The Business Of Sport

Local football 'a $1 billion business' says Sasikumar

Ex-player and agent Sasikumar thinks big, believes product is grossly undervalued

Sports marketing boss R. Sasikumar's passion for and belief in Singapore football comes across in his uncompromising assessment of the sport.
Sports marketing boss R. Sasikumar's passion for and belief in Singapore football comes across in his uncompromising assessment of the sport. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

As a title-winning centre-back, R. Sasikumar was a relentless defender who never gave opposing strikers an easy game.

Those size 11 boots may have been swopped for polished leather shoes but the 41-year-old is similarly uncompromising when it comes to his assessment of local football.

"It is the most under-valued product in the world of football," said the managing director of sports marketing agency Red Card Group.

In February last year, the Football Association of Singapore signed a $25-million, six-year deal with sports media rights giant MP & Silva. Though more than the $15-million, 10-year contract signed in 2001 with Tiger Beer, it still represented a bargain, noted Sasikumar.

For starters, many of the Republic's 5.4 million population are skewed heavily towards the Beautiful Game.

"Football is king. Look at the size of the market we work in," added the 1.93m former international, who scored the winning goal for the Lions in the 1998 AFF Cup final.

"There are probably 300,000 Liverpool fans here, maybe half a million weekend warriors who play on a regular basis. And Singtel pays hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the rights to the English Premier League."

The 21st season of the S-League has also shown that there is an appetite for local football.

Whereas previously crowds of 500 were a common sight, attendances - thanks to Jermaine Pennant's presence and the distribution of LionsXII players among various clubs - have increased.

Last week's Home United-Tampines Rovers game drew a season-high 3,551 fans.

It may be early days yet and a far cry from the league's heyday in the 1990s - a record 31,840 descended upon the National Stadium in April 1996 for a Woodlands Wellington v Geylang United match - but the signs are positive.

Sasikumar, a Fifa-licensed agent, was instrumental in Pennant's arrival but that also was "just the tip of the iceberg of what the possibilities are" if the eight other S-League sides boasted a similar marquee name like the former Arsenal and Liverpool star.

He said: "We're not going to fill the stadiums with 50,000 every week but given our size, we should be able to fill 8,000 and on a big game, up to 25,000, because we've done it in the past before."

While football administrators here have good intentions, they sometimes lack the marketing nous to sell their product, he added.

Case in point: Pennant's much-awaited S-League debut for Tampines was on a Monday night but still drew 2,930 fans. "I'm sure the S-League had their reasons but that's a game you should put on the weekend to bring in families and sell out the stadium...

"Another thing seriously lacking here is the ability to dream big. Plans are very short term. Yes, there are decent crowds now but that's a given. How you keep fans coming, week in, week out, that's where the guys at the top have to earn their money."

Red Card was heavily involved in the 15-year, RM1.26-billion (S$425 million) deal between the Football Association of Malaysia and MP & Silva in January last year and that experience resonated with Sasikumar, who was also responsible for reviving the Lion City Cup in 2011.

"When we first suggested that Malaysian football could be worth a billion ringgit, people laughed and said it was unthinkable," recalled Sasikumar, whose nose for undervalued assets extends to his penchant of buying only second-hand cars.

So what could Singapore's football economy potentially be worth?

"A billion dollars," comes the reply. "If I was leading football, that would be my KPI (key performance indicator) in the next five to eight years.... You can print that. People will laugh at me but so what?

"My belief is Singapore football can be worth that much. That's why I'm in the industry. And if you fall short, that's still a lot more money than you had before."

Faith is a word that Sasikumar lives by. When he founded his company in 2005, it was from a tiny rented office space at Red Dot Museum which he paid $300 a month for.

That one-man operation has grown to the current 4,000 sq ft headquarters in Playfair Road with a "conservative" projected turnover of $15 million this year.

Besides football, Red Card ran the Singapore leg of the International Premier Tennis League and has been consulted on golf and motor sports projects.

It has an office in Kuala Lumpur, is acquiring an agency in Jakarta and has plans to expand into Vietnam and the Philippines, noted Sasikumar, who made 50 trips last year.

"In the last six months, I've hired four senior management staff and we're on track to becoming a 50-60 man agency this year."

Not bad for the middle of three children, who grew up in an HDB flat in Yishun and was offered $35 a session as an assistant youth coach after retiring as a professional footballer in 2003.

Sasikumar said: "Ex-footballers get a bad rap for not taking care of themselves after they retire... I want to show these guys being a coach after football is not the be all and end all, that they can have a new career."

The father of two completed his masters in sports management from the Asia Pacific School of Sports and Business in 2014 but said the best lessons have come from the "school of hard knocks".

He faced legal action last year after a sports academy he was a director of folded suddenly. He was also part of the failed A1 Grand Prix Singapore team in 2006.

"Over the past 11 years, I've made a lot of mistakes... and felt the full blow of them. Failed businesses, court cases, you name it, I've done it," he said. "But it also makes you stronger, wiser, sharper in negotiations and decision-making."

His conviction that Singapore football can thrive is fuelled by its widespread appeal, from Jurong to Bedok, Woodlands to Jalan Besar.

He said: "It has the uncanny ability to bring people together. No other sport here can do that.

"I'm a huge believer that we can build a product which we can all be proud of."

•The Business of Sport is a monthly series looking at the movers and shakers of Singapore's emerging sports business industry

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline Local football 'a $1 billion business' says Sasikumar. Subscribe