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Can the Sports Hub bring in the crowds?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 13, 2013

When it opens next April, the $1.33 billion Singapore Sports Hub will be one of Asia's most modern sporting venues. A calendar of world-class sports and concert events will create buzz. But to avoid the fate of other sports stadiums that end up being white elephants, the Hub must go beyond sports events to draw the crowds.

ITS iconic dome-shaped roof is unmistakable, even though it is still 10 months away from completion. When the Singapore Sports Hub is finally open to the public next April, there is little doubt that the $1.33 billion project will alter Singapore's landscape, in more ways than one.

Physically, it will house a National Stadium boasting the world's biggest free-spanning dome, at 310m wide. The dome will be one of the first things tourists spot from atop the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark and one of the lasting impressions sports fans visiting the Hub will leave with.

Symbolically, the Hub will mark Singapore's arrival as a key player in the sports business industry in the region. It will be a departure from ideologies of the past, when sports was a means to foster a fit and healthy populace.

When the Government invested $50 million in the original National Stadium in 1973, sports excellence and the pursuit of medals were discouraged. More than four decades on, as Singapore prepares to host the 2015 SEA Games in a brand new stadium, Team Singapore - backed by a new $40 million elite athlete funding programme - will be expected to net a record haul of medals at the biennial regional games.

But one memorable event and a shift in philosophy are not enough to ensure that the Hub does not become a white elephant, as is the concern with such mega structures.

Beijing's magnificent Bird's Nest Stadium opened to much fanfare at the 2008 Olympics. Observers hailed its iconic structure, and athletes the inspiring atmosphere it creates. These days, the rare sports event finds itself sharing the calendar with winter wonderland shows, in a venue where the camera clicks of tourists are heard more often than the cheers of fans.

Can the Sports Hub succeed where the Bird's Nest Stadium and others failed?

Programming is key

IT IS no secret that hosting big sporting events will go a long way to ensuring the Hub's success. How often the 50,000 seats at the National Stadium are filled will not only determine Singapore's reputation as a sports city, but also help generate revenue to woo even more big-name athletes and musicians.

The Singapore Sports Hub Consortium (SSHC) - which beat bids from two other parties in 2008 to build and manage the project - is well aware of this and is busy trying to lock down not only regional sports meets, but also world-class events.

Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams will make annual visits to Singapore as part of the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) Women's Championships, which the Republic will host for five years starting next year.

In time, it is hoped that rugby's Sevens World Series and the 2018 World Cup Sevens will also be secured, along with one-day international cricket matches involving top teams.

Sports fans brought up on the Causeway rivalry of the Malaysia Cup may be interested to know that the Asean Super League, where a top Singapore side goes up against teams from around the region, promises to make Kallang roar again.

But for now, those are all the Hub has to offer.

In fact, the Super League is the only regular season-long event the Hub has at the moment. Unlike most European or American cities which can rely on a whole slew of teams from football to rugby, baseball to basketball, Singapore, in that sense, is far from being a big sporting market.

A place to play sport

SENSING the need to create more regular events at the Hub, the operators are keen to engage the everyday Singaporean.

In a site visit to the Hub on Monday, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said that the Hub should not only be a place for Singaporeans to watch sport but also to play sport.

"We also want this to be a place where Singaporeans will come regularly to exercise, to make use of the sports facilities," he said.

As such, schools national championships and the Singapore National Games could find its way to the Hub. The Hub's other features like its Water Sports Centre, skate park and running/cycling circuits, also cater to the fitness-minded.

But even if Singaporeans look forward initially to swimming in the world-class Aquatic Centre or running under the world's biggest dome, how long will the novelty last? Singaporeans are spoilt for choice when it comes to sports facilities.

According to the Singapore Sports Council, the Republic has: 2,641 swimming pools, of which about 100 are Olympic-size; 74 athletic tracks and 116 jogging tracks; 1,363 gymnasiums; 2,761 badminton courts; 224 street soccer/futsal courts and 428 football fields; 29 cycling tracks and five bike trails; 1,258 basketball courts; and 1,163 tennis courts.

To put these numbers into perspective, Singapore has 10 times more swimming pools than London - the host of last year's Olympics - and twice the number of sports halls.

Even the most enthusiastic weekend sports warrior will ask: Why go to Kallang when you can swim, run, have a kickabout in your own backyard?

Commercial options

PERHAPS the best way to make the Hub come alive is to make the Kallang area not just a hub for sports, but also a hub of activity beyond sports.

One of the United States' more successful sports arenas, the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, enjoys a steady stream of visitors, gameday or not, because it is part of the bigger L.A. Live entity.

Apart from being the home to four professional teams, L.A. Live has 520,257 sq m of apartments, bars, concert theatres, restaurants, movie theatres and a 54- storey hotel and condominium tower. As a result, the whole area has been rejuvenated, with new offices sprouting up in what was previously a quiet part of downtown Los Angeles.

Singapore should borrow some of these ideas. According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority's 2008 Master Plan, a new lifestyle hub is being planned for the former Kallang Airport site.

Old Airport Square, as it is now called, will be connected to the Hub via an overhead bridge and could channel traffic into its 41,000 sq m of retail and food and beverage outlets, including waterfront dining.

But why stop there?

The lease for Kallang Theatre expires next March. Why not explore redeveloping the site?

A quick poll of prominent people in the arts fraternity suggests that the theatre has served its purpose, especially with the many other alternative arts venues in town. They do however hope arts still has a place at Kallang, but the theatre needs a makeover.

The Hub can also be an office and commercial hub for active lifestyle companies. Brands like Nike and adidas, and even luxury brands associated with sports like Omega, would be interested to be situated in the Hub.

Singapore is also home to the International Table Tennis Federation's Asia-Pacific office while the National Basketball Association is also keen on having a Singapore office as it expands in Asia. They too would love to be close to the action.

So why not redevelop Kallang Theatre into an office building which will incorporate a mini theatre, that can also double up to host small conventions. A meeting of arts and sports will also be apt given both come under the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Such a facility, if operated by the Hub, would generate revenue for it. But more importantly, aided by the close proximity of Stadium MRT station, such a complex guarantees steady footfall to the area.

One of the main reasons why Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium struggles is that operators stuck largely to traditional sports revenue streams like hosting meets and football matches.

The lack of proper business development plans, including the sale of naming rights which never took off, were highlighted as the root of the problem, Beijing Sport University's College of Management vice-dean Lin Xianpeng told the China Daily in an article last year.

The Singapore model must find a balance between preserving the identity of a national icon and commercialisation.

The Hub must be a symbol of sporting excellence, an active centre for Singaporeans to play sports, and also a beacon for the coming together of the arts and sports community.

marclim@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 13, 2013

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