Sometime in the early noughties, former national swimmer Desmond Koh started an agency with the aim of getting sponsorships for Singaporean athletes.
To showcase some of the Republic's finest at a time when sports marketing in the country was still in its infancy, he launched a calendar featuring portraits of bowler Andrew Fang, golfer Lam Chih Bing, fencer Nicholas Fang and swimmers Leslie Kwok and Mark Chay.
"It was quite pioneering," Black Dot managing director Nicholas Fang, 42, recalled. "Back then, it was very, very tough. We couldn't get sponsors and the thing just died off."
While the world's top sports agents like Scott Boras and Jorge Mendes - they earned US$108.33 million (S$143.7 million) and US$76.92 million in commissions respectively last year, according to Forbes - the industry here is nowhere as lucrative, although things are changing.
Former Lions defender R. Sasikumar was primarily a football agent when he started sports marketing agency Red Card Global in 2005, but moved away from it five years ago. He said: "Back then, it was almost impossible (to get sponsorships)... but these days you don't have to be a great player. You could look like David Beckham and play in the S-League, but if you have a million followers (on social media), you are valuable."
A GROWING LOCAL SCENE
The rise of social media, along with local athletes making an impact on the world stage like Joseph Schooling's historic feat at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has sweetened the ground for sports marketers here.
Sports marketing agents are evangelists and... hopefully, corporations can see that sports marketing is not just about sewing their logos onto jerseys. Athletes can help deliver motivation talks, they embody values like discipline, focus, team-work and spread a healthy message.
NICHOLAS FANG, on how sports excellence can drive improvements elsewhere.
The swim star has 160,000 Instagram followers, football siblings Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi have a combined 110,000 while sprinter Timothee Yap has 42,000.
Dr Ang Swee Hoon, associate professor at the National University of Singapore Business School, said: "The athlete has become a social influencer. Having an athlete testify how much he or she likes a drink, for instance, gives instant exposure to the number of followers who are eager to hear what the athlete has to say. It is very targeted and has a pool of attentive audience."
In recent years, local sports agencies ONEathlete, Black Dot and Equatre Asia have sealed deals for the likes of marathoners Mok Ying Ren (New Balance and 100Plus), Soh Rui Yong (Asics, Garmin and Yeo's) and wakeboarder Sasha Christian (Oakley and Rip Curl).
While others, like Soh and Lions goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud can rake in five-figure cash sums from sponsorships (in addition to products), eye-catching fees are rare.
Agents typically take a percentage from the deals they broker. For example, a football agent gets a commission of about a month's salary - between $5,000 and $10,000 - for finding a national player a new club. It is paid by the club or player, or a combination.
As such deals are usually one-off and relatively low in cash value, agents have to diversify their services. Equatre Asia acts as a consultant for the Triathlon Association of Singapore on a retainer, while Red Card Global has organised the Lion City Cup, a youth football event, and the International Premier Tennis League Singapore leg.
Three leading players in Singapore
Started in 2017 by former SEA Games marathon champion Mok Ying Ren and Jed Senthil
Marathoners Mok, Ashley Liew, Evan Chee, Aileen Tan, Soh Hua Qun and Ben Moreau, distance runner Banjamin Quek, tennis player Shaheed Alam, hockey and floorball player Tan Yi Ru, triathlete Benjamin Ooi and kayakers Sarah Chen, Stephenie Chen and Jonathan Chong
2. Black Dot
Started by former national fencer and former Nominated Member of Parliament Nicholas Fang in 2012
Marathoner Soh Rui Yong, squash player Vivian Rhamanan and the Singapore Slingers
3. Equatre Asia
Started in 2017 by former Singapore Sports School colleagues Kevin Wong and Hafidz Ja'afar
10 national athletes, including sprinter Shanti Pereira, footballers Izwan Mahbud and Adam Swandi, wakeboarder Sasha Christian and basketballer Leon Kwek
A MYRIAD OF CHALLENGES
Fang said: "The sports scene here isn't as mature or has a similar depth to the West, China or a sports-crazy country like Australia and New Zealand, but it has so much potential.
"Unfortunately, we don't have that level of corporate support yet... Some see it as charity or CSR (corporate social responsibility) and that can be dangerous as the CSR focus can change over time."
Sasi, 42, agreed. He does digital marketing for Indonesian footballer Irfan Bachdim and Thai star Charyl Chappuis within South-east Asia as the markets are bigger and companies "pay decent money for endorsement deals".
He added: "(Here), if you're not Joseph Schooling, forget about it."
Winning is critical for athletes to stay relevant and maintain their appeal. Dr Ang said: "Athletes, like other celebrities, have limited lifespan as endorsers. They are as good as their last race - if Schooling won the Rio Olympics and has not won any important meet thereafter, then his marketability declines.
"Constant wins also chalk up mileage as the athlete will have favourable media exposure that makes him or her visible to the public. Such favourable visibility is important to marketers. Aligning their brand to an athlete who is constantly in the news as a winner, makes the brand a winner too."
A senior manager with a sportswear brand agreed: "We look at the marketability of the athlete, whether he has a social media following and whether he has good attitude. We want to work with the right personalities for the relationship to be mutually beneficial."
INITIATIVE FROM THE ATHLETE
This is where they can play a part in making an athlete "sponsor-ready", said Equatre's Kevin Wong and Hafidz Ja'afar. They work together with their clients to come up with logos, dedicated social-media profiles and content, as well as physiotherapists and trainers to improve their on-field performance.
Hafidz, 34, said: " A lot of our athletes don't prepare themselves or create opportunities or platforms for sponsors to realise that they are worth investing.
"When we sign them up we tell them it's not magic, we can't get sponsors for you straight away."
Schooling's feat in Brazil was the high-water mark in Singapore sport, yet there have been other breakthroughs by his peers at international competitions.
Since 2002, Singapore has won a combined 50 golds at the Commonwealth and Asian Games and captured world championships in bowling, table tennis and billiards.
Fang said: "Sports marketing agents are evangelists and... hopefully, corporations can see that sports marketing is not just about sewing their logos onto jerseys.
"Athletes can help deliver motivation talks, they embody values like discipline, focus, teamwork and spread a healthy message. This is a win-win situation that could be sustainable."