He fought the good fight.
Those five words sound like the opening for a eulogy but TT Pro League fans are hoping that the departure of outgoing CEO Dexter Skeene will not mean the death of the local professional league.
On Friday, the 53-year-old former Trinidad and Tobago forward announced to the Board at a Pro League meeting that he proposes to move on, leaving behind the league he has led for the last 14 years. And although, Pro League club owners asked him to stay on for another month—perhaps hoping for a change of heart—Skeene says the die is cast. When he turns 54 on All Fool’s Day, Dexter Skeene will officially be the ex-CEO of the TTPL.
“Some people may have gotten a hint that it was coming,” Skeene told Wired868 on Saturday, “but they were surprised. And they asked me to stay on for a month and I said yes. I’ll be around to help with the transition process when the other person comes in.”
One short year ago, Skeene proclaimed that “The TT Pro League will overcome. We will prevail.” So was it some straw that broke the camel’s back? Or greener pastures that beckon?
Skeene says that there are things on the table but his decision was the result of divine intervention.
“I’m a Christian and every morning—or evening—I meditate and pray to God for guidance,” said the former Alcons and Maple standout, noting that 14 years in any organisation was a very lengthy stay. “He leads me and, […] with discussion and prayer, [I realised] it was time to move on after 14 years.
“I mean, football is my passion. I was trying to make a contribution to local football and, after 14 years, God is telling me to move on to other things and create some other pathways.”
“I have a youth club so I think I could spend more time with that,” Skeene continued, “as I think I have neglected that over the years. So I’ll be involved in that and I will try to bring my experience there as well as other things people have been discussing with me…”
Skeene is not turning his back on the League entirely, though. He will remain available to provide whatever assistance of any sort he can and, once called upon, to assist the Board in any way he can.
“I told them I would be willing to assist wherever I can when it comes to Trinidad and Tobago football, particularly with the youth.”
Asked whether that meant that he would be working to get the 2018 Pro League season started at the end of March, as San Juan Jabloteh chairman Jerry Hospedales suggested to Wired868 on Friday, Skeene said the aim was to start in mid-April.
Hospedales also told Wired868 that discussions were still ongoing with Skeene and he was not entirely convinced that the Skeene decision was final.
What Hospedales and Skeene are convinced of is that the Pro League needs to be at optimum strength if this country wishes to see the best from its national team. So Skeene is hopeful that bright young people who are passionate about football—like he was a decade and a half ago—will step up and take responsibility for getting the Pro League back on track, which, he freely admits, is no mean challenge.
“I am confident there are young, bright people out there who will get involved,” Skeene declared.
As a bright, young Columbia University graduate a decade and a half ago, Skeene was approached by the then TTPL chairman, Larry Romany, who had a vision to make the League one essential element in a fruitful Trinidad and Tobago sports industry.
“When Larry Romany approached me 14 years ago, I told him ‘no’ because I did not want to be involved in administration really,” Skeene told Wired868, “He convinced me that […] for proper youth development, you had to have a proper pathway and a professional football league. And I said lemme give it a try.”
So his acceptance of an administrative role, he says, was really because he saw it as a chance “to give young men the opportunity to play and have professional football [and] be just like a doctor, lawyer or engineer who had a full-time job.”
Goal achieved? Not really. Why? There is no easy answer.
Skeene laments that the necessary vision is lacking.
“To me, it’s inconceivable how the powers-that-be could not use sport and something like football to unite people and get youngsters excited, to educate and to develop them.
“That has been mind-boggling to me. What I understand now is that, if you have never done it and you have never been involved in it, you can’t understand it. You could talk it but your actions will always reveal the true understanding that you have for the topic.”
The upshot is that successive governments have helped the League by providing monthly subventions over the years but that really is a reflection of their shortsightedness.
Citing the pivotal role Lamar Hunt played in getting Major League Soccer (MLS) up and running, he says, “We need football-friendly facilities in Trinidad and Tobago where you will upgrade fields in the communities,” Skeene said. “And we have identified them.”
“Over the years, the government has been saying, ‘yes, yes’ but they have never done it. My hope is that Government understands and […] puts the right measures in place so that we could have public-private partnerships just like the MLS did to have soccer-specific stadia, as they called it.”
The clubs are not blameless, he implied, having failed to capitalise on government generosity to achieve—or at least to move towards—self-sufficiency.
“The most difficult thing is to get people to understand that it’s not just about playing football; it’s the business of football,” Skeene declared. “And part of the reliance on the government subvention […] it made people just focus on football because the money was easy.”
At the level of the directors too, the vision failed. Although the model has worked all over the world, those in charge did not really understand that success depends on constituting a solid fan base.
“It’s about a club being represented in a community and the fans having that emotional connection with a club,” said Skeene. “And from there the fan base will build and gate receipts will come and you will start seeing the revenue streams in terms of sponsorship, merchandising and television rights.
“[The MLS pioneers] understood what was needed to build a professional sport industry but we don’t have that. Here, we have businessmen who buy and sell.”
So is there or is there not hope for the future? The former national player reckons that the current process of national belt tightening might bring benefits for football in the long run.
“It’s a good thing […] because now you have to focus on […] doing the right things to earn money to generate the revenue streams required for professional football. Those who intend to survive will have to do the right things.”
And after 14 years of often thankless toil, of preaching essentially the same sermon, Skeene is keen to do the right thing and leave the pulpit to the eulogists. And the critics.
Dexter Skeene has fought the good fight.