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Fri, Oct

Should taxpayers continue to help Pro League? Shabazz, Hospedales, Harrison, Eve and Fakoory speak
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New day, old problems. The Trinidad and Tobago Pro League kicked off as scheduled on 9 June 2017; but the problems are still there: little money, small crowds and general public disinterest.

Or maybe things are worse than usual. Digicel have not renewed their title sponsorship while, for only the second time in the last six years, a Pro League club was not crowned Caribbean champion with that honour going instead to the Dominican Republic’s Cibao FC last month.

And the government’s subvention of TT$50,000 per month for eight of the 10 Pro League clubs—Defence Force and Police FC are excluded—has expired and the league is on tenterhooks as a new application is prepared for Cabinet approval.

On the plus side, San Juan Jabloteh and W Connection appear to have put together teams capable of dethroning reigning champions, Central FC, who just helped themselves to an unprecedented hattrick of League titles.

And, perhaps more importantly, the Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team are still alive in the Russia 2018 World Cup race with a head coach, Dennis Lawrence, who has no fear of pitching local-based players in battle with the best teams in CONCACAF.

Mexico, who are into the semifinals of the ongoing 2017 Confederations Cup, were lucky to escape with a 1-0 win in Port of Spain—remember Trinidad and Tobago ‘scored’ first but had Joevin Jones’ item unfairly disallowed for offside.

And the Warriors team which kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 qualifying win over Panama in March had four local-based players in their rear guard: Jan-Michael Williams, Carlos Edwards, Daneil Cyrus and Curtis Gonzales.

So are the current issues the beginning of the end for the Pro League? Or can the local top flight competition weather the storm?

And, perhaps just as importantly, does Trinidad and Tobago need the Pro League at all?

Wired868 raised the subject of the government subvention, whether taxpayers get value for money, community grounds and the quality of leadership from Pro League CEO Dexter Skeene and former chairman Larry Romany, who resigned his post earlier this month.

San Juan Jabloteh chairman Jerry Hospedales, Central FC operations director Kevin Harrison, Morvant Caledonia United coach and co-founder Jamaal Shabazz, St Ann’s Rangers owner Richard Fakoory and Club Sando coach Angus Eve took time to provide answers.

Wired868: What does the TT$50,000 a month subvention mean for Pro League clubs?

Shabazz: The subvention means a lot. Our monthly expenses are about TT$125,000 to TT$130,000 a month, which is salaries and match day expenses—especially with our youth programme. You take away TT$50,000 from that… (Laughs) It is a lot.

If the subvention was to stop, it would certainly force us to make adjustments but it really represents a percentage of our monthly budget.

Eve: The subvention is very important in the way of youth development and keeping young people out of crime and giving them some sort of direction in their lives. If you look at the National [Athletics] Championships this weekend, you can see we are not people who support sport at grassroots level. So it is difficult for teams to make money from gate receipts because we don’t have that support base where people come out and support.

And the Pro League is fighting an additional issue in that there are no grounds within communities where the teams are playing. Mannie Ramjohn is out of the way and Ato Boldon is hard [to travel to]… People don’t understand that Pro League teams have more than one team. They have an under-13 team, an under-15 team, in terms of Club Sando, we have a women’s team and South Zone team and a Super League team.

It may seem like we are getting a lot of money [from the government] but the owners are putting out way more than that.

Fakoory: If they stop [the subvention], I don’t know. (Pauses) I feel it will continue though. If not [club director Richard] Piper and I will have to sit down and discuss it. We get 40 percent [of our operating budget] from the Sport Company and we carry the other 60 percent… Our [player] salaries are between TT$2,000 and TT$4,000 a month and it is a pay roll around the vicinity of TT$80,000.

Our new sponsors, MIC-IT, help us offset costs like transportation and refreshments after games and they helped make our staff bigger by paying our goalkeeping coach and for us to get an assistant coach and physio. But the government must understand how important that subvention is for us to keep going.

Harrison: I can’t speak for other clubs but I think [without the subvention] the question would be whether we would want to continue. Because it falls on myself and Brent [Sancho] to continue to fund the club as we have been doing for the last 14 or 15 months. The future of Central FC will then be dependent on if [the foreign investment we are pursuing] is going to come through.

What is the point of paying to play in the Pro League with no prize money [and subvention]? What would be our reason to find another TT$600,000 to get through the season? There is no return. It is only because of the interest from abroad that we are continuing but there is no financial logic to continue.

We created a milestone with three league titles and two Caribbean titles, so we have nothing to prove. We can back away with our record and say we have done our bit. What we are doing is we are paying players’ wages with no benefit to the club or for us personally. It is charity. So we will have to look long and hard at it.

We are a step nearer [to foreign investment]. As recently as this week we had a meeting, so we are quite positive. We are looking at alternative investment too like former players investing in the club and taking equity.

We have had the club valued by a professional and [with a 10 year projection] he valued the club in excess of TT$10 million. So maybe we can also go to a share offering or something like that.

Wired868: What does Pro League offer Trinidad and Tobago in return for this investment of taxpayers’ money?

Eve: Look at the same national team which the Prime Minister and Sport Minister put on their red jerseys and go out and support. All the players on that team come from the Pro League and are there because they were developed in the Pro League.

Kevin Molino just got one of the biggest contracts in the MLS and he didn’t leave Trinidad until the age of 23. By then, all of his development was already done as a player and that came in the Pro League.

We are developing young men to get better lives for themselves. [St Ann’s Rangers defender] Aquil Selby got seven shots in the Harp. He was not a gangster by the way. Now, he and his mom have a house in Oropune and he was able to get a loan for that based on his playing in the Pro League.

[San Juan Jabloteh winger] Nathan Lewis was shot several times in his community. If it wasn’t for Jabloteh who stood by him and paid his wages and took care of him, who knows if he would have gone back after the guy—like what tends to happen in these communities. Instead because he had that grounding from the Pro League, he is now representing the Trinidad and Tobago National Team.

This is an invaluable service that the government is providing; and they are not just creating jobs but helping in crime. In fact, I think the money should also be spread around more ministries like Community Development, Education and National Security.

Parents tell you all the time about the discipline their children get from training and being part of a team. Many of those kids don’t have an educational background but they have a skill and we are investing in that.

Hospedales: Without the Pro League, you cannot have a quality national football team because the Pro League has been producing the national team ever since it started. If you look at the career path of the entire national team now […] they all came from the Pro League.

Each Pro League club has a youth programme and on every given Sunday from March to July, each has 75 to 100 young players on the field. That is contributing to the social development of young people and if they take it out I don’t know what will happen…

We believe we are contributing to the career development of young people. How can people say the Pro League is not doing well for national football and yet they put on their red jersey and go to watch the national team? Where did they think those players came from?

Fakoory: We reached Germany and we can still reach Russia. The whole squad that played [for Trinidad and Tobago in their last World Cup qualifier] in Costa Rica all passed through the Pro League. The Pro League clubs are developing great youths and we are all doing things for the youths.

I am doing this for 38 years and I know how players are and sometimes they don’t appreciate it—although they play for free and we wash their uniforms and prepare and do everything for them. But I know we are doing our part.

The amount of money I put out, my family always ask me: ‘Richard, what are you doing?’ But I cannot give it up and I cannot let all that time and effort go [in vain].

Shabazz: To me, in an economic crisis and in a high crime scenario, sports and culture as an industry should be the target of any shrewd economic mind in control of the treasury. Because it generates mass participation and [financial] turnover. If you have an affordable game in the community, commerce takes place from the taxi man come down to the corn soup man. And it is the same with cultural activities.

And then there is also the participation of young people who are taken away from that idleness and criminal influence. And we have young players from Beetham, Beverly Hills, Sea Lots, Morvant…

Wired868: How do you rate the work done by Pro League CEO Dexter Skeene and recently departed chairman Larry Romany over the last 10-plus years?

Fakoory: They had gotten us a sponsor with Digicel and from my angle, I am catching my tail to get a sponsor. So I can see how difficult it is. And Larry always gave me good advice. Now that Larry has gone, we have Sam Phillip to hold on and he is with us until the end of the season. But we need somebody to be able to market the Pro League [because] nobody wants to sponsor or help out football.

I can’t say [Romany and Skeene] did good or bad; they did the best they could do. I wish they could have done more for us in terms of getting money but I am glad for what they did.

Hospedales: They have kept the league alive. When we formed this league [and] the government began to fund us, one of the conditions was they would create community facilities for the League to be played in. But that never came out. Both spectator interest and sponsorship interest are not facilitating by the distance of Pro League games from their communities, so it was difficult for us to get spectators and sponsors.

So the financial model didn’t work.

Harrison: I think Dexter [Skeene] has been battling on his own to a degree. Larry [Romany] has been a good chairman and steered the board [but] from what I understand, he was brought on to tap into the private sector and bring in money. But it is no better now than then. In fact, it is worse.

From a stewardship point of view, [Romany] did a good job but if he was brought on to tap into the corporate market then where is the money?

At the moment, we are playing for nothing [because there is no prize money]. I am sure that Dexter will pull something out of the bag and we will get something; but we still have not been paid our prize money for the last two years and I have no idea when we will get it. It is sitting on our balance sheet as a plus but we still don’t have it.

Shabazz: I think they have given a good effort and they have done well to be fair…  The League belongs to the clubs; it is a board of directors. So [Romany and Skeene] carry out the dictate of the clubs. If people say they haven’t done a good job what that really means is we as the board haven’t done a good job.

It is a collective process and all of us have to accept responsibility for where we are; they don’t make decisions on their own at all. We pride ourselves on the fact that we broke away from the [Jack] Warner-type situation where every club could have a member on the board and make decisions independent of the TTFA. We pride ourselves on that.

If any people want to cast aspersions on the leadership of Skeene, I think they are being a bit mischievous in terms of how decisions are arrived at in the League. The board makes the decisions.

Wired868: The Pro League says community grounds are the future but there seems to be some inconsistency about that. Where do you stand?

Eve: There are a couple clubs who probably think we are the English Premier League and they only want to play on a particular standard of pitch. But some of these community grounds just need a little work; and we need to start somewhere.

There is a level of inconsistency [among the Pro League clubs] but I have advocated that we need to play in the communities. I understand the concern by coaches but if you look at the St Mary’s College and Fatima College grounds, they don’t have great facilities and infrastructure but the surface is good. If the government partners with us and at least fix the surface of these grounds, we can work with that…

Tottenham will be playing in Wembley this season, which is England’s national stadium that their government spent millions of pounds to build. West Ham will be playing in the Olympic Stadium and a lot of [England Premier League] teams play in venues owned by their city corporations who help pay for maintenance.

Teams in the NFL and MLS get government funding for their venues too. All the stadia in Russia were built by their government. The Azteca Stadium in Mexico was built by their government when they held the World Cup. Even Nelson Mandela’s last plane flight was to come to Trinidad [as a guest of then FIFA vice-president Jack Warner] because he understood the importance of getting the World Cup in South Africa.

It is a great misconception that governments don’t help professional sport all over the world.

Hospedales: It is very difficult for youths to get from Bourg Mulatresse to the Ato Boldon Stadium and the financial model cannot work [if your supporters cannot get to your games]. You know what it costs to travel from Bourg Mulatresse to Ato Boldon?

If the stadia were developed like originally planned, then we would get money at the gates and people will come and then sponsors will bring their goods to advertise. So that half of our model didn’t happen.

[Prime Minister] Dr [Keith] Rowley said community grounds will come next after the Brian Lara Stadium and that is important because Pro League football in the stadia is not viable. Why should a guy put up a sponsorship board at the stadium with only a handful of people there?

A long time ago we should have had a facility in Bourg Mulatresse with changing rooms and proper fencing and so on where small entrepreneurs can come and make money on a weekly basis and the public can have weekly entertainment. This is what should happen.

We used to get big crowds when we played at the San Juan [North Secondary] school but we were not allowed to continue there [in the Pro League] because it is not a FIFA standard ground.

Shabazz: It is not an inconsistency in the Pro League office, it is an inconsistency with a few people saying with their mouths what they don’t mean. Now there will be a little give in terms of the quality of the surface—and David Nakhid might beat me for saying this!—and the lights won’t be blindingly bright. But I think when we decide a matter in the boardroom, people should keep to it.

I really feel it for North East Stars who had to refund 400 people [after their game against Central FC was called off due to concerns about lighting and field marking].

The reality is the community facilities are not up to the standard of the five stadia but they are more likely to get spectators. It is a work in progress; we have to get them upgraded but in the meantime we have to utilise them.

My team loves to put down the ball and play but it is a minor discomfort when compared to the lifeline of the League.

Morvant Caledonia is not afraid of losing the subvention, once we get the land. We are a different kind of slave. We’d rather struggle on [our] feet than die on we knees begging those in a party that owes our grandparents and parents for 50 years of blind loyalty and total support even in its darkest hours—33 [seats] to 3.

We are not riding the bandwagon of poor black youths from Laventille begging the PNM government for a cheque every month. We prefer to be granted use of the Morvant Recreation Ground in Park Street.

Once we get the permission or the go ahead, we will find the resources to refurbish it and make it into something even the PNM would be proud of. We as young black youths would be able to help ourselves by generating income at the gates through advertising and sponsorship.

In saying that we are also interested in generating economic growth for the small business people inside the community—namely the corn soup man, the nuts man the lady selling wings and all those people who got to make a dollar when we had the three home games last season in Morvant.