The Big Read: For S.League, a marquee signing brings more questions than answers
Mr. Teo Hock Seng sitting next to the new S-League signing Jermaine…
Fans watching a football match between Young Lions and Sarawak at the…
Fans watching a football match between Young Lions and Sarawak at the…
A sparsely-filled stadium during the S.League match between Balestier…
Tampines Rovers fans cheer after their team scored a goal against…
Jermaine Pennant training with the Tampines Rovers on Jan 7, 2016….
Former Arsenal and Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant (first from left),…
SAFFC celebrating winning the S League at Choa Chu Kang Stadium. TODAY…
Star signing is right move, but it cannot mask faltering league’s shortcomings
Published: 1:45 AM, January 30, 2016
Updated: 2:34 AM, January 30, 2016
SINGAPORE — When Jermaine Pennant scribbled his signature on a one-year contract with Tampines Rovers at a glitzy signing ceremony last week, it marked a turning point in the 21-year history of the S.League.
Since news broke that Pennant had turned down offers from other countries to play in Singapore, pundits have been busy weighing in on whether the former English Premier League (EPL) player — arguably the biggest international name to sign for a Singapore team so far — could be the huge boost that local football needs.
Since Pennant arrived on Jan 7 for his one-week trial with the Stags, he has been a crowd magnet, raising hopes that the “Pennant Effect” could lead Singapore’s first and only professional sports league out of its recent doldrums.
More than 1,200 fans turned up for his 45-minute stint in a pre-season friendly match against Hougang United at Jalan Besar Stadium — a jump from the miserly average of 500 for a league match in recent seasons. And last Wednesday — a weeknight, mind you — around 1,300 fans turned up at the same venue to watch him play 23 minutes against Johor Darul Ta’zim II in another friendly.
The buzz has not been confined to local shores. The BBC, Reuters, the Guardian and the Daily Mail have all run reports of Tampines’ deal with the 33-year-old of Jamaican-British descent.
But now, a new question looms: Where does this lead the S.League, which has been struggling for the past few seasons?
Former national defender R Sasikumar, who helped broker the deal to bring Pennant to Singapore, is optimistic this will open the doors for other EPL players, sprinkling much-needed star dust across a league that has been short on quality and entertainment.
“It (Pennant’s signing) couldn’t have happened at a better time for the S.League and the football fraternity. We all know the League has struggled over the last few years, and this could help spark interest in it again,” said the owner of sports marketing and events management firm Red Card.
“This is a footballer who has played for many top clubs and knows a lot of really good players personally. So if he has a good experience here, some of these players might start considering plying their trade in the S.League as well.”
Some hope that Pennant will inspire young local players, and teach them what it takes to be a top-class professional athlete.
Rising Singapore and Tampines winger Christopher Van Huizen, 23, who had a stand-out year with the LionsXII last season, is looking forward to learning from Pennant.
“Jermaine has brought the needed experience to the dressing room,” he said.
“His advice will come in handy and I’m sure he will play a pivotal part in our development.”
Still, the S.League cannot depend solely on the “Pennant Effect” to mask its shortcomings.
A LEAGUE’S STRUGGLES
Formed in 1996 on the back of a successful Malaysia Cup campaign in 1994, the S.League was, for several years, a thriving competition that enjoyed healthy 4,000-strong crowds at its matches.
The plan was to form clubs that represent their immediate community, and to be a sporting focal point for their respective districts.
The S.League’s first eight clubs snapped up household names who played in the Malaysia Cup — such as Fandi Ahmad, V Sundramoorthy, Ervin Boban, Jan Janostak, Sandro Radun and Warren Spink — as these stars’ appeal remained fresh in the minds of local fans.
For the first few seasons, it worked.
So popular was the S.League in the late 1990s and early part of the noughties, that it dominated media coverage, was ranked one of the top 10 leagues in Asia, and even featured several top Thai national players, such as Kiatisuk Senamuang, Surachai Jaturapattarapong and Tawan Sripan. It expanded to 12 teams from 1999 to 2003.
“People were queuing up to pay to go in and watch games,” former Tanjong Pagar United defender Lim Tong Hai recalled, with a smile. “Those who couldn’t get in resorted to watching the matches from multistorey carparks, from the common corridors of HDB flats, peeping through the stadiums’ covered fences.”
But the League began to lose its lustre after 2003.
Some clubs were nonchalant about engaging their community. The constant chopping and changing of the League’s line-up — as clubs exited the league while clearing their debts — made it even more difficult for clubs to forge identities and sink roots with Singaporeans. That’s not all — the introduction of a number of foreign clubs, most of whom were of average or poor quality, only served to dilute the League’s tag line, “Our S.League”.
A handful of match-fixing cases, mass brawls, coupled with unsavoury tales of club mismanagement and players not being paid on time, further alienated fans and sponsors.
The perennial struggles with finances also meant it was hard for some clubs to attract quality players. Instead of scouting for new players overseas, they resorted to poaching foreign players from other S.League teams, robbing the league of the “oomph” factor.
Furthermore, the formation of the LionsXII to play in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) in 2012 meant most of the best local players were taken away from the S.League, a move that adversely affected the quality of the competition for four seasons.
In recent years, the S.League has resorted to gimmicks such as lucky draws and free food to attract fans to games. But such initiatives failed to address the key issues — a dire lack of quality football, entertainment, and a sense of belonging.
And with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) remaining adamant about taking the country’s best players out of the S.League again to form a new team for the proposed ASEAN Super League next year, things may get worse for the ailing competition.
The signing of Pennant — and in some ways, the return of the LionsXII players to the S.League — has now created a buzz and an optimism not seen for a long time.
Whether the S.League manages to maintain the momentum will determine its future.
“My experience tells me that there isn’t a single innovation that will help the S.League get where it wants to go,” said SportsSG CEO Lim Teck Yin. “You need to have innovation at different levels and different domains. There needs to be an innovation in the fan experience, in the league calendaring, and the way you decide how teams get put together.
“Likewise, the players need to have a certain level of certainty with regards to their careers so that they can invest their whole commitment in the league.
“So, there are fundamental things the S.League needs to take care of, and then you can change, improve and innovate on many different fronts.”
AIMING FOR ASIA
With the new season kicking off in a few weeks, the S.League has been given a timely boost by Pennant’s signing.
In several interviews with TODAY over the past fortnight, Tampines chairman Krishna Ramachandra explained that the five-time league champions wanted to “do it for Singapore football”, by injecting excitement in the league, opening doors for more EPL stars to ply their trade here and — hopefully — blazing a trail for other S.League clubs to follow suit.
“It is a boost for the S.League all round because we have helped to open the door for such players to come to Singapore,” said the managing director of law firm Duane Morris & Selvam of the decision to sign Pennant on a deal worth about S$45,000 a month (which could go up to S$60,000 with add-ons and bonuses).
“Many of the other clubs have also landed good signings, and have a number of former LionsXII players in their squads. All this makes for a potentially exciting season this year, and I hope the fans will be drawn to watch the matches.”
It is a noble aim. But professional football, at the end of the day, is more than a sport. It is a business. And all deals must make economic sense.
The Stags will, therefore, be looking at some form of tangible return for splashing out an estimated S$750,000 (in wages, perks and add-ons) per year on just one player — an investment enough to fund the annual salary of some S.League teams.
The club could afford to do so as, through a series of shrewd commercial deals, it has garnered close to “S$1 million worth of cash and in-kind sponsorship” for the upcoming season, said Mr Ramachandra.
Its bottom line will also be boosted by the annual subsidies that the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) provides to S.League clubs each season, which could go as high as S$1 million if they meet certain targets and key performance indicators throughout the season.
In addition, local clubs are given an extra S$130,000 in subsidies from the FAS if they sign at least three former LionsXII players. Tampines have signed nine.
Clearly, Tampines are betting that their investment in players will also bring returns in the form of prize money. The S.League champions will receive S$250,000, while winners of the Singapore Cup and the League Cup will receive S$100,000 and S$30,000, respectively.
Head coach V Sundramoorthy has also outlined his dream of winning the Asia-side AFC Cup this season, which comes with a top prize of US$1 million (S$1.4 million).
“I’ve told everyone that I want them to dream as far as possible. If Johor Darul Takzim can win the AFC Cup, we are not far off,” said the former national striker, who was referring to the MSL club’s capture of the trophy last year.
Corporate partners love nothing more than a winning team. A successful season home and abroad is likely to boost the club’s coffers.
“Hopefully, the signing of Pennant will see more interest in the S.League and attract more companies to take a chance in sponsoring the local clubs,” said Mr Roy Tay, director of Linco Investments — the anchor sponsor of S.League side Home United, which has pumped in S$2 million over three years.
Mr Terry O’Connor, the Group CEO of furniture giants Courts Asia, said one of the important considerations for sports sponsorship is the reach and the brand exposure.
“Signing a high-profile player will certainly bring more interest to the game, encourage a focused concentration on the S.League, and innovation to optimise fan engagement, which in turn, opens the doors to more sponsorship dollars for the development of local football,” said Mr O’Connor, whose company recently ended its five-year sponsorship of the Young Lions but has promised to continue to be involved in local football.
KEEPING UP WITH THE STAGS
Clubs here will certainly be hoping that more sponsors will step forward and loosen their purse strings so that they can also afford their own Pennants. The reality now is that not many have the bank balance to keep up with Tampines.
“Pennant is a well-known footballer, so yes, he will definitely light up the S.League,” said Balestier Khalsa chairman S Thavaneson.
“For my club, however, the approach will be different. We are on the lookout for young and talented European-based players, and not stars in their 30s.”
Said Home United chief executive Azrulnizam Shah: “We don’t have the finances of Tampines to make such big-name signings but, if we do, then why not? For now, our key focus is on developing young local football talent.”
The clubs’ caution is understandable. After all, in the 20 seasons so far of the S.League, no fewer than eight local clubs — Clementi Khalsa, Tanjong Pagar United, Gombak United, Jurong FC, Sembawang Rangers, Marine Castle United, Paya Lebar-Punggol and Woodlands Wellington — have had to exit the league or merge with other clubs because they ran out of money.
This statistic highlights a club’s perennial challenge of balancing its books every year, while ensuring its survival in the league for another season.
Tampines, under the leadership of their long-time chairman Mr Teo Hock Seng — a giant of the motor industry, who’s hugely passionate about local football — have built up a financial clout that no other S.League club has.
Even after he stepped down last November and handed the reins to Mr Ramachandra, Mr Teo’s company, Komoco Motors, continues to be the main sponsor of the club and will be a major contributor to Pennant’s wages.
Only Hougang United — which reportedly made more than S$2 million in profit from their clubhouse operations in 2014 — can challenge Tampines’ financial might. Many other local S.League clubs have to make their pennies count.
“We had the ‘marquee player’ system in 2013 and 2014, but with limited success,” said S.League CEO Lim Chin. “Budget has always been a key constraint for Singapore football.”
For example, even though former Dinamo Zagreb forward and Croatian U-21 international Goran Ljubojevic was Balestier’s marquee player in 2014 (on a reported S$12,000 a month) and banged in 20 goals that season, he was not retained for the following campaign, ostensibly because of wage costs.
With the Stags investing in a star-studded squad to conquer all fronts, and other teams opting to be pragmatic, the gulf between Tampines and the rest of the local clubs is likely to widen.
Off the pitch, the gulf is clear. While 1,300 fans watched Pennant play for Tampines in last Wednesday’s friendly game, Geylang International and Warriors FC told TODAY that fewer than 60 people turned up for their respective friendlies last week.
How are the other clubs going to bridge that gap?
Warriors’ marketing manager Carree Lim said the club has “some things in the pipeline for community engagement”, without giving further details. Home hosted a players’ meet-and-greet last Saturday that drew close to 100 fans, and will hold football clinics for children before matches.
Some clubs are not sure that’s enough to woo fans. Geylang, for one, has decided to consult their supporters on what to do.
“We will be speaking to fans to get their views and ideas on what the club can do to engage the crowd and get the buzz growing once again,” said its general manager Aizat Ramli. “Thanks to Tampines, the buzz is back and we should all jump on the bandwagon now and make full use of it.”
Mr Lim Chin said his wish is to have “more Pennants” to create more buzz, but accepts that clubs must be financially stronger to do that.
“Our intention is always to make the S.League more competitive, exciting and sustainable,” he said. “Clubs also need to be financially stronger to be able to raise the standard and quality of play, through better foreign signings and (providing) more attractive and viable football career options for local players, as well as to overcome rising operating costs like rental, players’ salaries and inflation.”
Money, though, is hard to come by. With revenue from match tickets and club merchandising negligible, most clubs are dependent on FAS subsidies, sponsorships and revenue from clubhouse operations to make ends meet.
Many clubs who are without main sponsors are living from hand to mouth every month, struggling with staff costs and stadium rentals. Just last week, even before a ball has been kicked in the new season, a local club asked the S.League when the next tranche of subsidies is being paid out as they are already struggling with cash flow.
The FAS has appointed Hougang United chairman Bill Ng as Advisor for Clubhouse Operations to help clubs improve their revenue streams.
“The FAS and the S.League will continue to explore other ways to strengthen the clubs on and off the pitch, and with the long-term objective of a viable and sustainable S.League,” Mr Lim Chin said. “Tampines has raised the bar. It is now up to the rest of the S.League to meet that standard.”
A VIRTUOUS OR VICIOUS CYCLE?
If star-studded Tampines dominates contests, as expected, the “Pennant Effect” may soon dissipate. Nothing bores fans more than a one-horse race.
Local fans recall how interest in the S.League dipped when Warriors FC (then known as Singapore Armed Forces FC), who made a habit of snapping up the league’s top foreign and local players each season, won the championship four years in a row from 2006 to 2009.
“I’m glad that a local club (Tampines) has taken proactive steps to really strengthen themselves this season,” said Hougang fan Dean Lim.
“Tampines are certainly the frontrunners for the title because they have a really strong squad. But in the long-term, I think having more balanced teams in the S.League would be more exciting for fans, so they won’t expect one team to keep on sweeping up the titles, season after season.
“Having that unpredictability in the league will make it more engaging.”
While early dominance may be satisfying for Tampines, it may hurt their Asian aspirations in the long run.
To take on the best Asian teams, the Stags need to hone their skills weekly against quality opposition in the S.League. Otherwise, they might find the Asian Champions League too much of a step up.
Case in point: Glasgow Celtic have been peerless in the Scottish Premier League over the past five years, winning four straight league titles since the 2011/12 season.
But the lack of quality opposition at home has caused them to struggle on the European stage. Celtic has made the knock-out stages of the Champions League just three times over the past decade.
Is that what Tampines wants to be? An unbeatable giant at home but an underachieving side against the best in the region?
After the novelty of a star signing has faded, will the S.League be back at square one?
“Pennant’s arrival has spurred some excitement, and various media have been reporting it to build the excitement,” said SportsSG CEO Lim. “But when the reporting on it dwindles, or when excitement dwindles, what’s next?” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AMANPREET SINGH AND ADELENE WONG