How To Reinvigorate Our Local League

As the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) LionsXII dream comes to an end with their removal from the Malaysia football scene and their subsequent dissolution, the entire local football fraternity’s attention will now turn to the enigma that is the S.League.

Two main issues plaguing the local league are the standard of football and the ability to sustain high enough ‘live’ attendances for games. In a sense, it’s a chicken and egg sort of dilemma for the FAS. The crowd will only come if the football on show is deemed entertaining enough, while the standard of football can only improve with increased finances derived from large number of supporters.

With that in mind, here are six (long) suggestions that could help bring the local league back into prominence.

Relaunch A Rebranded League

Everyone, even the FAS secretly, recognises that the S.League in its current guise has failed to improve, or even maintain, the standards of Singapore football. The FAS needs to come to terms with the failings of the S.League and relaunch an entirely brand new local league, especially with a new competition format.

Critics may then harp on the fact that this mere superficial rebranding does little to drive public interest back into the game. However, clinging onto the S.League as a football brand itself will have little improvement either. The best way would be to relaunch an entirely new league. In terms of names, there are limited choices – with most leagues following similar templates, using either ‘national’ or ‘premier’ to brand their leagues.

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singapore’s most globally-renowned company as the league’s title sponsor?

This new league could then be rebranded, quite simply, the Singapore Premier League. Of course, should a titled sponsor be found, the company’s name would replace ‘Singapore’ in the title. The most suitable candidates would be local companies, so some of the best names for this rebranded sponsored league could be the Singapore Airlines Premier League (SAPL) or even better, the SingTel Premier League. The financial boost and exposure of having such globally-renowned title sponsors would further benefit the rebranded league.

Remodel After Major League Soccer (MLS)

The success of the United States in popularising a once-maligned sport should be noted by the FAS. Admittedly, the US football leagues got a huge boost after their success from hosting the 1994 World Cup – a globally-renowned tournament that would be logistically impossible to hold in Singapore.

However, US football had to contend with more traditional popular sports like basketball and baseball, with already well-established leagues, well-supported leagues and players with celebrity-like status. This is why the US’s MLS model is one which could provide certain features for the FAS to adapt to Singapore’s local league system.

First off, the MLS’s use of the marquee player has helped to exponentially grow the sport’s popularity in recent years, with the unrivalled case study of David Beckham’s 5-year stay at LA Galaxy. Having older yet extremely popular players – still possessing outstanding abilities of course – helped the MLS improve its stature at home and abroad. Fans were initially drawn into stadiums to see Beckham strut his stuff on American soil. Yet as the years gone by and when Beckham finally left in 2012, the game had got so popular in the US by then that fans were now turning up to support their clubs, not just for single players.

Though Singapore would not be able to afford players of such status – at least right now – the FAS should seek to adopt such a policy for the new local league. The debate over the benefits of having foreign players in Singapore is not new. Instead, it is the quality of the foreigners that the FAS should be focusing on, and by that they should stop focusing so much on cheap, obscure, easily-attainable foreigners playing in leagues far worse than our own. Admittedly, there has been success stories like Aleksandar Duric; but for every Duric, there are dozens of Precious Emuejerayes – and Precious was not even a complete flop by Singapore’s standards.

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singapore football’s popularity would explode with its own david beckham

The FAS should perhaps look at players not of the highest quality and popularity – say the Beckhams, Ronaldos of this world – but perhaps the second-rate ones. Even the recently-launched Indian Super League managed to attract the likes of David James, David Trezeguet, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, Luis Garcia and Elano as their club’s marquee players. Even the Malaysia Super League got Pablo Aimar for a season.

These are exactly the types of players the FAS should be looking at to be the faces of the local clubs. Players that have enough pedigree and reputation, players that would not cost an absolute fortune, but would still attract fans to games to see them in the flesh. Players who would actually improve the standard of football played, by inspiring and showing our local players the way to train, to play and to be professional.

There was news of former Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldinho teaming up with Tampines Rovers to set up his own football academy, why not the FAS offer Ronaldinho a deal to play with Tampines for a season, if not for Ronaldinho to enjoy the famous expatriate life in Singapore, but also to oversee the establishing of his academy? If the FAS could get each club a marquee player that would also be willing to set up his academy in Singapore, wouldn’t that make the whole landscape of Singapore’s grassroots and professional football scene all that more vibrant?

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certainly not rush (centre), but perhaps luis garcia (far right)?

The recent charity match played out between legends of Liverpool and Manchester United drew thousands to the Sports Hub. The likes of Liverpool trio Luis Garcia, Robbie Fowler, goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, and United duo Quinton Fortune, Louis Saha are under 40 years of age, but arguably of the required fitness and playing standard to have one last go in the professional game in Singapore. All of these great players could even take on a dual player-coaching role, giving them an extra incentive should they be interested in coaching, perhaps eventually being given their first managerial jobs in Singapore.

Restricting the number of foreign players per team to three would suit well with this plan. The FAS, sponsors and clubs would all contribute to the wages of these mega stars. Sponsors could even subsidise a part of their wages by employing these famous footballers as the face of their brands as well. On top of that, the clubs themselves could then scour for top Asian talents, perhaps older ones, to join on the back of the league’s newfound star power. This mix of global and Asian stars would even bode well to attracting attention from foreign audiences and give local players greater international exposure, especially to the scouts of foreign teams. And this is where the key role of broadcasters comes in.

Refining TV Broadcasting

Right now, one reason for the low public interest to the S.League has been due to the lack of broadcast on free-to-air television – run by state broadcaster Mediacorp – as well as with cable operators – like StarHub – choosing to focus on the now-defunct LionsXII’s exploits in the Malaysia Super League. With the latter out of the picture, it is now down to both Mediacorp and cable operators to give the local league the sufficient exposure in the form of regular broadcasts.

Each of Mediacorp’s four channels for each of the four main languages in Singapore – Suria (Malay), Vasantham (Tamil), Channel 8 (Mandarin) and Channel 5 (English) – should be made to broadcast one ‘live’ match per match day, with their respective football commentaries being done in the channel’s main language, to cater for the various races in Singapore. Cable channel Supersport could then choose one ‘big’ or high-profile match to broadcast per match day. A minimum of five matches per match day would equate to at least 80% of all matches played being broadcasted per match day.

With Singapore’s prime time period lasting around five hours in the evening – around 6.30pm onwards till around 12.30am – taking up one 2 hour slot per week for the broadcast of a ‘live’ match, around a meagre 6% of a week’s prime time, should not be too much to ask for. Further, each round of league matches should be spread over two days – say Friday and Sunday evenings – so no one would have more than three matches to pick from at any one time. Mediacorp and Supersport would do well to take lessons from NBC’s success in promoting the English Premier League (EPL) in the US – with dedicated channels, integration of football into Americans’ weekend lifestyles, and the use of famous pundits among others.

Trying to avoid clashing with the hugely popular EPL on Saturday and Sunday evenings? Then play league matches on Friday and Monday nights, and true fans would have no excuse not to turn up at stadiums. Hopefully, the games would be good enough for post-work entertainment.

Redesigned Competition Format

There have been previous attempts to liven up the league, with penalty shootouts to settle draws, playing an additional round of games at neutral Jalan Besar on top of the home and away fixtures, just to name a few. All have failed, but there are still a few ways that might improve the Singapore league system.

Like many leagues around the world, most notably the MLS and even the Malaysia Super League, the use of a post-season cup after a traditional league campaign not only help to provide more excitement, but would also help the FAS have longer football seasons without the need to add more clubs – with such quantity most likely diluting the league’s quality.

There were ten clubs that participated in the 2015 S.League season. Realistically, Singapore football can only really support 12, at most 14, local clubs. One thing is for certain, having foreign clubs is not the way to go – though Japanese outfit Albirex Niigata has been somewhat a success story so far. A simple home and away system would be played among the 12 or 14 clubs, equating to 22 or 26 games per club (or match days) respectively.

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a 12 club-league is an immediate target for the fas

A post-season cup, say the StarHub Cup, would be played among the top 4 (for 12 clubs) or 8 (for 14 clubs). This would be a two-legged knockout style tournament, with the single leg final staged at the Sports Hub. This would mean the 4-clubs losing semifinalists and 8-clubs losing quarterfinalists would play a total of 24 and 28 games respectively, with the corresponding finalists and losing semifinalists playing a total of 26 and 30 games respectively; and the 8-clubs finalists playing a total of 32 games.

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a 14 club-league is the ideal goal for the fas

Even further, the FAS could still continue their love affair with foreign clubs by having a mid-season cup competition, say the FAS SingPost League Cup. As with the current League Cup, the FAS would invite 4 or 2 foreign sides to complete the number of teams needed for this tournament to start with 4-team group stage. Foreign sides could ideally come from top Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong outfits, even teams from Australia and China. With this mid-season tournament possibly taking place in June/July, it would coincide with the pre-season of European teams. This might facilitate the FAS to invite mid-tier European sides to participate in this tournament as part of their pre-season preparations. The top two teams of each group qualify for single-legged knockout ties. Throughout this month, clubs would thus play a minimum of three games in the round robin group stage, and a maximum of six games should they reach the final.

With a 14-club league, 8-club post-season cup and 16-club mid-season tournament, there would be a maximum of 38 match days, similar to that of the top European leagues. Factoring all the international breaks, this number of games would also provide optimal time between games for most players to rest and recuperate, maintaining the standard of football at the required level.

Rejuvenate Infrastructure

All these new star players, competition formats and broadcast proposals would fall to the wayside without an adequate medium to support them, such as relevant footballing infrastructure like top-class stadiums and training facilities.

Right now, most of the stadiums are old, almost desolate, unappealing places to go to, with little retail or recreational amenities near by – though one thing that stadiums in Singapore do have going for them is their relative proximity. Inside, the lack of noise and atmosphere is costing the S.League in terms of drawing fan in and broadcasting an exciting product on television.

Bishan Stadium 5

bishan stadium: the typical dead space and underutilisation of football grounds

Renovating the stadiums and giving them a massive, much-needed facelift would go a long way in not only attracting fans back into grounds, but also in showing foreign stars how serious the FAS are in developing the local league. Rejuvenating stadium grounds also allows clubs to generate greater revenue through F&B sales and shop rentals. Clubs need to utilise their stadiums and its surroundings as a hub for the local neighbourhood to gather, and to help foster a community spirit between the club and its residential surroundings.

As vital as rejuvenating stadiums are for clubs to entice fans back to ‘live’ games, reinvesting in training facilities are for clubs attempting to improve the level of football played by their teams. Poor training facilities could also be a potential push factor for foreign stars considering joining the league. More importantly, clubs owning their own well-equipped training facilities would do much to help in the development of local players. With training facilities the very offices of footballers, having proper facilities is tantamount to adding a certain level of motivation and professionalism for Singapore’s professional footballers.

Reuniting Players

That would mean re-unionisation of players. Right now, local players are more concerned over prolonging their contracts rather than improving their games. Unlike in Europe, clubs in Singapore have a major upper hand over players in terms of negotiating contracts and salaries. Oftentimes clubs hand players one year deals that provide almost no job security for players. The usual end of season squad revamps would mean many players usually leave their clubs in search of another, most players experience this almost every year.

With such insecurities, how are players to focus more on developing their talents? To them, playing well in the short-term is more important than their long-term development. This could be a very big hindrance for Singapore’s footballers. And this could be solved with a players’ union.

This might be nigh impossible in a country that has historically cracked down on trade unions, but the FAS needs to convince the government to allow the unionisation of players, such that there is a more balanced field between clubs and players when negotiating contracts. This could help players attain contracts of greater length, such that this increased job stability would allow them to focus on their football developments rather than where their next pay check will be coming from.

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having a players’ union like the uk’s pfa would truly professionalise football

This would decrease the level of player movement in the league, and give the league’s transfer window greater importance. The reintroduction of transfer fees and the rumour mill might even provide fans with the kind of excitement not seen before.

The longer players are able to stay at their clubs, the greater the opportunity for players to interact with the club’s surroundings, the higher chance they would be able to form a bond with their club’s local community. Point is, the off-the-field personalities of players is as important to the league as their on-field performances.

Historically, the FAS has been poor in its attempts to engage the local media in the PR and promotion of their clubs and more importantly, their players. The media do little to drive up the ‘homegrown’ nature of certain players, those of whom play for clubs from their own residential neighbourhood. The FAS could oblige its clubs to hold regular open days, grassroots football training days, players’ meet-and-greet in shopping malls or residential areas, charitable events, community centre visits, in an attempt to drive greater press coverage over the players’ community involvement.

The players need to be promoted and celebrated within the local press, even criticised as required. Singapore’s top footballers need to be constantly on the back pages of local broadsheet newspapers, similar to the likes of Safuwan Baharudin and Izwan Mahbud right now. They need to be more prominent, more recognisable on the streets and in the coffeeshops. If such a level of attention can be achieved, all the more likely fans would want to see their local icons, favourites ‘live’ in this brand new relaunched local league in Singapore.

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8 thoughts on “How To Reinvigorate Our Local League

  1. “but the FAS needs to convince the government to allow the unionisation of players, ”

    Why would FAS need govt’s approval to allow players to form their union?

    1. Trade unions of any kind do not exist in Singapore – except for government-backed NTUC. So I would be surprised if the Singapore government does grant players their own union. So in any case, this would probably have to be done with the FAS seeking government approval.

      1. So would it run risk of having FIFA ban impose on Singapore football if such move is deemed government interference because such approval need to be sought?

      2. Not sure about this. But perhaps the FAS has been using NTUC as a general workers union for football players in Singapore. Don’t think FIFA has any requirements for a member association to have a players union, so whether or not there is one doesn’t matter to them unfortunately..

  2. Thanks for the lengthy article, Darren! I have some responses I hope to be able to organise in a post of my own. I hope I can link to yours to improve the conversation.
    Briefly, I think the marquee player scheme has been tried before and should be avoided; there needs to be better media collaboration with all the diverse outlets, especially the smaller online outfits, since the mainstream press doesn’t seem to be too interested; and players’ union I support, but we need to push for full one-year contracts first as the current norm seems to be 11-month contracts; and more resources should be spent on making sure we get enough supporting cast members (referees, medical staff, groundsmen, etc.) to be able to run everything on two matchdays, Saturday and Sunday. We could explore 5.30 kick-offs which allow fans to go home in time even if the BPL kicks off early, or even morning/afternoon matches with enough precaution against the heat. 11am or 2pm kick-off times could perhaps allow more families to make it a weekend outing.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read my article! Sure please do link my article for yours. (what’s your site link?)
      For marquee players I just think we need really famous pros, those that have played regularly in the European top flights before, say even Joey Barton!
      Agree with media involvement.. Live streams would be good too.
      For players, I would say a minimum of two year contacts is needed for any sort of job security for footballers. And definitely, football wouldn’t be possible without non-playing staff, they’re so integral, like how English football positively perceives their clubs kit men even.
      For timings of games, 11am or 2pm would be quite hot for singapore? 530 is pretty good. Yes it has to be inculcated in singaporeans lifestyles to ever work. 🙂

Thank you! I will get back to you as soon as I can! :)

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