Football: CEO of mobile platform provider Garena calls on more firms to invest in local game

Forrest Li has been in love with football since the 1980s and had wanted to be involved with Singapore football from 2011.
Forrest Li has been in love with football since the 1980s and had wanted to be involved with Singapore football from 2011.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Li calls on firms to take a leap of faith and invest in the local game, like Garena

On a table inside Forrest Li's spacious office rests a 3D paper model of the National Stadium, one which took him a whole weekend to build.

Ironically, the self-professed football fan has not caught a single match under the 55,000-seater's iconic dome.

The Garena group chief executive officer explained: "Every month, I'm usually on business trips around the region half the time, so I've missed a number of matches."

Yet, the 38-year-old left little doubt as to where his passion lies when the company he founded inked a $4 million, two-year sponsorship deal with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Tuesday.

The princely sum, to support the Young Lions, is a record in the 20-year-old S-League's history, surpassing the league's deal with title sponsor Great Eastern, which is reportedly worth around $1 million over two years.

"If you have something you are passionate about, then you should fully develop and embrace it. I love football, my employees love football, it's our way of giving back to society, who have supported us a lot," said Li, whose company is valued at US$2.5 billion (S$3.5 billion).

SHEER LOVE OF FOOTBALL

It's not like a business deal where you negotiate on every single dollar. It's more like what's the right amount to make meaningful impact.

FORREST LI , Garena group chief executive officer, insisting there is no commercial motive behind his move to sponsor the Young Lions to the tune of $4 million

The affable Li, who hails from Tianjin, China, said he tries to play football with his employees every Wednesday, when the company charters a shuttle bus to ferry them to a street soccer court in Outram.

He fell in love with the sport when his father took him to support the Tianjin state team in a packed stadium in the 1980s.

This was what convinced the Singapore permanent resident to get involved with football in the Republic, where he has been based since 2006.

Despite the record sum, the deal took a short time to iron out. In fact, a principal agreement was reached after his first meeting with FAS general secretary Winston Lee.

According to Li, Garena, an Internet and mobile platform provider, had wanted to be involved with local football as early as 2011, when the LionsXII were formed.

Then the company had broached the idea of being a shirt sponsor with the FAS. But telco and broadcaster StarHub got the deal instead.

In a twist of fate, it was the LionsXII's exit from the Malaysia Super League (MSL) which made Li go for a second bite.

He said: "I don't usually watch television but I happened to be watching the news the night it was announced that the LionsXII were out of the MSL.

"That same night I wrote an e-mail to the EDB (Economic Development Board) and asked if it could put us in touch with the FAS to see if we could help in any way."

He insisted that there was no commercial objective then. He just wanted to help, especially after reading reports that the Malaysian teams found it costly to travel here.

The size of the sponsorship was also far from his mind at the time.

Said Li, who still keeps The Straits Times' reports of the LionsXII's exit in his office for reference: "It's not like a business deal where you negotiate on every single dollar. It's more like what's the right amount to make meaningful impact."

To illustrate his point, Li said he was unaware that the Young Lions sponsorship was a record amount until he read the news yesterday.

Having made his foray into the local game, Li hopes to recreate his earliest memories of football. "I hope to one day take my children to watch a football match, ideally in a full stadium. I miss that feeling," the father of two said. "You watch matches on TV but it's a different feeling when you cheer your home team from the heart."

He hopes more companies will take the leap of faith and invest in local football. "If everybody thinks (local football) is small, nobody wants to invest, it will be small. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"But even if people invest blindly (in the hope it will come good) ... I believe eventually the whole ecosystem will be better off."

He said Garena would not offer sweeteners to its customers to lure them to the stadium, preferring fans to come for "the right reason".

But Li said he would speak to the team and coach to explore other ways Garena can help them.

Last month, his wife wanted them to catch Taiwanese singer A-mei's concert at the National Stadium. But he turned her down.

Laughing, he explained: "I told her that my first visit to the National Stadium must be for a football game, not a concert."

With the Garena Young Lions set to take on the Iranian Under-21 team, that first visit could happen sooner rather than later.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline 'Passion play to benefit football'. Print Edition | Subscribe