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Getting the private sector to play a bigger role in funding sporting success

Recent developments in the local sporting scene have attracted higher-than-usual levels of attention from a range of supporters.

Getting the private sector to play a bigger role in funding sporting success

National shuttler Loh Kean Yew’s (pictured) triumph at the badminton world championships sparked an outpouring of support, including monetary pledges from corporates and individuals alike.

Recent developments in the local sporting scene have attracted higher-than-usual levels of attention from a range of supporters.

National shuttler Loh Kean Yew’s triumph at the badminton world championships sparked an outpouring of support, including monetary pledges from corporates and individuals alike.

Most eye-catching was a S$200,000 donation from an Indonesian tycoon.

In total, almost S$420,000 was raised for Loh, which will stand him in good stead as he continues to build towards his goals and success at the 2024 Olympic Games.

It is timely now to consider whether such support is ultimately beneficial for an athlete over the course of his entire career, in the context of the broader ecosystem of initiatives aimed at boosting sport in the country.

BROAD RANGE OF SUPPORT

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said in Parliament recently that the Government invests an average of almost S$90 million each year to develop and operate infrastructure and hardware like stadiums, running tracks and sports halls.

A further S$70 million is pumped into the national high performance sport system, which nurtures elite athletes and provides them with “end-to-end” support.

The minister said that this financial support is part of a broader ecosystem that extends beyond “dollars and cents”, and includes providing coaching, sports science and medicine services.

As a former athlete and sports administrator, I would argue that the level of funding support provided to athletes on average is insufficient to build a career in the traditional sense.

In many cases, the support from the Government would be just enough to ensure that athletes are not left too much out of pocket when they retire from sports, and certainly not enough to build up savings or a nest egg, which are objectives for most people when they embark on a career.

This is not in essence a wrong approach, as it should not be left to the taxpayers to prop up a profession or industry, which would be unsustainable in the long run.

However, that leaves a gap when it comes to building a sports infrastructure that can sustain full-time athletes seeking to reach the highest levels possible.

MORE THAN JUST GOVERNMENT FUNDING

The private sector is therefore key to filling the gap in funding.

As we saw with Loh, sporting success stories can and will attract attention from corporates and wealthy benefactors.

But the funds raised for Loh are one-off contributions, instead of commitments to multi-year plans or programmes which underpin high level sporting achievements.

Champions are developed over the course of years and even decades of hard work, sacrifice and commitment.

As such, while the outpouring of support that happens whenever a Singaporean athlete makes it big on the global sporting stage is great, the fact that it is often fleeting means there is little long-term, sustainable benefit to the individual sports person or the sport.

Instead, what would be more helpful are sponsors who are willing to commit to longer-term support over a number of years, with an emphasis on helping national sports associations to develop talent development pipelines, and with monetary incentives built in to encourage athletes to pursue success progressively in a range of competitions instead of a mega windfall after one significant win.

There are different examples from around the world where corporate support is entrenched.

In South Korea, there has been a tradition where chaebols or large conglomerates “adopt” sports to support at the national level, with top executives from these companies serving in the federations as well.

For example, Samsung has been associated with athletics while Hyundai has backed archery. Such funding and leadership support ensure that the sports are able to grow over a period of years, which has paid off with Korean athletes challenging for medals at the Olympic level across a range of events.

Another example is Germany, where multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences giant Bayer has been supporting sports at the elite and recreational level since the beginning of the 20th century.

Bayer sponsors individual athletes and teams, and also funds and invests in facilities and infrastructure.

It supports some 50 sports, and has contributed to 70 Olympic medals, 90 Paralympic medals and more than 200 World Championship medals.

There are numerous other examples of corporate support that are widely seen in other sports-hungry nations such as the United States and Australia.

ATHLETES AND ASSOCIATIONS HAVE TO DO THEIR PART

Building a true sporting culture in Singapore is critical if we are to see future successes by our athletes and commensurate increases in corporate support for sports.

This remains a work-in-progress, but it was heartening to hear Mr Tong highlight sporting culture as one of the focus areas of the Government during his recent speech in Parliament.

On a more micro level, sports federations and individual athletes need to do their part in order to encourage more companies to look to the sporting sector. There are three areas where improvements would be welcome.

First, as more and more athletes begin to aim for and perform on the global stage, national sports associations and athletes themselves will need to push hard to profile their journeys and efforts, warts and all.

Most sports fans are drawn to both the highs and lows of athletes’ lives, and the stories about trials, tribulations and triumphs are what keep us engaged.

By attracting more fans, athletes and federations can offer a more attractive value proposition to potential sponsors in terms of exposure and branding opportunities.

And there are some great stories out there.

For example, right now, national kayakers Soh Sze Ying, Brandon Ooi and Deborah Saw are based in Budapest, Hungary, which is a powerhouse for the sport.

They decided to pursue further academic degrees at a university there as there were scholarships on offer, which allows them to live in Hungary for an extended period of time.

In order to train and compete against the best in the world in the hopes of winning medals at the Asian Games and beyond, they uprooted themselves from their friends and family to move overseas for two years in the midst of the pandemic.

Not much has been said about their stories, which are representative of many other athletes chasing their sporting dreams, and more publicity will certainly help to engage potential sponsors.

With social media and mobile technology, building such publicity is literally in the palms of the hands of each athlete.

Secondly, federations and athletes need to be able to think strategically when it comes to engaging funders and sponsors.

Most companies would be used to expecting a certain return on their investments in the business world, and while sports is a slightly different proposition, it should not be seen purely as a charitable cause.

Doing so typically limits the amount of funds that can be deployed, and also the long-term viability of any such investment.

Instead, what would be better is to consider what value each individual sport, event or athlete can offer to a corporate partner, develop a range of offerings or activations that can enhance that value, and then figure out how best to present these ideas to target partners based on what that audience is looking for.

This might involve creating new concepts or formats of events that would appeal to a sponsor’s target audience, launching a new training and development initiative or exploring ways to engage a company’s employees to build deeper connections with the sport.

This requires research and a deep understanding of the different elements of one’s own sport.

Some athletes or administrators might say this is above and beyond their regular duties, but unfortunately it’s a case of “no free lunch”.

Finally, once a relationship is built with corporate supporters, trust and credibility have to be maintained and bolstered with good governance and transparency, consistent engagement and clear communications.

If we are talking about significant levels of funding, regular reassurance that those funds are being used effectively and responsibly will ensure that they keep flowing.

As Singapore’s sports scene continues to grow, the role of corporate sponsors will become increasingly important, since turning professional or training full-time may become the only way for our athletes to compete at the highest levels of global competition.

Our athletes have shown they have the potential and ability to be world-class. It’s time for the rest of the ecosystem to catch up as well.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nicholas Fang is a former sports journalist and ex-national athlete. He has helmed national sports federations and was a Nominated Member of Parliament. He was Team Singapore’s chef-de-mission at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games and co-founded local sports consultancy Novastella.

 

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Sports funding Loh Kean Yew Olympic Games private sector

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