Baseball: League in Cuba first to gain from new stand on professional sports

HAVANA (AFP) - Professional sport returns to Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years tomorrow when the first pitch is thrown in the communist island's national baseball league, part of a government bid to halt the flow of sporting defectors overseas.

In a landmark policy shift announced in September, Cuba said it would relax its strict rules forbidding professional sport from January 2014 in an effort to "perfect sports, generate sources of income and encourage quality".

The popular baseball league will be the first to benefit from the move as the 2013-14 season gets under way this weekend.

For decades, Cuba thumbed its nose at international pro sports, paying hardworking and fabled athletes close to nothing for the honour of representing their nation.

The new policy allows athletes to keep 100 per cent of prize money from overseas sporting tournaments.

Previously, they pocketed only 15 per cent of their earnings, with 85 per cent going to the state.

Legendary Cuban high-jumper Javier Sotomayor has welcomed the change in the regulations, saying they would serve as an "incentive for athletes, giving them greater motivation, pushing them to higher performances".