Making pro football in Jamaica viable
Garfield Sinclair, Guest Columnist
Jamaica's place on the international scene has been due largely to the successes of our sportsmen and sportswomen. From the days of George Headley, Herb McKenley and Arthur Wint to today's stars such as Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Chris Gayle, Jamaica has ruled the roost in sporting prowess.
Victory for Jamaica evokes emotions to such an extent that crime is reduced for short periods. The annual Boys & Girls' Athletic Championships and some World Cup football qualifiers consistently sell out the National Stadium, proving that Jamaicans have a huge appetite for top-class sporting events.
Spanning over half a century, the National Premier League (NPL) has been home to some of the greatest footballing talent Jamaica has ever produced, most notably Lindy Delapenha, Ricardo 'Bibi' Gardner, Theodore 'Tappa' Whitmore and Donovan Ricketts. Today, the NPL, run by the Professional Football Association of Jamaica (PFAJ), is the highest semi-professional football league in the country, played (annually) over a nine-month period running from September through to May. Twelve primarily Kingston and St Catherine-based teams participate in the competition, which is currently structured in a hybrid league/play-off format. The league's commercial prospects have also improved dramatically over time under the stewardship of the Premier League Clubs Association (PLCA).
Covering more than 200 games, the league is the centrepiece of the only sport that touches virtually every community in Jamaica in one way or another. Each of the NPL teams serves as an inspiration for community cohesion and unity unlike any other social institution in the country. These communities are as diverse as the Effortville-based Humble Lion FC in rural Clarendon to that of Montego Bay United, which covers the ambit of St James. The players who represent the teams of the National Premier League are generally considered local heroes as oftentimes, they hail from the very communities in which they play.
Independent studies have shown that the share of television audience watching TV during the broadcasts of the National Premier League can be as high as 80 per cent in St James, with the share in Kingston and St Andrew at close to 60 per cent, and in St Catherine, above 67 per cent. The socio-economic share of the viewing audience ranges from over 75 per cent of the lower-middle- income bracket to just over 57 per cent in the upper-middle-income bracket. When looking at age groups, the share of the coveted 18- to -30-year-old bracket was nearly 70 per cent!
Despite these positive aspects of the NPL, too few clubs are economically viable. Only recently, the president of the Tivoli Gardens Football Club, Edward Seaga, openly contemplated pulling the club out of the 2014-15 season, citing financial-viability issues. The question, therefore, is, how can we build on the rich history of the NPL to create economically viable clubs and to set the foundation for an even more successful national programme?
GERMAN LESSONS FOR JA
At the Euro 2000 championship, Germany bowed out after failing to win any of their three matches. That humiliation prompted the German government, the German FA (DFB) and the German Football League (DFL) to focus on a top-to-bottom-player development strategy that has borne fruit. The DFB ploughed millions of euros into building youth academies across the Bundesliga's top tiers.
A tactical blueprint was laid out for the DFB's junior teams, so a player rising through the age groups had continuity, while DFB coaches scouted playgrounds and sports fields for talent. Despite reaching the 2002 World Cup final, Germany again exited in the first round of Euro 2004. They lost in consecutive semi-finals to eventual winners Italy when they hosted the World Cup in 2006, and to Spain in South Africa in 2010. Four years later in Brazil, the German master plan bore its ultimate fruit when the team hoisted the World Cup in a memorable win over Argentina.
While Jamaica does not have the level of resources that Germany possesses, I believe we can learn very valuable lessons from the rise of German football. By pooling the resources of all stakeholders, including the Government, we can create and execute our own tactical blueprint to achieve great success on the international stage.
At its recent strategic-planning retreat, the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) announced its intention to improve the quality and attractiveness of the NPL by restructuring it with 10 franchises allocated on an equitable islandwide basis. This would centre around increased support from corporate Jamaica and is proposed to be implemented for the 2015-16 season.
The JFF has already commenced the development of a blueprint for the establishment of the franchise system. This requires wide stakeholder consultations with Government, those experienced in successfully establishing franchises in the Caribbean (cricket T20 Caribbean Premier League) and in the wider CONCACAF, potential franchise holders and sponsors, officials, parish associations, existing NPL clubs and their association, the PLCA, to name a few.
All over the world, governments play a catalytic role in the development of sports in general, and football in particular. Therefore, despite our tight fiscal situation, we believe our Government will facilitate the upgrading of some existing facilities, as well as play a substantive role in developing new infrastructure.
The JFF is committed to making football an even greater contributor to the socio-economic development of this country. We believe that a franchise system-based Professional Football League is viable if all key stakeholders pool their mental and financial resources to make this happen. Yes, we can!