FAS looking into privatising S.League
FAS team set to study move to restructure the only professional sports league
The 21st year of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League kicked off with much anticipation, mostly off the back of Tampines Rovers' acquisition of former Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant and the return of several national players after the LionsXII were booted out of the Malaysian Super League (MSL).
But the excitement still could not smooth over the cracks in a downsized league after the exit of Woodlands Wellington and Tanjong Pagar United at the end of 2014.
A "critical" review conducted before the start of the ongoing season saw no major changes implemented.
But work is underway, studying the possibility of privatising Singapore's only professional sports league.
"Some members of our staff are preparing a paper on the privatisation of the S.League, and I've asked them to think through what exactly it is we want to achieve with the league," Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president, Zainudin Nordin, told The New Paper yesterday.
"If it is aimed at developing football here, if that is our fundamental reason, will privatisation help that?"
Clubs are now registered as societies under the Societies Act. Unlike a private entity, whose directors are financially liable, those of a society are not.
Clubs receive up to $800,000 in annual subsidies via the league by the Tote Board and it forms a large part of the annual operating budget of about $1.2 million each for a team.
Privatisation of the league will allow for investors to monetise the assets of a football club, a situation that exists in Europe, with a move in the direction already being made north of the Causeway in the MSL.
In January last year, the Football Association of Malaysia agreed a 15-year deal with MP & Silva, with the media rights company committed to pumping at least RM 1.2 billion ($393 million) into the association. The deal will also see the MSL make moves towards privatisation.
Zainudin believes there are several questions that need to be asked.
"Is privatisation the way to go? Do we have the ecosystem to back a private league? Should we try it, where are we going to find the financial backing for it? Should we scrap the league?
"There are many thoughts on each, and at the very least, it's good to ask the hard questions and to have a serious discussion about them," he said.
While sources reveal that the move to privatise stems from the Tote Board considering reducing funding for the S.League, Zainudin declined to comment on the matter.
He said: "I have no comment on the speculation. I'd rather work on changing what we can. They have their own thoughts, as do we, so let's just work on convincing them."
Without funding from the Tote Board, it is believed that the S.League will not be able to function in the same manner that it is now. TNP understands that a discussion on turning the league semi-pro was bandied about, and despite studies on privatisation, that has not been taken off the table.
Zainudin heads the committee looking to implement the Asean Super League (ASL), which will see all 11 South-east Asian countries represented, and the idea of a semi-pro S.League acting as a feeder to the Singapore side in the ASL is still alive.
R Sasikumar, a former Singapore international who is a marketing consultant for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) working on the MSL, believes privatisation is the way to go.
"It is a natural progression from where the league is now, and it is in line with what leagues around the region are already doing, or are trying to do," said the managing director of sports marketing agency, Red Card Group.
"It is a good timing to try and do this now, because in the current state that the league is in, clearly drastic measures are needed."
But Sasi is well aware of the challenges that lie ahead, should the S.League head towards privatisation.
"Privatisation can't be done in isolation - a sustainable model needs to be created, and for that facilities are important for owners of clubs to monetise a club, and that can only be done on the back of a venue, or some real estate," he said, asserting that owning or operating stadiums will be critical for the monetisation of football clubs.
And for that, Sports Singapore will have to be included in discussions.
"There won't be a perfect situation, some boxes will not be checked, and some people will be unhappy. But you can't please everyone," said Sasi.