Tennis: Filling the void left by WTA Finals

Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki celebrating with the trophy after winning last year's WTA Finals, which will be played here for the last time in October. SportSG began Tennis Week at last year's edition, which included fringe events and community engage
Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki celebrating with the trophy after winning last year's WTA Finals, which will be played here for the last time in October. SportSG began Tennis Week at last year's edition, which included fringe events and community engagement efforts. "People are beginning to look at events as not just watching a match... (but) an experience," said SportSG CEO Lim Teck Yin.PHOTO: REUTERS
Ukraine's Elina Svitolina taking a selfie with orang utans at the zoo when she was in town for the WTA Finals in October last year.
Ukraine's Elina Svitolina taking a selfie with orang utans at the zoo when she was in town for the WTA Finals in October last year.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova at a WTA promotional event. The WTA Finals ticked several boxes for Singapore including tourism.
Former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova at a WTA promotional event. The WTA Finals ticked several boxes for Singapore including tourism.PHOTO: WTA

Can Singapore find another marquee sporting event; does it need to?

Plans are under way to give the WTA Finals a fitting send-off when the season-ending women's tennis tournament is played here for the last time in October. But even before the best eight players of 2018 arrive to bid a final goodbye to the Republic, Singapore is already bracing itself for the gap that the event will leave on the sporting calendar.

The WTA Finals will move to Shenzhen, China, from next year, in a decade-long deal reportedly worth some US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion).

Experts are in unanimous agreement that the WTA Finals' departure will not have a negative impact on Singapore's reputation as a viable host city for the world's most prestigious sporting events, but there are differing views on what the island can do in its wake.

The challenge, said Deloitte Singapore and South-east Asia sports business group leader James Walton, is "how to keep the calendar fresh, how to keep appealing to people and also how we select the events to bring into the country and motivate Singaporeans to get involved in sport itself".

Mr Malcolm Thorpe, Lagardere Sports' vice-president of business development, Asia, noted that "the WTA Finals is an unusual one because it's so high on the global ranking of sporting events".

But he felt that Singapore need not attempt to match its status with another event.

"I don't think that every event that comes here has to be at that level," he explained. "There was a lot of government support for the Finals, and if it was possible to take the whole pot of money, you could spend it all in one place or you could spread it around. It comes back to what the objectives are."

SEVERAL EVENTS CAN FILL GAP

There are events that are one tier down from that level that could still achieve a lot of the objectives that you want to for a country like Singapore. They could be the focal point for a range of community activity, they could potentially have a broader interest from the population and if you're not spending so much for a super premium event, you can actually get a bigger volume of events that are slightly lower-tier.

LAGARDERE'S MR MALCOLM THORPE 

Singapore is believed to have spent US$14 million for each of the five editions of the WTA Finals it hosted, but that was possible because of a convergence of objectives of the agencies involved - Sport Singapore (SportSG), the Singapore Tourism Board and Lagardere.

The WTA Finals ticked several boxes that included tourism, public engagement, growing a sporting culture as well as profitability, but Singapore does not need to find all these ingredients in a single stellar event.

"There are events that are one tier down from that level that could still achieve a lot of the objectives that you want to for a country like Singapore. They could be the focal point for a range of community activities, they could potentially have a broader interest from the population and, if you're not spending so much for a super premium event, you can actually get a bigger volume of events that are slightly lower-tier," said Mr Thorpe, pointing to the likes of badminton, table tennis and netball, which enjoy strong grassroots participation here.

  • $18.5m

    The equivalent of US$14 million - what Singapore is believed to have spent for each of the five editions of the WTA Finals it hosted.

Singapore has hosted badminton's Superseries events in the past, the second-highest tier of competitions on the Badminton World Federation calendar, behind the Olympics and World Championships.

The Republic is also an old hand at staging netball events such as the World Championship, Asian Championship and Nations Cup.

While tying any potential event to a long-term contract could keep the event here for a longer period of time, Mr Walton is unsure if that is the best solution.

"If your circumstances change and you are committed to hosting something expensive and the demand or attendance drops, or you face economic issues as a nation, that will be quite challenging," he warned.

He observed that while the Asian market is highly competitive, "Singapore is generally getting properties that they want to get" anyway.

He did admit, however, that China's financial muscle would be tough to overcome, adding: "Sometimes, you just can't fight it."

Meanwhile, SportSG chief executive Lim Teck Yin acknowledged the challenge ahead.

 
 

"People are beginning to look at events as not just watching a match, there is a lot more involved, they want a day out - an experience," he said.

"We have to give them something to come out to. The definition of 'live' sports is evolving, and we need to keep up."

Last year, SportSG began Tennis Week at the WTA Finals, which included fringe events such as a sold-out concert by the Backstreet Boys as well as community engagement efforts including talks by British tennis coach Judy Murray.

Mr Lim also insisted that "the notion that people are not coming out is wrong".

Pointing to visitorship during financial year 2017 at SportSG's sports centres, which saw 16.9 million visitors, he said: "Sports participation here is very encouraging. We are starting to see a new generation of parents who do want their kids to play.

"Our participation numbers are about 67 per cent, with big countries' numbers hovering at around 70 per cent. We're not in a bad place, but we must look at the quality of participation, the experience people get during that participation, and building a loop that can sustain that over a lifetime."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Filling the void left by WTA Finals'. Print Edition | Subscribe