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PFL's failure

January 2002

By TERENCE HILTON CLARKE
 

THE private speculation and “between you and me” chatter have served no purpose. Neither have the euphemisms.

Instead, it is better to just come out and say it: The Professional Football League has failed to make a positive impression on the local public.

This is the only honest conclusion that one can draw at this point. The majority of football fans in this country do not care about the PFL. They don’t. Otherwise there would probably be more than just 50 to 100 people at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on a Sunday afternoon or Wednesday night. Newspapers don’t care about the PFL either - they have relegated coverage of the league to the inner pages of their sports sections.

Only the two commercial television stations have made an effort to provide exposure. As always, they offer highlights that allow us to witness the best parts of the games: the goals, the close chances etc. What they do not show, however, is the low standard of football - one of the main reasons why most of us avoid going to PFL games in the first place. For anyone fed on the diet of top-class international soccer provided by ESPN International and Fox Sports World, the sight of two PFL teams struggling to even create goal-scoring opportunities is not the best of alternatives.
 
Reason No. 2 for the PFL boycott: football fans, for the most part, simply do not identify with the teams that are competing in the league.

Now, the object behind professional team sports is for sides to draw upon an adequate support base - and clubs can only ensure this by representing specific geographic areas or communities. People are always most likely to follow a team that represents their city or town. That is how it was in England a century ago. This is how it is in the United States today. The same holds true for France, Japan, Australia, Germany, Turkey, Argentina, wherever.

This is why Defence Force and Police, in spite of their successful histories, have never attracted a wide following and, as such, are unviable as professional teams. They will never generate sufficient revenue from attendance because they only represent their respective services. As for the six other teams, the ability to adequately represent their communities has varied. Only Arima Fire currently plays in its hometown. W Connection has managed to attract a couple hundred hard-core supporters in the South but, like Joe Public (Arouca) and Doc’s Khelwalaas (Caroni), the actual name of the club does not allow it to be properly identified with its area of origin.

As football commentator Sedley Joseph puts it, “In order for professional football to survive, you have to have area teams.”

He pointed out the tremendous support that greeted teams like Malvern (Woodbrook) and Colts (Belmont) during his playing days in the 1960s. People turned up at the Queen’s Park Savannah in the thousands to see the team that represented their community in action. Thousands also turned up at the annual North vs. South fixture – again demonstrating the power of regional affiliation.

Another major area of concern is finance. Some clubs have found themselves in some hot water since the inauguration of the PFL in 1999. There were the notable cases of Point Fortin Civic Centre and Futgof, two teams that had to be dropped from the league at the end of the first year. This season, Khelwalaas’ financial constraints prompted a move from its Frederick Settlement Ground in Caroni to the Dwight Yorke Stadium in Bacolet. This action has now resulted in a legal brouhaha, with Khelwalaas winning a court injunction against returning to Caroni to complete its home schedule. With those fixtures now tied up in litigation, the crowning of the 2001 PFL champions has been delayed. Apart from this, the decision of the league to slash the minimum salary from $2,000 per month to $1,200 only deepened the impression that the PFL is suffering from cash flow problems.

However, the PFL’s chief executive officer, Colin Prevatt, explained that it was financially better to have the legal minimum of $1,200 in place, instead of clubs having to pay $2,000 or up. Furthermore, he revealed that the $750,000 bond that had been required of the clubs - to help offset difficulties that may arise regarding finances and payment of salaries – is to be replaced by what he calls a “cash deposit” of $100,000. However, this “deposit” seems to be merely a vast reduction of the original bond, since it will also carry the role of helping clubs with difficulty in paying wages and fines, with the teams being required to eventually pay back the difference.

As it is right now, the PFL has an image problem that it has to work on - immediately. First of all, the marketing of the league has to be more aggressive. Virtually everyone in Trinidad and Tobago has to know about the existence of the PFL – no ifs and buts about this. You have to create an awareness of your product. It is this awareness that drives all professional sports leagues around the world, from the English Premier League to the NBA. Attending a football game in France or a baseball game in the United States is an entertainment option. Same as dining out or going to the movies. That is how it has to be with the PFL as well. The marketing has to be done with style and it has to emphasise both teams and players.

The league has to be restructured so that the participating clubs will carry the identity of their hometowns. There are two methods of doing this. On one hand, there is the model of Japan’s J-League, whereby the present clubs are eventually transformed into these new entities. More radically, there is the example of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States, with entirely new teams being formed and based in various towns and players being allocated to those teams on an equal basis. Both ideas have to be seriously considered.

Regardless of which structure turns out to be the mode, certain things have to hold sway. Teams will bear the names of their communities and have a proper home venue. In fact, the PFL will have to make the availability of an adequate stadium a priority. In addition, the major population markets must be featured. Should it all be done properly, what you should have in the end is a roster that resembles the following: Port of Spain/P-O-S United playing at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, San Fernando Blazers (at an upgraded Skinner Park), Arima Red Devils (Larry Gomes Stadium), Scarborough Falcons (Dwight Yorke Stadium), Couva/Chaguanas Pride (Ato Boldon Stadium) etc.

This vision of the future is actually what Prevatt also has in mind. The PFL will be composed of clubs representing specific communities with hometown fans being drawn to support a club in the same way they follow the fortunes of a local secondary school. In fact, Prevatt is envisaging a turnout that will be double what currently exists in the Secondary Schools Football League. He thinks that, with a popular league, local businesses will be encouraged to provide investment in a hometown team.

 “People will now have a vested interest in what is going on,” he says.

The PFL CEO also stated that promotion and relegation from the PFL could be institutionalised, eventually. However, because of the danger of incoming clubs failing to make the adjustment to the new demands on them – as happened in the Semi-Professional Football League (1995-98) – such a practice will only work with the presence of a second division of the PFL. Here, clubs will have to prove their capabilities financially, will also have to represent a town or community and, of course, earn the right to compete in the top flight by finishing in the top two or three in this second division. Prevatt mentioned the possibility of a “PFL 2” and suggested that the current PFL Reserve League could gradually blossom into such an enterprise.

The success of marketing the league will also depend on the players involved. For Joseph, local football is currently suffering from “a lack of personalities.” Joe Public’s Arnold Dwarika is one of the few household names campaigning in the PFL. Again, crossover appeal is only going to come through the development of greater talent and the actual marketing of that talent once it reaches the PFL level. For example, interest in Trinidad and Tobago under-17 stars such as Nkosi Blackman and Kenwyne Jones has to be maintained as they move up the ranks. People must know of their reputations so that, if those players should end up playing in the PFL, there will always be a sufficient core of admirers turning out to see them perform.

As it is, Prevatt has revealed that there will be upcoming discussions with the eight teams on the subject of fostering better community representation and involvement. Could this be the start of the revolution? Or is it merely a road that leads to nowhere? For now, the only thing that is certain is that the PFL is just another struggling professional league, hoping to survive a fourth season.