.
Shuaibu’s early years were spent roving due to her father’s job which moved them across the North: Kano, Jos, Niger and then Abuja, in ‘99, where she finally settled.This itinerant lifestyle meant that she never really had a specific area of interest. That of course was until highschool — Capital Science Academy, where she fondly remembers playing different sports, most especially basketball. “I remember I got injured playing there, I got like four stitches on my head from trying to dunk a basketball.” she tells me with a wide smile on her face. It was around this period that she also started watching AND1 Mixtape Tour — sometimes known as AND1 Live Tour — a traveling basketball competition and exhibition that aired on ESPN between the 1990’s to the late noughties. “I grew up a tomboy and I grew up in a family of mostly boys so I felt I belonged there when I started watching AND1. Later on I started watching the NBA. I didn’t support any team but I loved Allen Iverson, he was very cool. He brought a lot of culture to the NBA, from his cornrows to his fashion and his tattoos. I was into that. It fully got me in love with the sport.” Shuaibu tells me reminiscently.
In 2008, AND 1 would release their last volume, Mixtape X, but it was also the year that the trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen inspired the Boston Celtics to a Championship win, their first and only since 1986. This storied run made Shuaibu a Celtics fan and increased her love for the game of basketball. “I watched the playoffs and the finals. I was already supporting the Bostons by the time they got to the finals. I was rooting for them and they won the championship. I cried when they won. I’ve been a Boston fan ever since.” she tells me, almost like a proselyte describing their conversion story.
After highschool, Shuaibu moved to the United Kingdom for her university education and at this point, she had begun to slowly nurture the idea of playing basketball professionally. “I spoke to my mum about it and she said no” she says sharply, mirroring how swiftly I imagine her mother must have turned her down, stating it was not a good look for a Northern woman. The fact that her university didn’t have a female basketball team also didn’t help matters. So Shuaibu’s lofty idea of going pro died almost as fast as it was conceived, her love for the game, however, remained, burning fervently. She went on to spend a couple of years abroad, bagging her two degrees in the United Kingdom and then Turkey, before returning to Nigeria to become a full-time entrepreneur.
For a lot of people, Nigerians especially, that makes perfect sense: bagging a Business degree from one of the more reputable universities from across the globe and returning to Nigeria to start a business. But Shuaibu, whose voice always went an octave higher whenever we spoke about basketball, or anything sports related, knew she was always going to venture into the game, one way or the other. So recently she started SWA Sports, a sports marketing agency that showcases some of the best sporting talents from around the country. “We’re sports marketers so how we do this as a business is we promote grassroot athletes through events. But sports infrastructure is also a huge area of focus for us. We have two event brands: Fight Night which promotes combat sports, fighting, wrestling, mixed martial arts and we have Game Day which promotes basketball and American football. That’s our only area of focus.” she tells me, speaking about the focus of her agency.
All through the years, Shuaibu’s love for Basketball never wavered, so it was a no brainer that she would promote Basketball talents when she started her sports company. The decision to however include combat sports, Dambe in particular — an old local sport that began when clans of traveling butchers from the Hausa tribe started fighting tournaments with local communities — was born out of a native pride and a need for cultural preservation. “I’m from Northern Nigeria and I’m a very proud Arewa person so I wanted to do an event that was centered around combat sports and wasn’t conventional. So I picked Dambe. Dambe is a grass root sport in Northern Nigeria which is as old as Nigeria itself. It’s a warrior sport. It starts and ends in the grass roots, it never comes to the city. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to do it in Abuja and bring it to the city. Bring people out, let’s educate them about the sport.”
Floating her agency, along with her other businesses, hasn’t been the easiest task, Shuaibu confesses. “Trying to get support, trying to get funding, trying to get sponsorships. It’s hard when you’re on the come up and you’re not taking money from alcohol companies and betting companies for religious reasons, for me. You have to find other means of raising funds. Also, trying to get the conversation started as a woman. In trying to convince people that sports business is big business, it’s a rough journey.” But during our short time together, Shuaibu spoke with a searing confidence that suggested a mettle that would take some shaking. “Partnerships. That’s my theme for this year. If it’s at the end of the earth, I’m gonna go find it. Our goals are big goals and we can’t do it alone because it involves the whole country… Sports development requires infrastructure, healthcare, lawyers, merchandising, broadcasting, media, so many things and there aren’t a lot of us doing that so the idea is to hopefully along the way find people that are interested in this industry, let them start up things of their own that can influence our ecosystem because there are just a lot of gaps” she tells me, before heading out to check out the Skate shop a floor below ours, like the true sports junkie that she is.