Tuesday, December 15, 2015

NDP saga raises bigger questions

Marc Lim
Sports Editor

15 Dec 2015

The sandy field issue at the National Stadium was down to unforeseen problems, said the Singapore Sports Hub. Give us time and it will be fixed. The same mantra was repeated with the leaky roof.

But when there is a question mark hanging over the staging of the National Day Parade (NDP) at the very venue built in part to showcase the nation's annual extravaganza, alarm bells must ring. For unlike a substandard pitch or leaky roof, the inability of the hub's bigwigs and the Government to see eye to eye on a national project that was always on the cards goes beyond aesthetics.

It hints at problems that go much deeper, perhaps of a disconnect between the two sides over how the project's public-private partnership (PPP) should be working out, or even how it is being managed.

The staging of the NDP at the stadium is a clause worked into the contract the Government signed with the Singapore Sports Hub Consortium (SSHC). When it was announced in 2008 that the SSHC had beaten two other groups to design, build, finance and operate the project for 25 years, government officials were already envisioning the first NDP under the dome. Yet, seven years on, plans to host next year's NDP have hit a speed bump, with costs threatening to derail plans. Under the contract, in return for a monthly unitary payment throughout the project's 25-year term, the Government gets, among other things, 45 days' free usage of the stadium to stage the NDP. NDP organisers have requested 35 more days but were quoted $26 million for leasing the venue - a figure now reportedly reduced to $10 million.

Given the project's PPP nature, it is not wrong for the SSHC to place commercial interests as its main focus. But when news of NDP plans hitting a snag coincides with a threadbare 2016 schedule and potential partners lamenting the stadium's high rental cost, questions have to be asked of the model.

The Government's marriage with the SSHC is still in its infancy. It would be in the best interests of both parties to iron out the issue quickly, or the next two decades could prove challenging for a national icon.

Is the Sports Hub pricing itself out of the game?

DEC 13, 2015

High rental costs said to be the reason for the National Stadium's threadbare 2016 schedule

Sanjay Nair

It was touted as the centrepiece of the $1.33 billion Singapore Sports Hub, a domed architectural wonder that would put the island nation on the global sporting and entertainment map. But more than two years since opening its doors, the National Stadium is struggling to live up to the hype.

A threadbare 2016 schedule at the 55,000-seat stadium is cause for concern to partners and suite owners alike. As it stands now, only three big-name draws have been confirmed for next year - a concert by Taiwanese singer A-Mei, three Super Rugby games featuring new Japanese franchise Sunwolves, and the World Rugby Sevens Series in April. A Madonna concert is also being discussed but it has not been confirmed.

At least two events have turned their backs on the stadium, with both the Merlion Cup, a football tournament organised by MP & Silva, and the Asia Masters Athletics Championships, backed by Singapore Athletics, pulling out of negotiations this year. In a media statement, MP & Silva said that it had "explored and exhausted all options to hold the event at the National Stadium".

"We have therefore started exploring other venue options and have been in contact with foreign teams and partners to confirm the event details," it added.

The tournament was set for next month and was slated to feature J-League outfit Yokohama Marinos, Chinese Super League's Shanghai Shenhua and the national teams of Myanmar and Singapore.

The Sunday Times understands that negotiations stalled over a few issues, one of which was the Sports Hub's insistence on a seven-figure payment upfront for the first two editions of the event.

The Asia Masters Athletics Championships was also supposed to be held at the stadium in May, but is now looking at Bishan Stadium. Singapore Athletics were believed to have been quoted a $620,000 fee for four days' rental, double the event's entire budget.

Similarly, plans to bring in top international cricket sides and Indian Premier League (IPL) clubs have been shelved as organisers were put off by the high cost - such as a figure of more than $300,000 just to convert the venue into a cricket oval setting.

Said Singapore Cricket Association CEO Saad Khan Janjua: "Top teams want to come to Singapore to play, but promoters are finding it much easier and cheaper to stage cricket matches in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Our National Stadium is going to be a white elephant if costs remain as they are."

The high rental cost has also been a point of intense discussion between the Sports Hub and organisers of next year's National Day Parade (NDP). The Straits Times reported that NDP organisers were initially told to pay $26 million for leasing the venue for an extra 35 days for rehearsals. That amount, however, is said to have been negotiated down to about $10 million.

Responding to queries by The Sunday Times about the perceived high fees to lease the stadium, the Sports Hub said that "all negotiations held with our partners have been conducted in the spirit of transparency and integrity".

"Sports Hub was designed as a unique, multi-purpose world-class venue to maximise the potential of the limited space available in Singapore. The reality is that there are commercial costs and third-party costs associated with the use of Sports Hub, but these costs are made clear to our partners from the onset," said a spokesman.

The lack of premium content at the National Stadium has prompted at least two suite owners to seek legal action.

Depending on the size, the facility's 61 executive suites are rented out to corporations and individuals for between $70,000 and $180,000 annually. Suite owners are entitled to tickets to all sports events at the National Stadium and to two non-sports events at the same venue per year. The Sunday Times understands that one firm has sought mediation, while another has refused to pay its membership fee, claiming the Sports Hub has not delivered on its promise to stage at least 15 public-ticketed events a year at the venue. The matter is now before lawyers.

The Sports Hub said that it is hoping to welcome a European football team in May and added that it will continue to build its event calendar "to offer affordable and innovative sporting, entertainment and community events, as well as high-calibre world-class events".

But prospective partners are being turned off, especially as fees at regional alternatives are lower. For example, the 85,000-capacity Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur is said to top out at RM100,000 (S$33,000) per day.

Said Mr Julian Kam, chief executive of ProEvents, which has organised Asian tours for football giants such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea: "The Sports Hub is quite simply overpriced right now - even 20 to 30 per cent more than some of Europe's top stadiums.

"As it is, it's not cheap to bring in top European clubs as you have to cover their flights, accommodation and pay them a match fee. Fans are more discerning now so promoters can't just cover their expenses by raising ticket prices - you're left with many empty seats."

This is not the first time the Sports Hub, built under a public-private partnership scheme with the Government, is under the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

It initially had a much-publicised field problem, with its $800,000 Desso GrassMaster pitch unable to grow properly because of the stadium's domed design.

It was solved only after the Sports Hub invested more than $2 million in growth lights and a "lay and play" surface with warm weather grass.

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