Semi-professional sports began in Belize in 1991 with the first semi-pro football season, which was a success. Following in football’s footsteps, basketball went semi-pro in 1992, and the first semi-pro basketball season was a spectacular success. The old Civic proved too small for the overflow crowds.
At this newspaper, we thought at the time that semi-pro basketball would have an easier hill to climb than football, because all six inaugural franchises were Belize City-based, hence there were no travelling expenses, as there were in football, which had franchises in all six Districts.
But, it was semi-pro football which stood the test of time. There has never been a year since 1991 when there was not at least one semi-pro football season. When the People’s United Party (PUP) returned to power in 1998, they revived semi-pro basketball (which had crashed after the 1997 season), at which point the sport went national, or at least franchises from outside Belize City participated.
Semi-pro basketball’s inaugural season had been so sensational in 1992 that by the time the championship playoffs rolled around, Mexican fans were coming from across the border to drive to the old Civic. Two Belizeans who had been playing for a Texas junior college, 6’7 Kirk Smith and 6’8 Fred Garcia, had joined the Penta Lakers in the second half of the regular season, and the hype became so crazy in the old capital, it “turned on” Chetumal.
In free market economies such as Belize’s, professional sports franchises are seen as socio-economic assets by the municipal governments in the relevant cities. Sporting leagues represent an entertainment industry, which have a multiplier effect on the economy. Big game on Friday night? The boutiques, the beauty parlors, the taxi drivers, the restaurants, the night clubs, they all experience a spike in business. But, in their infancy, investments in professional sports franchises need the symbiotic support of the municipal and national governments.
In the mighty United States of America, the National Football League (NFL) was around for several decades before the NFL became a big time, multi-billion dollar success story in the late 1950s. As late as the 1940s, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was practically a joke financially. Now the NBA is itself a multi-billion success story. The growth of live television played a major role in the growth of both the NFL and the NBA.
Quietly, little Belize has recently reached the stage where sporting events can be televised live. Lately, semi-pro basketball has been revived, while semi-pro football remains popular, especially in the West and South.
As far as we are concerned, the major problem for semi-pro sports in Belize is the strong adherence to the colonial philosophy of amateurism amongst the upper classes of Belize. When sports in Belize went semi-pro in 1991, it was only because the giant Bowen & Bowen beverage empire tolerated it, after critical lobbying by then Minister of Sports, Hon. Said Musa. But, it is clear after 27 years that Bowen & Bowen has never given semi-pro sports enthusiastic support. Priority for Bowen & Bowen is control of the Olympic and Commonwealth Games Committee. We have explained to you that Bowen & Bowen has major influence with the most powerful Cabinet Ministers in the three-term Cabinet of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP).
This was not the case during the 1993-98 term of the UDP; the late Barry Bowen was dissatisfied enough with the UDP at that time to support the People’s United Party (PUP) in the 1998 general election.But the UDP Prime Minister during their 1993-98 term, Dr. Manuel Esquivel, was personally hostile to semi-pro sports because Kremandala was too prominent in both basketball and football at the time. Kremandala owned the four-time (1993-96) semi-pro basketball champions, Raiders, and had actually bought a semi-pro football franchise, Kremandala Warriors, in 1993. (Our initial business experiment in semi-pro football, however, lasted only a single season. We returned with Grigamandala in 1999/2000, and revived the Kremandala Warriors a few years later, but only for a couple seasons.)
It is difficult to understand the hold that the amateurism religion has on Belize’s upper classes, unless you factor in the existence of ethnic prejudice and racial bigotry in Belize. While it should be that semi-pro sports represent an entertainment industry generating desperately needed jobs on the domestic landscape, it seems to be the case that the more affluent classes, and the government they support, consider professional sports a potential threat from Jules’ “barbarians at the gates.”
In football especially, Belizeans surely want our national team to be competitive at the regional level. Perhaps even more emotional is our devotion to Holy Saturday Crosscountry. “Respectable” Belizeans want our Belizean athletes to remain piously amateur but still compete successfully with professionals from abroad. In the eyes of elitist Belizeans, to be paid to play sports is a violation of the discipline’s purity.
One of the things we need to understand is how expensive proper medical care is for top flight athletes. Without expensive sports medicine, an organization or a country can lose a once-in-a-lifetime sports thoroughbred. Take the case of Michael Jordan. All we remember are his many NBA championships and incredible individual accomplishments, but early in his professional career with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan broke one of his legs. He was properly taken care of, and the rest is history.
In the case of the Kremandala Raiders, our Belizean Michael Jordan was a youth from the Southside ghetto named Maurice “Reesh” Williams. By his third year in semi-pro in Belize, however, the high-flying Reesh had injured his knee, and we could not get it properly repaired. His career went downhill.
For there to be continuity and improvement in the performances of Belizean athletes, it must be accepted that they are national assets whose responsibility it is to defend our national dignity at the regional and international levels. We treat our athletes in Belize as if they are beggars. The time for playing party politics with sports is over. Party politicians need to stay out of sports, especially once they are elected and form part of a ruling Cabinet. It is sports programs, from primary school all the way to semi-pro which should have priority, not partisan politics. Soft drinks, beer and stout should be less important than the knees and shoulders of our gifted ones. Respect, Kaina. You with eyes to see, see.
Power to the people.