Sports

The Big Read: New year, same old woes for S.League

The Big Read: New year, same old woes for S.League
S-League enthusiasts Collin Chee, Kelvin Yap, Chris Harvey and Shankar pose for a photo on Jan 5, 2017. Photo: Jason Quah
Perennial problems plague Singapore’s only professional league ahead of another season. What must be done for it to have a future?
Published: 12:00 AM, January 7, 2017
Updated: 12:38 AM, January 7, 2017

SINGAPORE — When the 21st season of the S.League came to an end last year, it did so under a cloud of uncertainty.

Questions over its long-term future continue to persist, with age-old problems such as poor attendance figures, lack of public interest and limited sponsorships plaguing the competition.

The start of the new year, however, has already seen the first winds of change blowing in. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced on Tuesday (Jan 4) that S.League chief executive officer Lim Chin will be stepping down on March 31 after five years at the helm.

Although Lim was widely regarded as a hands-on and hard-working administrator, he was unable to turn around the fortunes of the S.League despite his best efforts.

His tenure was also hindered by the FAS’ LionsXII project, which took the S.League’s top local players to play in the Malaysia Super League (MSL).

The search for Lim’s replacement will begin only after the FAS’ first-ever elections of office bearers, expected to be held before May.

Yet, with the new S.League season scheduled to commence in two months, clubs are still in the dark over several pressing issues, such as the amount of funding they will receive this year, potential changes to the rules and format, as well as the fixtures list.

These have slowed down the ability of several clubs to sign players and plan ahead, with many of their processes and operations currently stuck in limbo.

Like a run-down, leaky ship that has veered off-course for several years, the S.League is in dire need of repair and a new direction.

But the problems plaguing the league are complex, and a quick solution may be beyond the new man at the helm.

BRINGING BACK THE FANS

Attendances in the S.League have been dwindling for years. Average crowds numbered in the mere hundreds, with the biggest matches enjoying fewer than 1,500 spectators.

“The problem facing the S.League is very simple — people are just not interested,” said Tampines Rovers fan Chris Harvey, an Englishman who has been based in Singapore for 25 years. “Then you ask, why are they not interested? Because they have lost connection with it.”

Agreeing, former S.League midfielder Rhysh Roshan Rai believes that the fate of the S.League boils down to one word: Excitement. “I would like to see us stop being apathetic towards the S.League, but it’s very difficult for people to get excited about something that, in reality, isn’t much to be excited about,” said the 31-year-old football analyst and commentator.

“As a fan, I just want something to excite me, and that’s basically the main job of the next CEO.”

In other words, the ability to put bums on seats has vital knock-on effects on viewership, sponsorship and media attention, and that in turn generates revenue for the club, the players and the league.

Most S.League clubs have done precious little in engaging their community. They can take a leaf out of the book of reigning champions Albirex Niigata (Singapore), who have been engaging and giving back to their local community.

Since 2012, the Japanese club have been donating S$1 to Yuhua Community Sports Club for every spectator that turns up at Jurong East Stadium for their matches. Albirex regularly draw more than 1,000 spectators to their matches. To date, they have 
donated S$75,000. Last November, Albirex announced that they were setting up a sports development fund from their own cash resources for grooming young local players from the Yuhua constituency, where the club are based. Two players will be selected for a training stint in Japan every year.

Local football fan Ko Po Hui, who has followed the S.League since its inception in 1996, is appreciative of Albirex’s efforts to integrate with their local community effort.

“Other foreign clubs, like Sinchi FC and Beijing Guoan … and Brunei DPMM, who play all their home games in Bandar Seri Begawan, just don’t have that ‘connectivity’ with Singaporean fans,” said the 41-year-old, who blogs at BoLASEPaKO.com.

Ko also hopes to see clubs follow Albirex’s lead in engaging their fan bases. “I would love to see more proactive initiatives from clubs; more savvy marketing of players and teams to boost their profiles, as what we have seen (so far) has been dull and uninspiring.”

As Hougang United fan Kelvin Yap said: “I want to know the players, I want to support something that’s close to my home and I want to feel what live football is about — not just watching through a TV.”

IMPROVING THE PRODUCT

Engaging the fans is one thing. At the same time, the S.League must keep improving the product to get the fans coming back for more.

During his five-year stewardship, S.League CEO Lim’s attempt to spice things up by introducing the Marquee Player Scheme in 2012 — where 30 per cent of a foreign star’s salary, which had no cap, was subsidised by the league — yielded mixed results and was eventually canned after the 2014 season.

Ironically, Tampines Rovers’ signing of former Arsenal and Liverpool star Jermaine Pennant, outside of the Marquee Player Scheme, did generate a fair bit of excitement initially.

The “Pennant Effect” provided a fleeting and tantalising glimpse of what a dash of glamour could do. His presence helped to draw more than 1,200 fans to a pre-season friendly and more than 3,500 people to a league clash with Home United — the highest attendance of last season.

However, the excitement gradually fizzled out as the league and clubs failed to capitalise and build on the hype.

Tampines chairman Krishna Ramachandra believes that the next CEO should continue to explore different foreign-player options.

“We should also seriously look into adopting the Thai league’s foreign-player quota rule, which mandates that the clubs’ five foreign signings must include a player from Asia and another from South-east Asia.

“If the S.League adopts that, we can attract Asian players here, who will in turn generate interest in that Asian country.”

Krishna also believes that there must be a promotion-relegation system in the league to inject excitement for the fans and competition for the clubs.

Former FAS director of development Benjamin Tan, now the deputy CEO of the Thai League, agrees. “This will keep the clubs performing to their best throughout the season to avoid the drop, and incentivise the lower division clubs to excel, providing fans with the thrill of a promotion-and-relegation battle,” the Singaporean said.

“But this can only be implemented if there are adequate proper facilities and there’s no big technical disparity between each division before moving in that direction.

“Promoted clubs entering the top division should have realistic ambitions, and good sustainable football business and commercial plans.

“Hence, the league should establish the ideal number of clubs in the top tier first, and ensure that the second-tier clubs are operating at a level worthy of top-flight football if they are promoted.”

However, an S.League club official, who declined to be named, is unconvinced that such measures would succeed. Instead, he wants to focus on getting the basics right.

“I think a promotion-and-relegation system can only work if the clubs from the so-called lower divisions are professional enough to play in the S.League,” he said.

“We don’t want a scenario whereby the promoted club comes in and become the whipping boys in the league … (and) add no value whatsoever.

“This means the clubs in the amateur National Football League or Islandwide League, will first have to be equipped with the proper tools and facilities to become professional outfits.”

BRINGING IN THE MONEY

Tampines’ Pennant experiment did drive home a point — that just one marquee signing is insufficient to see an upturn in standards for the entire league. So for the marquee player scheme to succeed, more Pennant-quality players are needed throughout the league.

Unfortunately, this is a pipe dream for most clubs, as money is hard to come by. S.League clubs are registered as societies and largely rely on annual subsidies to run their operations. If the clubs meet certain targets and key performance indicators throughout the season, they can receive up to S$800,000.

These subsidies are dependent on the amount of funding the league receives from the Tote Board each season.

Over the years, poor financial management has led to the closure of several clubs such as Sporting Afrique, Sinchi FC and Super Reds FC, while also forcing the likes of Woodlands Wellington, Tanjong Pagar United, Jurong and Gombak United to sit out the past few seasons.

According to former Singapore international-turned-businessman R Sasikumar, who now runs sports marketing agency Red Card, one of the best ways to generate income is to source for sponsorships.

However, he notes that most clubs have not done so actively. Instead, they are usually happy to subsist on the subsidies.

“I would estimate that a title-winning team’s budget is usually about S$2 million, and if you take away the S$800,000 they receive from subsidies, that means the clubs must bring in about S$1.2 million each themselves,” explained the former Home United defender. “One of the best ways to get that kind of money is through sponsorships.

“The problem is, a lot of the clubs have given up on that, even though there are so many companies in Singapore to tap into.

“Instead, they are just content with getting by with the subsidies they receive. This mindset has to change if S.League clubs want to go far.”

According to market research firm Nielsen Sports Asia vice-president PJ Roberts, increasing the S.League fan base is key to whether clubs can become self-sustainable.

“Of course, the S.League and the individual clubs should aspire to be financially independent and commercially viable to drive their long-term sustainability,” said Roberts, who also used to play for Geylang United (now known as Geylang International) in the S.League. “Self-sustainability is cultivated through providing a commercial environment where a return on investment is promoted.

“This begins with driving fan interest and engagement, leading to sponsor, partner and broadcast interest who are aiming to reach out to these fans to drive their product or service. Without the fans, this commercial interest is incredibly difficult to promote.”

But Roberts, who is also a football analyst with Fox Sports, said this can be done only if the relevant authorities in Singapore band together to improve the local football ecosystem as a whole. “Driving increased fan interest is not the challenge only of the FAS, but also SportSG and the Government,” the Australian said.

“This must start at the grassroots level, with development pathways provided for all ages and abilities, with school engagement a critical part of this. The aim has to be to nurture a sporting cultural identity that appreciates the benefit of sport to the community and embraces all ethnicities.”

Sasikumar, who is also a consultant for the soon-to-be-launched professional Philippines Football League, strongly believes that the long-term solution to the S.League and clubs’ constant struggle with finances is through privatising the S.League.

Each club will then be able to adopt different revenue models, and investors can then monetise the assets of the club, he said.

He also claims there are individuals willing to invest in S.League clubs if given a chance to do so. “Privatisation is the way forward for the S.League,” he said. “And there are many people from overseas who are rich enough to buy a football club in Singapore.

“The league shouldn’t limit itself to thinking that only Singaporeans can own our clubs, because there aren’t many wealthy people who are passionate enough about football here.

“Look at what’s happening in China ... the buzz now is to invest in football, and so there are people there who are looking for a gateway to do so, and Singapore football can be that avenue for them. If clubs are to ever be self-sustainable, there must be a private investor behind it.”

To give credit where it is due, one club has been showing the way forward in terms of financial sustainability.

In recent years, thanks to sponsor support, and a profitable clubhouse business that generates reported annual revenues of around S$2 million, Hougang United have reached the stage where they can do without subsidies from the S.League.

In fact, they been giving back to the community in various ways. In the past two years, Hougang have disbursed 32 scholarships, worth S$80,000 in total, to promising footballers studying in tertiary institutions.

Since 2012, Hougang have raised more than S$100,000 for the late S Anthonysamy, who was paralysed from the neck down after a freak injury during a game in 1996. The former Singapore winger died last October.

Hougang chairman Bill Ng believes the S.League and its clubs should strive towards self-sustainability.

“Like it or not, the engine room of a football club is its income, and learning to be self-sufficient is something that is key for local clubs,” he told TODAY. “I believe subsidies only work during the infancy of a club. After more than 20 years in the S.League, we should no longer always rely on handouts to run our operations.”

IMPROVING THE ECOSYSTEM

Whether a professional league thrives also depends in large part on an environment conducive to both player retention and development.

On average, S.League players earn around S$3,000 per month — slightly more than a fresh graduate’s starting salary. Some players even take up part-time work outside of football — such as being deliverymen and part-time drivers — to supplement their incomes.

Another perennial bugbear of players — they are usually given 11-month contracts (although some clubs do give out match bonuses).

All these create doubts over football as a viable career option, and tend to discourage many promising young players from playing professionally, say members of the local football fraternity.

Former national midfielder Rafi Ali believes that the league has to attract and retain talent in order to dish out quality football on the pitch that will then draw the crowds back.

“We need to enhance the entire ecosystem to instil confidence in kids and parents that football is a viable career,” said the former Tampines star, who is now a coach at Republic Polytechnic.

“There’s a lot of negativity surrounding local football and the S.League, which discourages people from taking up football as a career.

“Clubs must have the resources to be able to pay players healthy wages and offer them long-term contracts. Right now, players are paid peanuts, and there’s no stability in their careers.”

These are the many issues that are awaiting both the new FAS Council and the new S.League CEO and that must be seen to if the S.League is to survive and grow, said Rai.

“The new FAS council also needs to make the S.League a priority. If they don’t, then it will not matter who they bring in as the new CEO. The league will never be more than what it is now,” he warned.

Patrick Ang, who was chairman of Geylang International from 1986 to 2012, agreed. “Over the years, if we had done (the league) properly, we would by now have a product that the sponsors will come (and pay for),” he said.