Editorial: The Professionalization of Sports in Saint Lucia

Sports as a profession in Saint Lucia. Is it possible? Why has it not happened yet? Sporte Avis Editor Ronaldo Degazon, student of the University of Pennsylvania, delves into the issue in research conducted by him during August 2014.   The research was aimed at discovering the possibility of professionalizing sport in Saint Lucia, and to uncover the reasons why it has not been done as yet.

With all the clamor about youth unemployment in our country (which currently stands at a staggering 28.5%) one possible remedy always comes to mind. Too often do I see outrageously talented athletes suppressing their world class ability only to settle for a mediocre academic job. Too often do I see absolutely gifted athletic young men trickle into the mass of delinquents and unemployed.

And one question always comes to my mind – why hasn’t sport been made professional in St. Lucia?Image result for sports as a career

To investigate this issue, I tried to get information on as many sports in St.Lucia as possible, however, I was only successful with football and track & field. Moreover, I conducted an interview with Jim Xavier – Sporting Director at the Ministry of Youth & Sports – about sports on a whole.

My first burgeoning question was “Have there ever been any attempts at professionalizing sports in St. Lucia?” From my research, there actually were attempts but only in the discipline of football.

In the early 2000’s the SLFA had discussions with St. Lucian Premiere League Clubs and district teams about getting sponsors to finance an eight team semi-professional football league on the island. Initial talks were held but nothing materialized.

The only other attempt at professionalizing sport in St. Lucia actually extended onto a region wide basis. In the late 1990’s the Caribbean Semi Professional Football League was formed in which a local side called the St. Lucia Panthers took part. However, the league was not successful because the fees paid to the payers were insufficient ($150 for a win, $100 for a draw and $50 for a loss).

Now to the real question that most of us want answered; the question that digs deep into issue; the question that gets to the root of the problem.

Is it actually possible to professionalize any sport in St. Lucia?

Every expert to whom I posed the question gave the same answer; NO.

The largest obstacle in the way is finance and sponsorship. Apart from the earnings of an athlete, expenses such as coaching, venues, medical staff, transportation, and marketing would need to be paid. Businesses in St. Lucia simply are not willing or able to provide the vast amount of funding to cover such expenses.

Another major obstacle is proper infrastructure. Again, I will use football as an example. The only two league standard venues in the country are the George Odlum National Stadium (which is home to a hospital) and the now renamed Darren Sammy CRICKET Ground (and the word CRICKET in all uppercase letters is not a typo). That is simply not acceptable for a professional football league.

Furthermore, athletes and teams need to raise their performance levels significantly so that a professional league can be successful. St. Lucians (who don’t play around with their money … alright maybe some) would not want to dig into their pockets to witness dull and mediocre sport.

Last but not least, St. Lucia lacks a strong enough public interest which is key to the maintenance of any professional league. A strong sport following would ensure that venues are packed for games which would enable clubs to gain substantial revenue from ticket sales. However, you normally find that venues are barely half full for any sporting event on the island.

In order to understand the importance of a strong sport following – here is an excerpt from an interview conducted with Ezi-Hall – a former St. Lucian footballer who played professionally in Jamaica.

”In these territories (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Trinidad) the (professional) clubs are community based and have a strong following. The clubs have their own grounds and can earn revenue from gate receipts. Media coverage is also tremendous and so the sale of broadcasts, corporate sponsorship, gate receipts and transfer fees when their players move to Foreign professional clubs all generate revenue.

When Ricardo Gardner was transferred to his English club in 1998/99 his local Jamaican Club received a transfer fee which allowed them to build a mini stadium. The sporting culture, corporate support and professional resources/services are the key ingredients to the success of these leagues.”

So after weeks of intensive research, based on the information collected, it is safe to assume that it simply is not possible to professionalize sport in St. Lucia. Nevertheless, sporting bodies can still try their best to ensure that young athletes succeed in professionally in other countries. Zaine Pierre, Jeanelle Scheper and Levern Spencer are such examples, but for all the talent that St. Lucia we can do so much more.

Written by: Ronaldo Degazon, Sporte Avis Editor and Student at University of Pennsylvania

Credits:            Francis ‘Parry’ Daniel, Ezi Hall, Jennifer Gaston, Derek George, Carson Millar, Jim Xavier, Martial Charlery

Interview with Football Association Officials (August 2014)

QUESTION: Have there ever been attempts to make football professional or semi-professional in St. Lucia? If yes, can you describe these attempts? Why haven’t they come to fruition? If no, why hasn’t the association made any attempts yet?

 

  • Jennifer Gaston

There have been some attempts but it has been done mainly by Clubs re professional football.  The local Clubs through the contact with some overseas clubs have been able to arrange contracts for their players in professional clubs.  Some players who has been playing professional football are Francis Lastic, Earl Jean (presently a coach now), Georvnie Deterville, Eden Charles (playing in Trinidad), John Perry (playing overseas).

 

  • Ezi Hall

There has never been talk of any level of professional football in St Lucia. However, there has been discussion about forming a Caribbean League (when Stewart Charles was here in 90=91, but there was no follow up since his departure.

  • Carson Miller

Not to my knowledge. The association has been focusing on developing and modifying playing structures, with more than one symposium on the issue and has not discussed, in an open forum, the possibility of professional football.

 

  • Derek George

The was a semi professional side in St. Lucia in the late 1990’s (St. Lucia Panthers) who took part in a Caribbean Semi Professional League. The league was not successful because the fees paid to the payers were small ($150 for a win, $100 for a draw and $50 for a loss). There were 8 team across the Caribbean placed in 2 groups of 4 with round robin home and away games within groups. The issue of running any Professional league would be the fan base to support the league. There may be sponsors but the fan base would be critical. The population in St. Lucia is too small to support a semi professional league where the players are paid a decent salary. If this has to be done then it would require major sponsorship in the 1st five years to assist it getting off the ground.

In the early 2000 to 2005 the SLFA did have s=discussions with the Premiere league Clubs and district about a sponsor coming to set up a semi pro league and they would be financing all the eight teams that would be in the league. Initial talks were held with the clubs and districts playing in the premiere league at the time but nothing materialized.

Interview with Jim Xavier (August 2014)

Ronaldo:      Have there been any previous attempts to fully or semi professionalize sport in St. Lucia?Image result for jim xavier saint lucia

Jim:      Well, to be honest, there hasn’t been much effort been placed in professionalizing or semi-professionalizing sport. The reason is that the sponsorship for sport is so meager that it would not sustain a professional league.

When you look at the private sector, it’s the same people who sponsor (all the time); LUCELEC, COURTS, Bank of St. Lucia, Windward & Leeward Brewery; the same small pool. And that might sustain a little tournament. But if you’re going to professionalize a sport like football which has to be played for most of the year so the guys can earn a living and you need massive sponsorship and with the way the economy is going it would be difficult at least to sustain a professional league in whatever sport from solely local sponsorship. So that is what is putting a damper on efforts to professionalize (sports in St. Lucia).

Not that the sports cannot be professionalized but maybe that the finance to do it has to come from a mixture of both local and external financing. But football and perhaps cricket are the two sports that can be professionalized because they have the national following and the venues nationally so that the persons could come every weekend and so on and support the sports so that the persons can make a living even if it is as semi professional athletes of those two sports since they are the most developed and perhaps track & field thereafter.

Ronaldo:      Is it a case where the private sector really doesn’t have enough money or are the sporting associations not pushing enough to attain those funds.

Jim:      Well both might be right but certainly even if they push hard enough the amount of finance from local sources will not be sufficient. So it’s both. Maybe the reason that they’re not pushing hard enough is because they know that the corporate bodies will not be able to sustain it. So it’s both; they’re not pushing enough and the finance is not there to support professional leagues.

Professional leagues are expensive engagements. You need, apart from paying the professional; the players, you have to get coaches, you need to secure medical people, you have to pay for venues, cleanup crews, the media and transportation; it’s a very costly endeavor.

Ronaldo:      What about the government? Has anybody considered them a key part of professionalizing sport in terms of providing finance?

Jim:      The government can provide some finance as well as technical assistance, transportation, make venues available at low costs or reduce costs and so on but where professional sports work best such as in Trinidad with the professional football league; these have all been private enterprises where local business people inject monies into those sports and they run it in a way that some form of return on their investment can be made. So I think it is better served that if private entities can spearhead the sponsorship and finance for the games and the professional sports.

Ronaldo:      And what about international or regional bodies in terms of funding?

Jim:      Well yes, for instance football received some funding from FIFA, the international body. Most of the other sports that we have don’t receive that substantial amount of international funding.  As a matter of fact, they have to pay dues to the associations.

What they may receive is technical assistance, they may receive some equipment but financing only comes when they are hosting a tournament; maybe get some portion of the finance and they have to find the rest on their own. So even if you have the level of assistance from the regional bodies it will not take you through professionalizing the sport. It will not carry you through given the amount of expenditure that you would need to undertake it ; to get a sport moving from amateur to professional.

Ronaldo:      Do you think that it’s possible or viable for any sport in St. Lucia to be professionalized or semi-professionalized.

Jim:      Well that is the ideal. Ideally, professionalizing sports like football, basketball, track & field; that is the ideal. Because you would be creating employment, not just for the players but for those persons who provide services like transportation services, caterers, police and security people; it will generate employment. However, the infrastructure must be there, the finance must be there and all the other arrangements must be there to ensure that the sport is successfully professionalized.

Ronaldo:      So you don’t think at this moment, that any sport in St Lucia can be made professional or even semi professional.

Jim:      Well I’d like to see football and perhaps cricket; those that are more ready with a national appeal, with crowds, with a national base be professionalized. But the biggest challenge like I’ve been saying all along is the finance to sustain it. For a proper professional league, you need at least six or eight teams and each team would probably have to have an owner/ franchise owner who would take care of the team.

But the thing about it too is that the winnings must be attractive enough. For instance, the winner of the league may have to put up one million dollars or 2 million dollars for the prize monies and so it must be worth the while of the franchises to try to win the championship because it will cost them a pretty penny just preparing and sustaining themselves for the nine months or six months that the league will run for. It’s a huge investment, they have to take care of the players, they have to house them, they have to pay coaching staff because once you professionalize you have to pay for everything. No volunteers. The CUIA needs to make money; they’ll even want their share of the pie as well.

Ronaldo:      So a yes or no answer. Do you see, at this moment, any sport in St. Lucia being able to go professional?

Jim:      Not at this time. There’s too much work to be done. There’s the issue of the finance which is critical. The only thing is if we are blessed to get external finance; somebody like an Allan Stanford to inject some serious money into (lets) say the sport of football so that 6 or 8 clubs around the island can form a professional league. But, given the private sector situation in St. Lucia, it is difficult and I don’t see it happening in the near future unless some drastic changes are made.

Ronaldo:      What private sector situation are you talking about? Is it the fact that the economy is just recovering from a recession or the fact that the private sector in a small island like this is just not strong enough.

Jim:      Well both the recession and the private sector, they are not accustomed to making huge investments in sports development in any case. They might just give an association maybe ten or fifteen thousand dollars to run a tournament. In some other cases, fifteen or twenty thousand may not even be enough for running a tournament. It covers some of the costs and the association has to complete the remainder of the bill on their own. Much less, asking to sponsor a professional league.

And the other thing to is to be professional, you need to improve the standard of your game because persons will now be asked to pay to come view the games and pay substantial amounts. So you must ensure that the quality of your play, the quality of organization, the playing surfaces, volunteers; everything is. So everything must be in place. Even if you have the finance, you must ensure that the systems are in place to run a professional league properly.

Ronaldo:      Are you aware of any other Caribbean territories similar to us in size who have professional sports.

Jim:      Well Trinidad has a professional football league with six clubs and they have semi-pro cricket where, even some St. Lucians have gone on to play semi-pro cricket; they get paid for a certain period of time just during the league. They make provisions for a certain number of overseas players to come.

But the semi-pro cricket is on a small scale and the pro league has been going on for at least ten years now. That is a success story (the pro league). Barbados has semi-pro cricket I think. That’s to show you how difficult it is to run a (professional league). Given the small size of the economies and even the small size of the private sector it makes it so much difficult to get the kind of sponsorship that is necessary to run a successful professional league.

In St. Lucia for example if you are to get local sponsorship for a professional league there would have to be the coming together of a number of business places. For instance, maybe Windward & Leeward Brewery may not be able to sponsor the entire league so they would have to come up and form a joint venture with a number of other companies just to get the sort of league that one would want to see undertake.

Ronaldo:      And are you aware of any other countries apart from Trinidad and Barbados who have professional leagues? And if so what do you think is the difference between those countries and St. Lucia? What difference has made professional sprots possible in their country as opposed to ours?

Jim:      Well, two main fundamental things. One, the availability of better quality facilities but two, the larger private sector, the more vibrant economy and also the level of coaching and technical expertise in these countries. And that’s why they are performing better than the smaller islands where everything is amateur; Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, the OECS and the Leeward Islands; everything is amateur.

Ronaldo:      If professional sports aren’t available in our country, and there are professional sports available in other countries. What do you think about St. Lucia preparing its athletes to be able to go to other countries and to succeed at professional sports there?

Jim:      Certainly that is the goal of both the Ministry and the National Associations; to prepare our elite athletes to excel. Not just to represent St. Lucia but to develop careers and to become professionals in sport as a means of earning a living. Over the years, we’ve increased the number of athletes who’ve gone on to the national scale and who’ve gone on to excel in sports. And we will continue to prepare them, continue to expose them to international meets, qualified coaches, and the best coaches possible to develop their skills so that they can move on and to become professional and to earn a living in the sport but at the same time representing St. Lucia at higher level games like the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games and so on.

Ronaldo:      How well do you think the government and sporting associations are doing in the above mentioned task?

Jim:      Well as I said earlier on we are increasing in numbers of persons who are going to the professional realm as far as possible. So that means that some work is being done but the truth is that we have to continue to work a little harder. To increase the numbers, we have to get better qualified coaches, elite coaches; coaches who could develop elite athletes. Because as you pointed out earlier we have the talent in St. Lucia; that’s not the problem. Developing it to the international level is the biggest challenge.

Now there are some coaches, there are some disciplines where we have the coaches locally to take the athletes to the next level. There are some disclipines where we don’t have. What we need to do is to bring the coaches from outside where we do not have and to encourage and continue to develop programmes for the disclipline that we have the ability to take them to the international level.

For instance cricket we have the coaches here who develop international cricketers. Maybe football. Perhaps table tennis we do not have that level of coaching. For instance we are just about trying to secure a qualified coach from Taiwan; a table tennis coach to work with the association to develop more elite level table tennis coaches. So there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that we develop their talent to the international level where they could become professional in their sport.

Ronaldo:      Well you mentioned bringing in a coach from Taiwan but what about our homegrown coaches.

Jim:      Yes, well what would happen is that the overseas (Taiwanese) coach will work with our coaches here, try to impart the skills to them so that when he returns (to Taiwan) and the end of two years, they can continue the program; they can continue to impart the skills and to develop the players to that international level.

Ronaldo:      Are there any special relationships with foreign organizations like Universities where certain could get scholarships?

Jim:      Well yes we have a sports scholarship desk here where we contact universities, we contact schools in the international community so that we could get places for our outstanding athletes. It’s on a small scale but it is developing. Also the associations have their direct contacts as well like track & field, volleyball and so on. But that area needs to be strengthened and we need to identify more colleges so that our athletes could get more scholarships. Having said so, we need to improve the standard as well because its not just about identifying the schools but students must meet the standards for qualification. So it’s a two-fold thing; we need to identify more schools but we need to improve the standards of the performance of our athletes because they are competing with people from around the world.

Ronaldo:      In what ways can the private sector assist a country in its sporting development? How crucial are they?

Jim:      Well the private sector is a key partner in sporting development. For a number of reasons; one the private sector can provide much needed finance to sporting programs. They can also undertake sporting programs for their employees. For example there’s the commercial league volleyball, commercial league football, dominoes, netball and so on.

Critically, the private sector can embrace sports by allowing the workers who make the national teams; give them time off to represent. That is a critical area that we have to look at because in the past, what has happened is that if you’re working with the private sector and you make a national team then you have to take your leave to represent St. Lucia. And what we are saying that this should not be; it needs to be recognized that for national duty you need to be given time off to undertake national duty. SO the private secotr now must be a key component.

Also, the issue of branding. They produce sports goods and health products that are useful for sports. So, some of the organization, for instance, firms, they have particular health drinks and sports goods that they want to promote. So they come on board to sponsor the activities as a means of promoting the activities and their products and that works well for both the private sector and for the sporting discipline. So they get the promotion of their product and of the sport as well.

Ronaldo:      In terms of St. Lucia, how well do you think that the private sector is doing in supporting sporting development?

Jim:      It can do a lot better. Like I said, few private sector bodies support sports in a big way. You have LUCELEC, Windward & Leeward Brewery, Digicel, LIME, COURTS, and a few others. These are the main (businesses). A lot of other agencies can come on board, you have some more of the banks, car companies, the Syrian community; there’s a lot more that can be done.

Ronaldo:      What about the hotels?

Jim:      The hotels, yes; there’s a lot more that they can do. There a hotel football competition. But in terms of sponsorship, in terms of promotion there’s a lot they can do.

Ronaldo:      You mentioned a lot of other businesses that can contribute to sporting development in St. Lucia. Why do you think that they are not doing as much as they can?

Jim:      The thing is, sponsorship is just not about sponsoring a tournament, giving let’s say ten thousand dollars for a competition. They can adopt a school, adopt a community and have a developed mental program. The do not always have to sponsor competitions, they can sponsor a football program in Oleon or whatever and that gives them an opportunity to make a greater developmental contribution to the sport. They will get visibility in the community, they could become a household name in the community and that will help their company to grow. And there are even tax benefits that they could get from sponsorship of the sports at the community level and even at the national level. So there is a whole package that they could look at and it will also be at the benefit of their company.

Ronaldo:      So you mentioned a lot of benefits. Yet you have acknowledged that they can do more. Is it because they are not aware of these benefits or they just see other things more important.

Jim:      I think that they are aware of these benefits. However, sports is not as high on their agenda as maybe other cultural events like Carnival etc. So that may not be the issue, its just that they figure that they could make by without sports.

Ronaldo:      Do you think that the government can do more in providing incentives for these businesses to help sports in the island?

Jim:      Well the incentives are there. Certainly, more can be provided but at this time there are sufficient incentives for companies willing to assist sports in general to benefit from. But maybe the benefits can be more varied and diversified. It may not only be tax breaks but it could be special mentions being made to them at independence for example and they can be given more visibility by the government. But certainly, the benefits are there for whichever company who wants to come on board to sponsor and to promote sports.

Ronaldo:      Do you know of any outstanding private sector – sport relationships in the Caribbean or abroad that we should seek to emulate?

Jim:      Well for instance, sometime ago you had Ciceron Cigars who were sponsored by Bank of St. Lucia. It was a volleyball club in Ciceron that was an exceptional example of a private organization partnering with a community club. The you had the M&C Games in track &field. But now for instance you have the Pinehill Funwalk; although its fun, that’s a good example of a private sector assisting in sports and a healthy lifestyle. For now I think the Pinehill walk is a good example of a private entity coming onboard to promote sports – albeit not competitive but in the fun sports realm. And that is working both for the community and for the private sector body. Ando so when these thing happen both community and private sector body benefit and both enjoy visibility and whatever other benefits are to be enjoyed.

This feature was researched and written by Ronaldo Degazon. Please feel free to leave your comments below and share via social media. Please see our ‘ABOUT US’ page to learn how you can contribute to our platform.

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