FAS roundtable: Clubs query benefits of planned relocation

Warriors FC training at Choa Chu Kang Stadium. Their outreach efforts have even gone beyond their Yew Tee neighbourhood.
Warriors FC training at Choa Chu Kang Stadium. Their outreach efforts have even gone beyond their Yew Tee neighbourhood.ST FILE PHOTO

S-League sides open to talks with FAS but do not see move bringing in far bigger crowds

The burning question that the S-League clubs have in response to the ideas mooted by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) to rejuvenate the ailing league is this: How much difference can they make?

Three of the FAS' executive committee members - president Lim Kia Tong, deputy president Bernard Tan and vice-president Edwin Tong - shared some of those ideas during a Straits Times roundtable session last Friday.

One of the key points is a possible re-organisation of S-League clubs, according to geographical locations or political boundaries, such as different GRCs.

By doing so, it is hoped that each club will have a bigger base for potential fans and be able to perform more outreach activities within the separate communities.

While the clubs welcomed the idea, they noted that most of the local-based clubs have already been actively involved in reaching out to the neighbourhoods where they are based - by running football clinics and programmes. Whether a re-drawing of the boundaries will see a significant boost in fan support remains to be seen.

Choa Chu Kang Stadium-based Warriors FC's outreach efforts have even gone beyond their Yew Tee neighbourhood. Since last month, they have conducted football training sessions at Lianhua Primary School every Saturday at the school's compound in Bukit Batok.

Said their general manager Paul Poh: "Will allocating the clubs into different zones make a big difference? I don't think so. Maybe only a difference of about 200 to 300 fans. Perhaps if Woodlands Wellington return to the league, you will see some 500 of their diehard fans return.

"The identity of a club is important. But we don't really know whether we get to stay in one location for a long term."

He was referring to the fact that some of the clubs were forced to relocate, owing to factors beyond their control, and found their identities diluted as a result.

The latest instance was the five-time league champions Tampines Rovers, a stronghold of fans on the east side of Singapore, being relocated to western parts of the island (Clementi and Jurong West Stadiums) for the last six years as their old home was rebuilt as Our Tampines Hub (OTH).

In their final match at the old Tampines Stadium in 2011, they attracted 2,106 fans. However, their crowd figures diminished to about 1,500 during their six years away in the west.

When they returned to Tampines for their first match on July 28, long-time Stags supporters as well as Simei-Tampines residents were among the 4,676 fans who turned up at the 5,078-seat venue.

Said chairman Krishna Ramachandra: "I believe this concept has hit the nail on the head. I look at the OTH as being a 'mini sports hub', one that is a people's hub. This is because we will play matches regularly there and this sustains the fans' engagement."

Should Geylang International be forced to move out of Bedok Stadium in the future, the Eagles are determined to maintain the relationships the club has built with the community. They might even provide transport to ferry fans from Bedok to their new venue.

Said general manager Andrew Ang: "Our bonds with the communities in the Bedok neighbourhood area and schools are strong. We cannot abandon them just because we are moving to another part of Singapore to play.

"We will still continue our outreach programmes in Bedok."

With stadiums being renovated and clubs going in and out of business since the S-League's inception in 1996, reigning champions Albirex Niigata's general manager Koh Mui Tee feels that it is a good time to "get back to the original premise" and redo the clubs' respective area boundaries.

He added: "With consistent outreach programmes, sooner or later, more fans will turn up. All clubs have been doing it quietly behind the scenes, but perhaps we've got to make it a bigger scale now."

Another idea to boost the clubs' coffers is to reach out to more corporate sponsors, especially Government-linked companies.

While the FAS recognises that it will be a difficult task, some clubs have taken the initiative to forge win-win partnerships with sponsor companies.

Albirex teamed up with sponsors including Canon for a Pokemon Day on June 23 at Jalan Besar Stadium to spice up a regular S-League match against Home United.

Koh said: "It's a partnership which benefits both us and them to create a family atmosphere at a game."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Clubs query benefits of planned relocation'. Print Edition | Subscribe