Playing the Hand that Usain Bolt has given to us

As another Olympic Games come to a close and Usain Bolt begins the process of bowing out of athletics, the recurring question of why Jamaica does not have a presence in the international business of sports reappears. Even the recent New York Times article which retraced Jamaica’s history of dominance in athletics was dimmed when the writer mentioned our country’s  inability profit economically  from this attention. Even though the glorious light of Usain Bolt and our other Olympians has been burning consistently  since 2008, private and government sectors have not made a robust, committed and consistent effort to benefit from the business of sports overseas.

We have made use of the spotlight while we are in it though. This was demonstrated at the last two Olympics where the government  spent approx. US$1.2 million in London and were expected to spend US$767,000 in Rio to endorse Brand Jamaica. The branding was mostly in the form live shows, merchandise and cuisine; all which has resulted in increased tourist numbers to Jamaica. Private and government sectors have also sponsored our athletes over the years and there is an increased interest in developing younger athletes and at risk youth with annual sports programmes and competitions as well as  scholarships to local universities.

The problem is that tourism has been consistently tied to and is given preference over sports. Even the  ‘JAMAICA Sport’ programme, which is the only major initiative that I could find that capitalizes on our influence, does this. The programme was created by The People’s National Party (PNP)  government in 2012 when Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Dr. Wykeham McNeill and then Minister of Sports, Hon. Natalie Neita Headley, joined forces. ‘JAMAICA Sport’ was launched in 2014 in an effort to attract more tourists (that word again) to Jamaica through marketing and promoting Brand Jamaica to local and international sporting events. Indeed, this was an effort at sports tourism and the laziness of the objective depresses me; you do not ask why I have not heard anything about the programme since its launch.

The Benefits of the Sports Industry

According to a Forbes Magazine article the sports market in North America was expected to increase by  $60.5 billion in 2014 to $73.5 billion in 2019 from media rights deals with the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball. The new wave of high internet speed on mobile technology  has also capitalised on these television rights for ‘pay to watch’ live sport events on smartphones, tablets, computers and video screens (think the Times Square effect of the big screen in Half-Way-Tree) and this is just only one section of the industry.

There are gate ticket sales, merchandise that is sold before, after and during these events by teams and subsidizers. There are also private investments and sponsorships that update and enhance the facilities and equipment of stadiums as well as provide accessories, clothing and endorsements for the athletes. Jamaica has the talent why can’t this happen to us? The Jamaica International Invitational is nice and all but why can’t we have major annual events (a Diamond League stop, anybody?) hosted here too?

The least is employment, that is given, more important is the creation of a legacy. Records are broken in home stadiums, not olympic stadiums eons away, international teams come in and train at clinics and workshops and pay for advice from world class coaches and the tourism sector is inadvertently strengthened.

Now based on the ‘JAMAICA Sport’ project, it seems that the only foreign exchange the ministers believed that Jamaica could pull from overseas markets had to come directly from the the over advertised sun, sea and sand. Speaking at the official launch on October 1, 2014 Dr. McNeill said,  “[his ministry] is committed to ensuring that all areas that complement our growing tourism industry are tapped to reap maximum benefits. [Sports] forms part of our ongoing effort to diversify our tourism product.” He also stated that the time had come, “…to reap the economic benefits spurred by the success of our athletes on the track and field of play.” ‘Track and field of play’. Play. Play as in swings and Dandy Shandy behind the school? Play as in the sport industry is created simply for recreation and not for monetary profit? Play.


Dr. Wykeham McNeil and The Hon. Natalie Neita Headley at the official launch of JAMAICA Sport (image source).

Our Attitude is at Play

The flippant approach to the sports industry by the minister is understandable and is so aptly demonstrated by the fact that Jamaica herself is not known for having industries,(as many journalists have stated) we have sectors. Sectors that are wholly underfunded, underdeveloped and riddled with bad management from people who lack vision. We are in a rut and we have been there for a while. Jamaicans have immense talent we are creative but we are not often business savvy and that inexperience unfurls itself in a number of other international markets. For example, our dance moves, our sound, our slang and our Dancehall culture is now being brandished and lauded by foreigners in US pop culture while we are in the background collecting the pocket change (if we are so lucky) and allowing the spotlight to shine past us without brightening it.

Yes, We do give sports attention but we tag it on to other ministries like the unexpected child that mommy has to drag with her to work. If we have to attach sports to other sectors like tourism or  entertainment, it is less about marketing and event promotion and more about harmonizing, we need to create links between sectors, not over laps.

I am very proud that Jamaica’s international success never fails to focus our attention, unite us as a people, set tongues wagging and amplify our pride: we beat our chests harder, we talk louder and we are fiercely protective. However, I feel that there an element of face value- hype over substance if you like- at play when we are not seeing these celebrations and concerts in London and Rio amount to true a victory, in the economy. (cover image source)