Leaked roof & bad grass; CEO reveals key components for Sports Hub's success

It provided the main backdrop to a sensational South-east Asia Games last June, and was the platform from which the Republic's cerebral palsy football side and their Team Singapore counterparts endeared themselves to the nation at December's ASEAN Para Games.

But the Singapore Sports Hub's journey from conception to its 2014 opening and infancy has hardly been smooth.

Now, as the Hub enters adolescence - and into its fifth year of a 25-year Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) with the Government - under the leadership of Sports Hub Pte Ltd's (SHPL) newly minted chief executive Manu Sawhney, it aims to learn from the past, and take the $1.33 billion facility to the heights originally aspired to.

"On the 100th day (of my leadership)... we've now committed ourselves to a five-year plan... with two key constituents: showing efficiency and delivering excellence," said Sawhney, who met The New Paper yesterday.

The 48-year-old said success of the plan will be manifested in two areas, the formation of a sustainable events calendar that also includes community engagement activities.

"If in five years, we are able to build a community engagement map, if we are able to build an event calendar that is not just of one-off events, but also some which happen only for a year, some long term, some where we are able to co-create events, and set the foundation that is the key (then it is a success)."

"But, most importantly, to be able to be nimble, to be able to learn from what we have done, and to make sure that we are able to put Singapore on the world sporting map," added the former managing director of ESPN Star Sports.

There has been much to learn from.

The grass refused to grow on the $800,000 Desso GrassMaster hybrid surface at the crown jewel of the hub, the National Stadium, with Neymar's Brazil forced to play on a sandy pitch.

More than $2 million in investments were needed to remedy the situation, taking the form of growth lights and a lay-and-play surface plonked atop its much-vaunted hybrid counterpart.

That, along with a roof that leaked onto concert revellers were teething issues expected at any new venue - since resolved - but there were other struggles that proved more worrying.

A protracted naming rights saga was endured even before the doors opened in 2013, and it was followed by the possibility of the National Day Parade not being held at the hub, over a $26 million fee for an extra 35 days of rehearsals.

While that has been resolved, the fee possibly lowered to $10 million (although not confirmed), another controversy arose quickly in its place, a falling out with MP & Silva last year over the hosting of a Merlion Cup football tournament that has now been temporarily shelved.

But there have also been positive signs.

"The perception that we are money making, only open for business, I would say, is absolutely incorrect," said Sawhney, pointing to the resolution of the hosting of the Asia Masters Athletics Championship earlier this month.

Priced out by a $620,000 fee for four days' rental for the event, organisers Singapore Athletics decided against holding the event at the stadium, but later turned around after the Hub reportedly lowered the figure.

"At the end of the day, we are all learning... but it is long-term commitment that will get us there. We cannot be everything to everybody, we have to prioritise," said Sawhney.

And even in its failure to reach a common ground with partners, as best highlighted by the MP & Silva saga, it is not a case of a bridge being burnt.

International media rights company MP & Silva signed a six-year deal worth $25 million with the Football Association of Singapore last year, covering the global media rights to national and age-group teams, sponsorship rights and international events for the Lions and National age-group squads.

Sawhney insisted the Sports Hub wants the Lions and football to feature regularly at the National Stadium and said: "There are commercial discussions happening and, sometimes, despite the best intentions of both parties, you're not able to arrive at a mutually acceptable position.

"But it does not mean that the door is closed... as long as it does not jeopardise the financial viability and sustainability of the project - that is sacrosanct.

"Are we still talking to (MP & Silva) about future events? Yes, we are. We haven't closed the door."

The inviolable need for financial viability is exactly why some believe this PPP model is doomed to fail, but Sawhney believes the marriage can work.

"This is a long-term relationship, the most important part is alignment of expectations," he said, acknowledging the possibility of the two parties being at a tangent to each other where short- term goals are concerned.

"I generally believe that as long as we are open and collaborative and we are pragmatic, we will cross over that, the key thing to have is the commitment," said Sawhney.

"They (the Government) are very forthcoming, and I could not be more willing to work with them. We are committed, and we all agree that it is a journey and we need to work at it."


This article was first published on January 27, 2016.
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