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Singapore focuses on return on investment as city’s Covid-19 recovery plan gathers pace

  • Singapore Grand Prix generated estimated S$1.4bn in direct tourism expenditure
  • But this year’s race ‘impossible’ because of pandemic
  • Singapore Sports Hub the highest profile venue in the region

Covid-19 has decimated the events sector to such an extent that, even in Singapore – where the number of deaths has been extremely small – the short-term impact has been enormous.

With Singapore entering the second phase of its reopening plan on June 19, against the backdrop of an official death toll that only sits in double figures, despite more than 40,000 confirmed cases as of June 15, the city-state is allowing most activities to resume.

However, while the one-metre social distancing rule will allow sports venues to open their doors, Singapore’s biggest annual sporting event, its Formula 1 Grand Prix, has become a casualty of the 2020 turbulence.

F1 confirmed on June 12 that the famous day-night race, scheduled to take place on September 20, would not be going ahead due to continuing nationwide restrictions on construction and business activities. Specifically, F1 cited the long lead time required to build a street circuit as making it “impossible” to host the race during such a “period of uncertainty”.

It is a serious blow for the city-state. With the Marina Bay Circuit, used since 2008, taking in its famous skyline, the Grand Prix is comfortably Singapore’s most important destination marketing sports event. And the financial impact of missing a year will certainly be felt.

The 11 races from 2008 to 2018 generated S$1.4bn (€891m/$1bn) in direct tourism expenditure and attracted more than 490,000 unique visitors. In 2007, Singapore’s tourism-related arrivals and revenue totalled 10.3 million and $14.1bn, respectively, but in 2018 these figures had rocketed to 18.5 million and $27.1bn. The race is widely thought to have played a central role in promoting Singapore as a visitor destination while building on the city’s long-held reputation as a launchpad for international visitors and business.

“Since 2008, the F1 race has generated benefits for both Singapore and the F1 franchise, with many local businesses actively involved in race preparations and operations,” says Ong Ling Lee, director of sports for the Singapore Tourism Board. “We take pride in our track record of hosting the first and only F1 night street race for the past 12 years, and we look forward to its return next year.”

F1 has an agreement in place to stage the Singapore Grand Prix until at least 2021 under a new four-year deal signed in 2017.

The Singapore Sports Hub.

Sporting hub

Just a short walk from the Marina Bay Street Circuit, which is purpose-built for the Grand Prix each year, is the Singapore Sports Hub.

The complex opened in 2015, in time for the Southeast Asian Games, and houses the 55,000-seat National Stadium, the 12,000-seat Singapore Indoor Stadium, the 6,000-seat Fina-standard OCBC Aquatic Centre and the 3,000-capacity OCBC Arena. Last year alone, three million people attended events and activities at the Sports Hub.

The National Stadium hosts matches at the high-profile annual pre-season football tournament, the International Champions Cup. Last year, the stadium hosted two matches – Manchester United v Inter Milan and Juventus v Tottenham Hotspur – that attracted an aggregate attendance of more than 100,000.

“Each year, we have gone from strength to strength, growing in both scale and impact,” says Damian Bush, managing director of the Sports Hub. “Last year was record-breaking; we held over 225 events across all our venues, averaging almost 19 events a month, five events weekly.

“The Singapore Sports Hub’s vision is to become the region’s premier sport, entertainment and lifestyle destination. Our venues have been built for the community to bring people closer together through shared experiences.”

The National Stadium is also used to host national team football matches and has staged Singapore’s leg of the World Rugby Sevens Series since 2016. The Straits Times noted last year that the rugby tournament led to organising body Rugby Singapore running up a debt of S$1.7m, leading to its takeover by SportSG.

This year’s event has been postponed until October and it remains to be seen whether Covid-19 restrictions will prevent fans from turning out in their droves like last year, when nearly 57,000 spectators attended.

Another staple of Singapore’s sports event portfolio in recent years has been the WTA Finals, the season-ending showpiece of the women’s tennis season. From 2014 to 2018, the Singapore Indoor Stadium regularly attracted more than 130,000 fans over the course of the week-long event. The WTA reached a 10-year agreement with Shenzhen for the Chinese city to host the tournament from 2019 after the Singapore Tourism Board and Sport Singapore opted against pursuing an extension, with doubts reportedly emerging over whether the cost of hosting such an event still represented value for money.

For Singapore’s sports events decision-makers, it was a case of ‘job done’. According to Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Lionel Yeo, the WTA Finals was “a very fruitful event for destination Singapore… [and] contributed to Singapore’s existing suite of vibrant lifestyle offerings and helped put us on the tennis world map with good branding benefits”.

Bush adds: “These global events have helped to build up the awareness of Singapore as a choice destination for tourism and sponsorship. They have proven to be successful in increasing visitor arrivals through tourism, and gate receipts for these events reflect a tremendous appetite for world-class events.”

When it comes to marketing events, the Sports Hub works with the respective event organisers and Bush cites the WTA Finals as an event that went beyond the mere spectacle of the competition and focused on “promoting Singapore as a choice destination globally”.

Such high-profile events also naturally have a knock-on effect for the local economy, with Bush noting that the nearby Kallang Wave Mall saw footfall of 11.6 million visitors in 2019 – a year-on-year increase of 600,000.

Costly endeavours

The Sports Hub opened ahead of the 2015 edition of the Southeast Asian Games, the region’s biggest multi-sport event.

It marked the fourth time Singapore had hosted the Games and was delivered significantly under budget. The bill for hosting the event came in S$60.4m below the original budget of S$324.5m, reflecting a drive for a positive return on investment that was borne out of the lessons learned from hosting the Singapore Youth Olympic Games in 2010.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the country’s then-Minister for Youth and Sports, admitted after the Games a decade ago that the country had been “plain wrong” when it came to cost projection, with the hosting budget having ballooned from S$104m to S$387m.

However, the 2010 Youth Olympics certainly represented a milestone for Singapore’s sporting credentials, as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

That the IOC entrusted Singapore, a non-traditional Olympic destination, with staging the inaugural edition of the Games and the first IOC-sanctioned event to be held in Southeast Asia, highlighted the city’s sporting infrastructure and its ambitions.

However, it appears unlikely that this will translate to Singapore – which picked up its first Olympic gold medal in 2016 thanks to swimmer Joseph Schooling – hosting the senior Games any time soon.

Joseph Schooling of Singapore during the 2018 Fina Swimming World Cup at OCBC Aquatic Centre in SIngapore. (Photo by Lionel Ng/Getty Images)

In 2017, Tunku Imran Tuanku Ja’afar, then-president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia (COM), floated the idea of a joint Olympic bid alongside the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC), encouraged by the IOC’s more cost-conscious approach. But the SNOC quickly played down the suggestion, insisting that it would be “unable to meet the requirements and demands of organising an event of such magnitude”.

Indeed, following the 2015 SEA Games, Singapore’s then-Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Lawrence Wong, admitted that it would be “very hard” to host an event the size of the Olympic, Commonwealth or even Asian Games due to the lack of sufficient sporting infrastructure.

Booming business

Singapore does, though, have a diverse portfolio of sports venues and events, and is also a prime hub for federations and some of the major players in the global sports business.

Singapore is home to the One Championship mixed martial arts series, and also hosts UFC fight nights. Its CV also boasts two marathons, the Marina Regatta, Singapore Badminton Open, ASEAN Basketball League, Fina Swimming World Cup, Fina Diving Grand Prix and the ONE Esports Dota 2 World Pro Invitational. Earlier this year, plans were unveiled for a new women’s golf tournament that will form part of a wider initiative to create an Asian women’s series and ranking.

The city also has the backing of a significant number of major multinational businesses that have decided to set up base in the city, both in and out of sport.

Agencies such as IMG, Infront, Lagardère, Mediapro and Octagon have offices in Singapore, as do the Premier League, LaLiga and Bundesliga, with the latter becoming the first European football league to establish a base in the Asia-Pacific region back in 2012.

“Infrastructure in Singapore is well-maintained, and there is also the added benefit of political and economic stability – it is a very conducive environment to do business in,” says Bush. “Singapore is a stable and safe option for rights-holders looking to grow in Southeast Asian markets.”

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