By Dr. Jason Haynes, Lecturer in Law, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados
It has long been acknowledged that sport, especially football, cricket, athletics and basketball, represent one of the guiding pillars of the Caribbean’s social, recreational and economic fabric. While, for many Caribbean nationals, sport, in its myriad forms, is a major source of entertainment, for many other Caribbean nationals, sport is everything: it is their only mode of survival – their proverbial “bread and butter”!
Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) earlier this year, life in the Caribbean has not been the same.
Not only have social distancing prescriptions, curfews and closed territorial borders become the order of the day in most countries, but the quality of life for regional athletes, in particular, has been terribly difficult. Not only are they not allowed to train as they normally would, but for most, an even bigger challenge confronts them: their very economic survival.
With the sudden cancellation of major sporting events, namely the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, and, to a lesser extent, the infamous Jamaica Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) Boys’ and Girls’ Athletics Championships, and the likely cancellation of the Caribbean Premiere League (CPL) Cricket Tournament, scheduled for summer 2020, it has become evident that regional sporting organisations, athletes, managers, agents and broadcasters and members of the public more generally have lost out, and stand to lose significantly in economic terms. In fact, conservative estimates suggest that if, for example, the 2020 edition of the CPL is cancelled, Trinidad and Tobago alone, which last year hosted five group games, the semi-finals and final as well as two historic women’s (T10) matches, stands to lose over USD 30 million.
That said, while the center of attention has been principally focused on regional professional athletes, who will now be deprived of the opportunity to gain international notoriety, sponsorship and other endorsement deals, as well as national governing bodies and leagues, who will suffer massive economic fallouts as a result of the cancellation of a number of local, regional and international sporting competitions, one must not lose sight of nor underestimate the likely deleterious impact of COVID-19 on amateur athletes.
In the Commonwealth Caribbean, the reality is that a large percentage of athletes, even if undeniably talented, do not get the opportunity, for one reason or another, to represent themselves and their countries at the highest levels.
As such, many of the region’s athletes live lives that could properly be characterized as challenging; many work in multiple odd jobs just to ensure their and their families’ survival, while still maintaining active engagement in their chosen sporting disciplines. Although we are only in the first two months since COVID-19 reached the Caribbean, we have already seen that many of these athletes have not only lost the opportunity to engage in their sporting disciplines, but have been laid off, especially where they are employed in the tourism and hospitality and construction sectors.
Amateur female athletes, and, indeed, even professional female athletes, face these challenges which are seemingly insurmountable. Although some sporting associations, for example, the St Vincent and the Grenadines Cricket Association and the Guyana Cricket Board, have attempted to cushion the blow felt by these athletes by providing them with some economic support; however, this support is either quantitatively limited or time-limited, and, indeed, not sustainable.
Another demographic group adversely affected by COVID-19 are Paralympians.
Many of these talented and extraordinarily resilient athletes have been left in an extremely vulnerable position. Not only are their sometimes difficult lives further challenged by national restrictions relating to social distancing and curfews that might impede upon their engagement in inter-personal and athletic activities, but many have lost their only means of livelihoods, in circumstances where they, prior to COVID-19, earned a living from sport-related activities. Although some associations, like the Jamaica Olympic Association, have been proactive in their attempts to assist members of this group, there will inevitably be those who will be left on the fringes; a reality which must command the attention of the International Paralympic Organisation, national sporting organisations, governments and the wider society.
A thought must also be spared for those who work in ad hoc roles in the sporting industry, and who rely heavily on the hosting of games for their survival. More specifically, many of our region’s managers, agents, commentators, and ancillary staff have been put in an extremely difficult financial position since the COVID-19 outbreak began. While many of these persons work in other sectors apart from sport, many of them, who have traditionally solely relied upon the hosting of sporting events so as to earn a relatively decent living, have been met with unfulfilled contractual obligations resulting from the outbreak, which can properly be classified as a force majeure event. Perhaps the biggest challenge for these individuals, however, may not be the financial setbacks currently being faced, but the unenviable reality that no one knows for sure how much longer the outbreak will last. For now, many are simply waiting with bated breath to see what will unfold in the next few months.
Finally, national sporting organisations, leagues and clubs in the region, which have traditionally relied upon income from three main streams, namely broadcasting (sales of media rights), commercial (sponsorship and advertising partnerships) and match day revenue (ticketing and hospitality), have had to confront the unhappy reality that income from these streams has virtually dried up.
While some international federations have offered varying degrees of financial assistance, this assistance does not remotely match the revenues that these organisations would otherwise generate from hosting their regularly scheduled sporting activities. In any event, this assistance is time-bound. The inescapable result has been that many sporting organisations in the region have had to close their facilities; lay off staff; and/or significantly limit their financial contributions to athletes. Thankfully, some organisations, like Cricket West Indies, have indicated that there are no immediate plans to slash players’ retainer contracts, even as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on its playing schedules.
In sum, it is clear that, as a region that is heavily reliant on sport, both for entertainment and economic purposes, the Caribbean has undoubtedly been severely affected by the outbreak of COVID-19, and the uncertainties regarding when things will return to some sense of normalcy.
Suffice to say, that while the sporting sector quietly sits and contemplates its future, it is perhaps apposite that sporting organisations revisit their business model, as advised by the President of the Jamaican Olympic Committee, Christopher Samuda, as the extant model is clearly unsustainable, especially in the light of such countervailing challenges, like COVID-19.
A warning, it may be said, that should not go unheeded!
Dr Jason Haynes may be contacted by e-mail at ‘email@example.com ‘