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What price for NDP at Sports Hub?

Some parade favourites will not be appearing due to venue constraints, despite organisers paying a princely sum for the site. The hub also risks losing rental returns

In seven weeks, Singapore will celebrate its first National Day Parade (NDP) at the Singapore Sports Hub.

With the National Stadium and its iconic domed roof as the main stage, NDP2016 organisers have promised a "futuristic" show to mark the first chapter after Singapore's Golden Jubilee. They are hoping to wow spectators with a cast of 10,000 performers, drones, 3D projections and larger-than-life props.

Preparations are already in full swing and many performers will be spending a number of weekends rehearsing before the Aug 9 bash.

The 55,000-seater stadium's capacity also means twice as many people - about 275,000 - can catch the parade, previews and rehearsals this year.

It will be poignant as this year's bash would be the parade's homecoming of sorts to Kallang, 10 years after the last NDP was held in 2006 before the old National Stadium was torn down.

While the return to Kallang will provide a sense of nostalgia, questions are already being asked if future NDP should be held at the Sports Hub or if this year's edition should just be a one-off. Central to the concerns are whether the costs outweigh the benefits of holding the NDP at the Sports Hub.

There is talk that next year's NDP organisers from the Artillery Formation are not likely to use the Sports Hub. Instead, they will take the show back to the Marina Bay Floating Platform, which has been a hit due to its unobstructed bayside view.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Of course, this year's novelty factor of holding the parade in a first-time venue will be interesting to spectators. With the dome being touted as a canvas on which images and graphics can be beamed, the parade looks set to be a visual treat.

But even with the bells and whistles for this year's parade at the National Stadium, limitations of the venue will mean a few NDP perennial favourites will not be appearing. The Red Lions parachutists will not be jumping right in front of spectators inside the stadium. The convoy of war machines will not rumble past spectators, either. The stadium's design will not allow safe passage for the Red Lions nor accommodate tanks and the like.

And, again, because the stadium's domed design will block most of the view outside, those inside the arena have to give the traditional flypast a miss and settle for indoor - or digital - fireworks.

Spectators will no doubt be disappointed as the Red Lions and sky-high outdoor fireworks have consistently emerged as top picks in surveys done by organisers.

In a poll conducted before the inaugural Marina Bay NDP in 2007, seven out of 10 people said they liked the Marina Bay area with Singapore's distinctive skyline clearly in the background.

Then there is the question of cost. This year's organisers were locked in protracted talks with the Sports Hub before reaching an agreement on the rent last December.

While NDP organisers have 45 days of use of the venue annually for free, as stipulated in the public-private partnership contract (PPP) between Sports Hub Private Limited (SHPL) and the Singapore Government, technicians and performers from previous parades said that was not enough to prepare for the event.

The Straits Times understands the Sports Hub wanted $26 million for another 35 days for rehearsals. But that figure has reportedly been slashed to $10 million.

All in, NDP2016 will cost about $39.4 million, with a chunk of it going towards renting the venue. This makes it the second most costly NDP after last year's Golden Jubilee edition at the Padang, which cost $40.5 million.

Previous NDPs at the floating platform cost between $15.7 million and $17.9 million. The 2010 edition at the Padang cost $20.6 million.

This has drawn flak by some who question if organisers are paying too much for a venue, which has not quite lived up to the hype of being the crown jewel of Singapore sports and the must-go venue for top entertainment acts.

As for the Sports Hub, it may be pocketing an extra $10 million from hosting the NDP, but in closing the venue from this month to August to potential suitors, it could be losing more in commercial rental rates.

The three-month period is a golden window for many events to be held. Top international football clubs that are on their season break would travel around the world at this time to hold exhibition matches.

Last July over two days, the highly popular Barclays Asia Trophy tournament drew more than 80,000 fans eager to catch English Premier League (EPL) giants Arsenal, Everton and Stoke City in action. This was a record for the biennial tournament which is held only in Asia.

Such events put Singapore on the sporting map. EPL chief executive Richard Scudamore even gave the stadium the thumbs-up, saying the league has "every reason" to hold the tournament here again because football is "played competitively in a full and vibrant stadium".

Not only did the likes of EPL giants perform there, but also pop stars One Direction, Taylor Swift and Jay Chou. In all, the Sports Hub welcomed more than 3.5 million visitors last year. Among them, 1.4 million attended 124 sports and entertainment events, including the 28th SEA Games.

But this year is quieter, with only a few big-name draws confirmed. Before rehearsals at the stadium started last week, the only other bookings were for a concert by Taiwanese singer A-Mei, three Super Rugby games featuring new Japanese franchise Sunwolves, and the World Rugby Sevens Series in April. After Aug 9, the stadium will host only Taiwanese singer Jay Chou in September. Spanish football club Valencia, which was bought over by Singapore businessman Peter Lim, had to shelve its pre-season plans to play in a friendly at the stadium because of NDP preparations, among other reasons.

If people stay away, then whatever next for the $1.33 billion Sports Hub, which needs to keep a keen eye on its bottom line?

The PPP nature of the venue, which was opened in June 2014, means that it is primarily run as a commercial interest. It is incumbent on the management to fill the venue's calendar with as many events as possible to make the entire project, which also comprises the OCBC Arena, OCBC Aquatic Centre and the Singapore Indoor Stadium, commercially viable.

After all, it was the private sector which was tasked to design, build, finance and operate the project for 25 years. The Government, which did not have to fork out a lot of capital for the project, pays a monthly amount throughout the Sports Hub's 25-year term. It also gets free usage of the National Stadium for important events like the NDP and key sport events.

While the Sports Hub has developed a reputation for being overpriced, it cannot settle for anything that hurts its financial viability, as its chief executive Manu Sawhney said in an interview earlier this year.

Then there is the problem of the pitch, which is still being panned by many for being sandy and uneven. Even after the hybrid surface, made up of synthetic fibres and natural cool weather grass, was replaced by a "lay-and-play" one, the stadium is still plagued by pitch woes.

Not having the NDP at the stadium will allow the pitch more time to recover and avoid the short turnaround time between events.

Such starts and stops during the Sports Hub's infancy will do nothing to cement its reputation as the centre for sporting excellence.

The upshot of staging NDP in the Sports Hub: People don't get to see what they like in the parade, organisers pay a princely sum for what might be a lesser show, and Singapore sport suffers.

Toting up the costs and benefits, it does not seem like the NDP and the Sports Hub are a good fit, and it may not be a bad idea to look elsewhere to stage future editions. By not forcing a square peg in a round hole, Singapore, as a whole, will end up the winner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'What price for NDP at Sports Hub?'. Print Edition | Subscribe