Trinidad and Tobago Pro League CEO Dexter Skeene admitted that the local top flight competition is facing the toughest fight of its 14 year existence, as uncertainty over government funding and the poor economic climate are among several factors overshadowing the 2016/17 season.
Defending champions Central FC, who won successive Pro League and Caribbean Cup titles over the past two seasons, are looking increasingly vulnerable after losing two title sponsors—SIS and Bankers Insurance—in the past year.
Skeene admitted that Central were in financial dire straits and had even broached the idea of participating in the 2016/17 CONCACAF Champions League while taking a hiatus from the Pro League.
The Champions League raised its allowance to participating clubs from US$40,000 (TT$265,500) to US$75,000 (TT$498,000) per away game, which means the “Couva Sharks” would collect US$150,000 (TT$996,000) for their trips to Honduras and Mexico in the tournament’s group stage.
It is unlikely that CONCACAF would allow Central to participate in its showcase club tournament under those circumstances, even if the Pro League board did.
But Skeene insisted that Central, like the Pro League’s nine other clubs, were expected back next season.
“We had a board meeting [last week] and all the clubs were discussing the new season,” Skeene told Wired868. “The general consensus is that things are tight. With the subvention cut, the clubs are talking about rearranging for new season.
“Central said there are challenges but they didn’t say they are out. Everybody is talking to sponsors and reviewing their processes.”
Central might have as many internal issues as they do external ones.
Skeene confirmed that the Sharks, who are led by former Sport Minister Brent Sancho and Kevin Harrison, received TT$600,000 in prize money in April for their successful 2014/15 title run. The Pro League is due to make an additional TT$260,000 payment to Central soon.
However, Wired868’s checks revealed that they are yet to pay bonuses to players and staff.
The Pro League CEO said the club’s former captain, Marvin Oliver, will be paid since he lodged a complaint directly with the governing body. The remaining Central players and staff members are believed to be negotiating directly with the club.
Sancho and Harrison also face a Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) investigation for four matters related to alleged corruption and/or financial mismanagement at the Sharks.
However, current TTFA president David John-Williams, who is also the owner of Pro League club, W Connection, has not addressed the Central matter since his election on 29 November 2015.
Ironically, John-Williams has faced complaints about his own behaviour as a club owner. He was involved in a two month stand off between Connection and its young forward Dwight Quintero before the club belatedly agreed to pay for its employee’s emergency operation in April.
Central are not the only Pro League entity who are struggling financially though, after the Ministry of Sport cut its subvention to clubs from TT$80,000 per month to TT$50,000.
The Pro League clubs are uncertain about even the reduced subvention for next term and there were suggestions that the board might delay the start of the 2016/17 Pro League season until after the October budget to be sure of government aid. The season is otherwise expected to commence in early September.
However, Morvant Caledonia United co-founder Jamaal Shabazz believes rumours that the government might scrap its subvention altogether are probably a case of scaremongering.
“A member of Central FC first alerted [the board] to that concern about the subvention,” said Shabazz. “I, for one, am not unduly worried. No such communication has come from the Ministry or Sports Company.”
Skeene and Shabazz both raised several ideas for revitalising the Pro League and boosting the financial health of its stakeholders. Not for the first time, community grounds were a key talking point.
Skeene hinted that the short-term future of Japs North East Stars, who were Pro League champions in 2004, might rely on their ability to source a ground.
The Sangre Grande-based club were forced to play their home games as far away as Couva last season since the Larry Gomes Stadium in Malabar does not have functioning lights, and cannot facilitate kick offs later than 4 pm.
Ironically, Jabloteh’s decision to move their home games to the Barataria Recreation Ground last season, which was greeted by an immediate spike in supporters, was scuttled after a few games as at least one team refused to play there.
“There was a concern about the security [at the Barataria Recreation Ground] by one of the clubs,” said Skeene, “so I will look at it on a case by case basis. But I will push [for community grounds] as much as possible.
“Some clubs are willing to do it and others don’t and prefer to play in the stadiums.”
Morvant Caledonia definitely fall into the latter category and Shabazz insisted that local teams would not need financial aid if the government keeps its promise to deliver community grounds.
Skeene said the Pro League will survive.
“[The financial climate] has now forced all of us to relook at the model and work towards playing in the communities, even if it means playing in less than ideal conditions” said the Pro League CEO. “I am looking at community development programmes and we also want to work more with [influential] people inside communities.
“In challenging times, it pushes you to focus and [to] do what is needed to operate in the way you have to to be sustainable in the long term; and not just focus on playing games and relying on the subvention.”
The local professional game started in 1999 as the Professional Football League (PFL) but was left for dead, three years later, when then FIFA vice-president and TTFF special advisor Jack Warner withdrew financial support for the competition.
Within three months of the PFL’s collapse in 2002, eight clubs started the Pro League which now has 14 years under its belt.
“For two years, we played without prize money just to ensure that the concept of professional football continued,” said Shabazz. “And the teams like Jabloteh, W Connection, Caledonia and Defence Force are the survivors of [the group that made] that decision.
“I think the Pro League’s survival is a tremendous achievement and those who want to see a return to amateur football, in my view, are taking the easy way out.”
Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team head coach Stephen Hart said in a previous interview that it would be disastrous for the Soca Warriors if the Pro League folds. Shabazz and Skeene agreed.
“The Pro League provides coaches, administrators and players with the opportunity to focus full time and affords them more time to develop their skills,” said Shabazz. “It is going to be very difficult for coach Stephen Hart to depend on players who are doing a regular job and have to get time off from their employers. We cannot go back to that way when all we need is a little more ambition, more critical thinking and execution of a pathway forward.
“Caledonia is by no means among the haves; but we refuse to just roll over and play dead.”
Skeene suggested that the Pro League may hold a symposium to hear ideas on the way forward from interested parties outside of the football family.