The Malaysia Rugby Union is ninety-nine years old and boasts over 40,000 registered players at more than 300 clubs, but the game has never had a true home in the country. However, just this month, the country’s Sports Ministry announced the building of a first rugby-specific stadium.
A 5,000-capacity all-seater arena will be built in Putrajaya, the Federal Administrative Capital of Malaysia, founded in 1995 and located between Kuala Lumpur, 33km to the north, and the country’s main international airport, 30 km to the south.
The construction contract is to be awarded in February for planned completion in 2022. Costs, covered by the Sports Ministry, are pegged at MYR 17m (€3.7m/$4.1m).
“If we have our own home then we are confident that we can get better results and this will help grow the sport,” says MRU commercial manager A.J. Haq. “It is hard for the national team to have a training camp. We are always moving around. When the stadium is finished, it will be more convenient for the players, the juniors and the grassroots.”
Malaysia was one of the three countries to reach the final round of Asian qualification for the 2019 Rugby World Cup but lost all four games to South Korea and Hong Kong. If the base can provide a foundation for a successful World Cup qualification campaigns in the future, the money will be well spent.
Making it work
Attempts to break ground on a national rugby stadium back in 2015 failed due to the expense of building a sports arena in Kuala Lumpur.
“KL [Kuala Lumpur] is too expensive and too crowded,” Haq explains. “Putrajaya has easy access and it is near to KL but you don’t have to go through all the traffic. It is also easy for people in KL to get out.”
Putrajaya is a more cost-effective location but, while traffic congestion is better than Kuala Lumpur, public transport will still be a challenge.
When Putrajaya was designed and opened in 1995, it was intended for total journeys to be divided 70:30 in favour of public transport over cars, and commensurately few parking spaces were provided.
The promised public transport investment has yet to arrive. The main option from Kuala Lumpur is the airport express train, after which passengers are faced with often unreliable buses or taxis. Most drive.
Infrastructure is key if Malaysia’s rugby future is to avoid becoming a white elephant, says Marcus Osborne, chief executive of Fusionbrand and founder of the first junior rugby club in Malaysia.
“Massive investments are being made in public transport in Malaysia and if that extends to Putrajaya then it will help attract fans,” he says. “When Bukit Jalil [a sporting complex in the northern reaches of the city that includes the national stadium] was built it was considered way too far out of town but now it’s part of the city.”
Commercial activity will also need to be developed around the stadium. According to Haq, the new arena will become “a centre for rugby and for more besides. Every weekend, there will be a tournament or a game. We will have a commercial area with shops, restaurants and cafes”.
There is also a plan to sell naming rights to the stadium. Such deals are rare in Malaysia, though the MRU will look to the 2017 deal under which telco Axiata paid MYR 55m to rename the Putra Indoor Stadium in Kuala Lumpur for ten years.
“If it’s packaged properly then sponsors should be interested,” says Osborne. “But there’s a danger the MRU will attempt to sell the naming rights without developing a proper strategy to build the rugby business in Malaysia. This may result in undersold naming rights and nothing more.
“There’s a shift going on in Malaysia that is making bodies more accountable, and some very talented CEOs are changing the landscape. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, if anything, at the MRU.”
Properly supported, he believes the stadium could unlock rugby’s commercial potential in the country. “It’s very popular, especially with the middle-to-upper classes. [What comes next] depends on how the stadium is built and the bigger plans for rugby in Malaysia. If there is a solid plan then, the stadium can make money, but this is really new territory for the MRU.”
The MRU is well aware, and the stadium’s build will run parallel to the reformation of the Malaysian game. The two current domestic competitions, one for states and one for clubs, will be streamlined into a single semi-professional league from August.
Haq believes the stadium could become a leading light for the sport in Southeast Asia. “We hope it will be a base for other countries and it can help the region. Many countries are improving such as Thailand and Indonesia. After the World Cup in Japan, we are all ready to move to the next level and the stadium will be a crucial part of it all.”