Oral Tracey | The ups and downs of franchise sports
Having attended all but one of the home games of the Jamaica Tallawahs this season in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), I got a first-hand view and feel of the disappointment, and in some cases, anger and bewilderment of the home fans. In one of those sombre moments, it dawned on me how unpredictable and downright risky franchise sport can be, due to the unpredictable and cyclical nature of professional sport.
During one of the wretched Tallawahs performances, I had the privilege of meeting the owner of the franchise, and members of the management team. Even from the brief exchange of pleasantries, the disappointment bordering on despondency was clear to see, not just in response to the poor performances of the team, but from the poor crowd turnout.
All of this is in the context of the wide-ranging debates that raged during last season about the partial and possible total relocation of the Tallawahs franchise. The ownership, with the support of some new sponsors, subsequently made the commitment to play all five home games at Sabina Park, with the even more forthright assurance that the Tallawahs are in Jamaica to stay, only for those decisions to be met with the most disastrous performances of the team, and the resultant lukewarm crowd support.
Talks of a franchise system as a kind of ‘pie in the sky’ panacea have also permeated local football in recent times, without much thought or research going into the nuances of such. One of the biggest debilitating factors against the viability of sporting franchises in Jamaica is the notorious lack of loyalty of Jamaican sports fans, as the Tallawahs ownership can now attest to. If, for example, Chris Gayle and Andre Russell were firing on all cylinders, and speedster Oshane Thomas and company were routinely knocking over opposing batsmen, and the Tallawahs were winning, Sabina Park would be filled to capacity with loud-cheering fans, for every single game. But the consummate ‘wagonists’ that Jamaican fans are, wretched performances begets wretched crowd support. Any serious discussions about franchise sport in Jamaica will have to confront this unique ‘wagonist‘ culture.
A contrasting example is the New York Knicks basketball franchise in the NBA. Despite being in the largest city in the United States, the Knicks have not been to an NBA final in 20 years and have not won a championship since 1973. However, it is still a huge challenge to get a ticket to watch a Knicks home game at Madison Square Garden. The USA, in general, and especially the city of New York, are steeped in a franchise sporting culture. The jury is still out on Jamaica’s readiness for franchise sports.
During the debate about the possible relocation of the Tallawahs, the common sentiment was that Jamaica, as the largest cricket-playing island in the region, with such a rich cricket culture and tradition, must have our own CPL franchise, and it would be a travesty for us to keep playing most of our home games on foreign soil, with the then distinct possibility of losing the franchise completely. The ownership of the Tallawahs then responded to those cries, and made the sacrifice to keep the team at home, only to be greeted with on-field mediocrity and spectator indifference.
My personal perspective is beginning to evolve with this reality, exacerbated by that indelible look of despair that was etched on the face of the Tallawahs owner on seeing the team slump to another of their several defeats in a half-empty Sabina Park.