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With fans opting for international comps over domestic football, what are some lessons for the A-League from Singapore?

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Roar Guru
1st May, 2024
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1199 Reads

Many are concerned about the level of fan support for the A-League at a time when football fans prefer to subscribe to the big football leagues, say in England, Spain and Germany, rather than attend domestic football.

But what can we here in Australia learn from the ongoing struggles of Singapore’s struggling Premier League?

While much is said about the A-League’s average crowd falling from 14,600 in 2007-08 (8 teams) to the current 8,000 (12 teams); the average club crowd for Singapore club football’s main league has declined from 1200 for the 2013 season (12 teams) to 752 in 2023 (9 teams).

With the Premier League existing since 2018 when replacing the S-League which started in 1996, Singaporean crowds were once over 50,000 when supporting its single team (the Lions) when competing in the Malaysia Cup from 1921 to 1994 (24 titles) until a dispute over gate receipts led to the team withdrawing.

Now large club match crowds are confined to watching the big European clubs.

The 2023 crowds at the 55,000-capacity Singapore stadium include 25,000 watching Tottenham Hotspur play the local side Lion City Sailors, then 28,600 people attending Liverpool versus Leicester City, and 50,000 watching Liverpool play Bayern Munich.

There are some similarities between the struggles of Australian and Singapore club football.

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Both countries have sought to expand the number of national club teams over the years, with both still without a promotion-relegation system.

Australia’s A-League now has 12 teams and is projected to add Auckland and Canberra teams for the 2024-25 season. Singapore’s club experience since 1996 sought to include foreign clubs or clubs based on ethnicity yet its high of 12 teams has been reduced to the present nine teams.

Former S-League once included Sinchi FC composed of Chinese players, Sporting Afrique, a club made up of African players, Super Reds comprising South Korean players, and the French club Étoile FC.

As of the 2024-25 season, which will commence on May 11 with each team playing each other four times, foreign presence in Singapore’s Premier League remains through Albirex Niigata (a satellite team of the Japanese club of the same name) and the Bruneian based club DPMM FC.

Like any other national league, Singapore’s Premier League seeks to balance local talent needs with the opportunity for clubs to acquire foreign players.

A sparse crowd at Campbelltown Stadium for Macarthur vs Sydney FC

Campbelltown Sports Stadium. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Each club must have a squad of a minimum of 18 professional players and a maximum of 25. It must field five local players and can register a maximum of nine foreign players, including representation from an AFC Member Association and three players under the age of 21 at the point of registration.

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The Young Lions team also has an age limit for all players, under the direct control of the Football Association of Singapore.

But despite football being Singapore’s most popular sport in terms of public interest, club football faces a number of obstacles to overcome.

According to Singapore’s Alywin Chew, whereas once football was “an intrinsic part of the societal fabric”, Singaporean children today are more guided towards education success for employment and income security.

They are also more interested in digital forms of entertainment, have poorer fitness levels when compared to the past, and play less on futsal courts scattered in the heartlands or on Singapore’s open fields.

From a comparison point of view between Singapore and Australia, it can indeed be argued that Australians express a much greater affinity with football across all levels which means much more opportunity for greater public interest in time.

For a start, recent estimates point to one million Australians playing football compared to 50,000 Singaporeans, a playing potential that can galvanise greater interest in any national club competition.

Even accounting for Australia’s much larger population (26 million compared to 6 million), Australian football participation numbers are much higher in Australia on a per capita basis.

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In addition, family interest in football is boosted in Australia by a decent semi-professional female A-League whereas Singapore’s Women’s Premier League is an amateur competition.

But the problems faced by Singapore’s Premier League have long been expressed, as far back as when the S-League was nearing its end. While most noted the need to get fans back to the games to enhance the atmosphere, viewership, sponsorship and media attention, the key factors discussed most were the need for private sponsorship, subsidies, and working with the local community.

Both the A-League and Singapore’s Premier League have demonstrated this through their respective struggles to attract larger crowds and television audiences.

On the one hand, it was noted that most S-League clubs have done precious little to engage their community. Albeit praise was given to the then champions Albirex Niigata for engaging and giving back to their local community which enabled that club then to draw more than 1,000 spectators to their matches.

While others have urged more marquee players to be signed, the reality is that few Singapore clubs can afford to do so as most are registered as societies and largely rely on annual subsidies to run their operations.

In terms of promoting private sponsorship and ownership to enable independent sustainability for clubs, opinion was divided on whether enough Singaporean companies would be interested or whether there was a need to tap into foreign interest.

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While private sponsorship has become more important, at least for a few Singaporean clubs, as of 2022 it remained the case that the Football Association of Singapore was funded on a deficit-funding basis. Most clubs are operating on a budget of between S$1.2 million and S$1.5 million, with about S$800,000 of that coming in the form of subsidies, but they also welcome private investment.

In 2020, Lion City Sailors became Singapore’s first privatised football club when bought by the Singapore technology firm Sea, winning the Premier League in 2021 after making a $S2.9 million signing of the Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes from Portuguese Primeira Liga side Rio Ave on a three-year deal.

Yet, the A-League, despite its own struggle to increase crowds and its television audience, has a number of other important advantages over Singapore’s Premier League.

While official figures are hard to find, the average salary for Singapore’s Premier League is perhaps $S60,000, not much more than the average national salary, yet far less than the average A-League salary for men at around $A150,000 per annum in 2022.

Adverse publicity was given to some of Singapore’s Premier League players getting just $S200 per month in 2022, typical of the low wages that many foreign workers get for various occupations in Singapore.

But the A-League set a minimum of $45,000 for 16 to 19-year-olds in 2021 with the scale increasing incrementally with age.

Western Sydney Wanderers players celebrate with the crowd. (Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)

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Like passionate A-League fans, however, most Singaporean football fans know that the most important way to build up their Premier League is to increase domestic interest through a bottom-up approach to get people to attend matches and boost the atmosphere.

There are many Singaporeans who utilise YouTube, Instagram and TikTok in their bid to counter the declining coverage of Singapore’s official media outlets to cover domestic club football, with their growing focus on foreign teams, especially in the English Premier League.

The road ahead is difficult

While I have suggested that the A-League may boost domestic crowds by reducing ticket prices, it is worth noting that Singapore’s paltry crowds are paltry, despite it charging far less.

Singapore’s current champion Albirex Niigata charges just $S15.00 for adults and $S5 for concession tickets with the latter tickets including children 3-12 years, secondary and junior College students and seniors 60 years or older.

We also know that spending money alone to generate greater public interest, say through public or private sources purchasing star international players, can produce little if there is not enough public and community interest.

For example, while the Saudi Pro League has invested heavily in global football stars, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Jordan Henderson, and N’Golo Kante all reportedly having contracts worth over $100 million annually, Saudi Arabia crowds (as of 28 April 2024) still averaged just 8,200 with 13 of the 18 clubs averaging less than the A-League current average of 8,000.

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But the A-league and Singapore’s Premier League cannot compete with Saudi Arabia, nor should they given that public money should be accorded to many public needs in any decent society.

Therefore, how to generate greater community interest in its domestic football leagues remains a difficult challenge for both Singapore and Australia where many may prefer to pay to watch England’s Premier League and/or another major league.

For Singapore, once a single club in Malaysia’s football league with much success, perhaps its best option is to join another national league again.

It could well be that Singapore perhaps lacks a rivalry between different districts, with four stadiums hosting two clubs each with some having no local affinity at all, albeit there is little excuse in Singapore for fans to travel short distances given its excellent train and bus system.

Australia, on the other hand, although with an A-League that has sought to avoid ethnic-backed clubs, still has the beauty of distance between cities where interest in football can create reasonable interest in competition with other state teams, albeit the biggest crowds still appear to be the derbies between the two biggest Sydney and Melbourne clubs.

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For now, despite the A-League’s troubles, perceived or real, there remains a good chance of securing a reasonable broadcasting deal after the current $40 million a year deal with Paramount concludes in 2026. That would be a dream for Singapore’s much smaller Premier League which currently is supported by free coverage via YouTube.

So what important lesson does Singapore’s Premier League provide the A-League?

For myself, its experience reinforces the difficulty that most national football leagues face in terms of getting bigger crowds and television revenue in the world’s biggest sport, especially in this television era where many purchase subscriptions to watch the major leagues.

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The difficulties faced by Singapore’s Premier League also remind me how lucky we are to have a nationwide A-League that is played in good stadiums and televised cheaply to all.

Therefore there is a need for football fans to work hard to hold on to what we have and help it grow.

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