Getting to the roots of what gave rise to patchy pitch

Getting to the roots of what gave rise to patchy pitch

If you are a Singapore Sports Hub official, it seem like the grass is greener just about everywhere else.

The National Stadium's patchy and sandy pitch has made the news abroad, become the butt of jokes at home, and earned a stern rebuke from the national sports agency.

Some of the heat seemed to have been cooled by the stunning football display of Brazilian football superstar Neymar, who thrilled more than 51,000 fans in Brazil's 4-0 win over Japan at the stadium on Tuesday. But the cheers did not last long, with Sport Singapore issuing its sharply worded statement on the sorry state of the pitch soon after the game ended.

No doubt, many questions will be asked about how the ball was dropped on this one. Were enough studies done to understand how the stadium's unique dome roof might affect the amount of sunlight the pitch would get?

Given delays in construction, and seeing how the field was not ready for the stadium's first event - a rugby tournament - in June and remains in a poor state today, was the Sports Hub overly ambitious in lining up a string of high profile events so soon after the doors opened?

If anything, this "grass should be greener" saga should cause those responsible to dig deeper and get to other issues that arise under the novel public-private partnership (PPP) scheme with the Singapore Government that was employed for the construction of the facility.

Singapore's public transport sector is a good case study. Some have argued that public services should not be left to entities more driven by profits - resulting in commercial concerns taking precedence over technical and engineering matters, leading to the spate of breakdowns that have sullied the public transport system's reputation for reliability - could be applied to the relationship between Sport Singapore and SportsHub Pte Ltd (SHPL).

In the current arrangement, SHPL funded the building of the $1.33 billion Sports Hub and in return gets to manage and run it for 25 years, while receiving an annual payment from the Government.

A basic premise of a PPP approach is that it has to be commercially sound. This gives rise to an inherent tension between the new hub wanting to be a place for everyone - as the old National Stadium was - while also seeking to establish itself as a key player in the sports and entertainment business.

It is therefore imperative that both the SPHL and Sport Singapore, and perhaps the entire nation, decide just what they expect of the Sports Hub.

Should it aim to maximise the number of events hosted, from concerts to sporting events, with an eye clearly on the bottom line?

Or is it first a public venue, one which must cater to the interests of the nation - and hold national team football matches even if only a fifth of the arena is filled?

No doubt, any three-partner collaboration was always going to be tricky. But greater clarity will now be all the more critical, not least in the light of this week's developments. Sports Hub chief operating officer Oon Jin Teik was moved to lament that rather than slugging it out in public, partners "should be working together", in response to Sport Singapore's criticism.

Getting the partners aligned will be crucial if goodwill is to be restored and future issues tackled together.

One area of real concern is the staging of the National Day Parade. Singapore's 50th birthday celebration will take place at the Padang next year. But beyond 2016, there is a likelihood that many parades could be held at Kallang. This would mean catering for rehearsals at the National Stadium leading up to the Aug 9 event.

But the months of June and July are prime time for any aspiring stadium. It is when top European clubs travel to play in matches that line not only their pockets, but those of stadiums and promoters as well.

With both vying for the same window, it is an area where the public and private aspects could clash. Fans will remember the old National Stadium during those periods, when the field would be bumpy from the stress inflicted on it by soldiers and performers. Getting the field right may be the most urgent goal right now, but it may be worth looking down the road to see how this partnership can last the 25-year distance.

Already, this is the second saga to arise, following the naming rights fiasco two years ago, when SPHL solicited naming rights sponsorship for the entire Sports Hub, only to be told it was never an option.

Singapore's new sporting hub was meant to be a source of national pride and joy, reinforcing its reputation as a place where things work and projects are delivered as promised. Hence the dismay that officials are now left staring at its patchy pitch, literally watching the green grass grow.

This article was first published on Oct 16, 2014.
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