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Jonathan Michael walked into one of the shop spaces on the top floor of a three-story business plaza in Abuja, Nigeria. He selected four soccer matches on one of three available desktops, made his predictions, and collected his receipt stub from the shop attendant.
It’s a weekly ritual for Michael, who works at a barbershop in the same plaza. He placed his first sports bet in 2017, and now spends no more than two dollars at his weekly visits.
Sports betting is a lucrative business in Nigeria and the most common type of gambling. In 2014, about 60 million Nigerians placed sports bets worth $4.99 million on a daily basis. That number steadily increased as more betting companies opened up outlets in similar shop spaces across the country.
Many participants see betting as a way to gain extra cash in the country’s struggling economy, and the prevalent soccer culture also boosts sports betting. Yet most sports gamblers lose money in betting.
More than 50 companies in Nigeria now provide access to betting in multiple leagues. Gamblers can predict the final score, a draw, or whether the home or visiting team will win, among other options.
Back at the bet shop, Michael agrees that economic hardship, backed by a love for soccer, pushed him to give it a shot: “At least if I could make money, it will help me.”
Yet in the past two years, he’s never won more than $4. Joseph Habu, a 26-year-old who comes in to bet at least four days a week, started playing the sport in 2016 and still has not secured a major win.
But it’s the few success stories that garner public attention. In March, one betting company announced that Michael Arowosegbe—a student—won $2,772 after correctly predicting 13 games.
Keleenna Onyeaka, an investment banking analyst, explained that, statistically, betting is designed for gamblers to lose. The companies begin the process by only revealing a fraction of the odds for each game.
“The reason they are able to do this is because they have a lot more and better quality data, which helps them get closer to the true probabilities,” he said. “Once they have this, then they can mathematically calculate the odds they offer us in order both to attract us to bet while staying one step ahead statistically.”
To keep business moving when soccer leagues are off-season, some companies offer virtual gaming, which uses computer-generated outcomes. They also offer betting on tennis and dog racing and through online casinos.
The international market has cashed in on the craze. British online betting firm Betway has opened branches in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. Slovakian DOXXbet and Russian-based 1XBet also operate in Nigeria.
In Kenya, the government last year introduced a 15 percent tax on gambling operators and a 20 percent tax on bettors’ winnings.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in January opted to stop licensing sports betting companies completely. He said sports gambling diverts the attention of youths from hard work and encourages capital flight by foreign-owned companies. He called for financial literacy efforts to educate Nigerians about the cons of gambling.
Modestus Ahamefuna, a full-time gambler, disagrees with the idea that gambling promotes laziness. The mechanical engineering graduate lost his job last year and embraced gambling to sustain himself while searching for another job.
Ahamefuna said it requires time and effort to study the game and successfully forecast the outcome. He once bet less than $7 and won $1,000. But the week I met him, he lost at least $140 and couldn’t afford to pay for cooking gas.
Jonathan Michael, the barbershop worker, hasn’t had any big wins, “but I keep on playing—[and] hopefully one day.”