Even as it stands on the cusp of its 20th season, the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League is undergoing what has been described as a "critical" review, as the only professional sports league in the Republic looks to the future.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a sponsorship-signing ceremony with Great Eastern yesterday - the life insurance company extended its partnership with the league for another two years - Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin declared that "we need to talk about what makes sense for the S.League", to recapture the imagination of fans.
S.League chief executive Lim Chin revealed that an internal review - comprising FAS staff - started in December last year, and will be expanded to include clubs, sponsors and even fans.
One key change being bandied about is the privatisation of clubs in the S.League.
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.
"This is a strategic review, looking at a long-term plan. I'm not sure we can see changes (as soon as) in 2016, but it is the way forward," said Lim, who is into his fourth year as chief of the S.League.
"We could maybe privatise some clubs, make each a stand-alone club that does not take subsidies from the league, with a new business model that can carry the club forward."
Hougang United and Woodlands Wellington underwent a merger at the end of the 2014 season, and Hougang chairman Bill Ng revealed recently that his club have embraced "financial freedom" and will continue a path towards self-sufficiency, backed by a profitable games' room operation with its jackpot machines.
Clubs receive up to $1 million in annual subsidies from the S.League, and the idea of privatisation and self-sufficient teams is a goal Geylang International chairman Leong Kok Fann believes clubs could consider.
"Privatising clubs is a compelling option, that will give not just commercial autonomy to clubs, but also an incentive to drive the profit objective, which will in turn, help the club to fund their own initiatives, including youth development," said Leong, a former Singapore international.
While it could attract "commercially oriented individuals," and help the league along, Leong believes the privatisation of clubs should go hand in hand with making the league a private enterprise, as well.
Leong warned that the transition period to privatisation needs to be properly managed, but it remains "an exciting prospect, that is definitely worth exploring."
Tampines Rovers' chairman Teo Hock Seng, though, is not so hot on the idea.
"Now clubs are not liable because they are registered as societies, so privatisation becomes a matter of which club chairman is willing to take that risk," said Teo, who is also chairman of Singapore GP Pte Ltd, the company responsible for the Formula 1 Grand Prix here.
"I'm not for privatisation, I think more importantly the financial model of clubs needs to be re-looked completely.
It hasn't changed for the last 20 years.
"Crowd support hasn't been a key area of revenue for clubs, and you can't depend on takings from the jackpot room because it's too fluid."
Privatisation is not the only area the review is looking at.
"We've got to take a long hard look at all the factors affecting the professional league in Singapore and do a critical review," said Lim, who took the reins of the S.League in 2012 when Zainudin launched S.League version 2.0.
That revamp of the league included tweaking the schedule, splitting the competition into a two-tiered half round to decide the champions, and increasing the capacity of the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Lim says this review is different.
"This review is one that is on a larger scale that will include sponsors, Sport SG, and the Ministry (of Culture, Community and Youth)," he said.
"We are hoping to get something out in the middle of the year, and once it's finished, we will surface it to our stakeholders and take a concerted effort to move the S.League forward."
This article was first published on Feb 12, 2015.
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