Exciting times at the Singapore Sports Hub next year

On complaints about the sound system at concerts, Sports Hub CEO Manu Sawhney says the National Stadium's main purpose was never meant to be "acoustic-focused".
On complaints about the sound system at concerts, Sports Hub CEO Manu Sawhney says the National Stadium's main purpose was never meant to be "acoustic-focused".ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Chief exec promises special acts next year, scheduling easier with NDP back at the Bay

While 2016 will go down as a modest year for the National Stadium, the Singapore Sports Hub is bullish that the next 12 months will be anything but.

Big musical acts including Coldplay and U2, top football teams from the English Premier League and Spanish club Valencia, could yet light up the 55,000-seat venue.

The Straits Times understands that talks are ongoing with the relevant parties and a major announcement could be made as soon as next week.

In an interview to review his first year in the job, Singapore Sports Hub chief executive Manu Sawhney steadfastly refused to give the game away but said: "We are optimistic that we'll be able to have some pleasant surprises for the community at large to come and experience events which have either never taken place at the Stadium, or have never come to Singapore before."

Sawhney, who took over from Frenchman Philippe Collin-Delavaud in October last year, added: "I really am optimistic, I wish I can share with you and I'm trying to control myself... (but) it's a function of other issues and time."

BAD TIMING

United were in Asia this year. We had people from the club coming and looking at the facilities. They were pleasantly surprised at the world-class facilities that existed. The issue we had this time around was the timing.

MANU SAWHNEY, on the Sports Hub being unable to accommodate the EPL giants due to a clash with the NDP period.


YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

You can only cut (rental) to a certain extent. What we are aiming at is trying to make sure that we provide value to the hirers.

SAWHNEY, on hirers highlighting the hefty venue charges.

The potential line-up will mark a step up from this year's sparse calendar, where last month's friendly between Singapore and Malaysia - which drew about 25,000 fans - was the main football highlight.

The concerts of Madonna and Jay Chou, as well as the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, were three other events that saw buzzing crowds gather under the iconic dome.

Admittedly, the Sports Hub was hamstrung by the National Day Parade (NDP), which took some 80 days off the venue's calendar.

The NDP window also coincided with a period where many top European football teams were conducting their pre-season tours.

This, Sawhney explained, was why English football giants Manchester United, one of the most well-supported EPL clubs here, did not visit the Hub this year, despite him hinting earlier that the Red Devils could do so.

"United were in Asia this year. We had people from the club coming and looking at the facilities. They were pleasantly surprised at the world-class facilities that existed," said Sawhney, who sits on United's board.

"The issue we had this time around was the timing. The team were touring (Asia) in the last week of July and that was the time when we were focusing on NDP.

"That was one of the key reasons it did not (materialise)."

But there will be no such concerns next year, when the NDP will return to the floating platform at Marina Bay.

That said, Sawhney, a Singapore citizen, reiterated that he was definitely keen on the Hub staging the parade again, noting: "(The NDP) is an event of great importance to the country and we'd be very open to having them again."

In the hour-long interview, the 50-year-old, who was previously managing director of ESPN Star Sports, also tackled questions about the hiccups at several events, including Chou's concert in September, when some fans petitioned for refunds owing to the poor sound system.

He explained that the National Stadium's primary purpose was never meant to be "acoustic-focused", and that the sound issue is a global phenomenon at multi-purpose stadiums around the world, including England's Wembley Stadium.

The situation is compounded by the fact that most big acts have bespoke sound systems, which might not be compatible with the venue.

However, he revealed that the Sports Hub is nonetheless eager to improve things and has engaged experts to conduct studies at the venue so they can better advise future performers on what they can do to improve the sound.

He said: "Rather than them (performers) coming blind, we want to be proactive... so it'll improve the performance."

Besides complaints about the stadium's acoustics, there have also been questions over its high rental charges. To that, Sawhney shot back: "Have you ever seen a hirer who's said that the rental of any venue is reasonable?

"You can only cut (rental) to a certain extent. What we are aiming at is trying to make sure that we provide value to the hirers."

He cited organisers of the World Rugby Sevens Series as "progressive" organisers who are constantly working with the Sports Hub to improve their event, including reconfiguring the seats and introducing new packages to entice fans early. In fact, tickets for the next edition, to be held in April, are already on sale.

Since taking over, Sawhney's time was also marked by departures of senior management, including Global Spectrum Pico (GSP) managing director Mark Collins, his deputy Rob Abernethy and director of contracts and compliance Daphne Letournel.

GSP is one of four partners of SportsHub Private Limited, which built and runs the venue.

Sawhney said: "Whenever there is a change in leadership, often there is also a realignment in terms of team management.

"My primary objective is to basically make sure that the organisation is configured in a manner so we can deliver on our objectives."

These objectives, he said, are three-pronged.

One, to build up a rich events calendar. To which he pointed out that from January till September, the Hub hosted 134 events (involving 228 event days) across its various facilities.

Two, to continuously improve its operations, including the National Stadium's pitch, which had been criticised by visiting football teams.

In this regard, the Sports Hub appears to have finally found a formula, with its "lay and play" surface at the Singapore-Malaysia match winning plaudits. It is also testing new technology on the pitch, such as a system to control the air and moisture in the root zone, to ensure the surface stays in top condition.

Finally, it wants to integrate the $1.33 billion facility with the wider community and make it as "inclusive and accessible" as possible.

This includes sporting events like September's Community Play Day 2, which had 16,000 people take part in a myriad of activities, and non-sporting events like the passing-out parade of army recruits.

Asked when he expected the Hub to break even, Sawhney declined comment, saying "it would not be right", but added: "There are various elements to consider (but) it's a top-most priority for us to deliver on objectives that we set for this asset. I can assure you that we are working harder than ever before... to make this world-class asset known across Asia and the world."

Asked to sum up his year in the hot seat, Sawhney said: "I believe we, as a people and as a country, should be very proud of where (the Sports Hub is). Sometimes we are our own biggest critics.

"Are we the best? Absolutely not.

"But we are very committed towards improving and learning from our mistakes and hopefully there will be more highs (in the next year)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2016, with the headline 'Exciting times at the Hub'. Print Edition | Subscribe