The Changing State of Play

Posted by in Asia, Helen Soulsby, Sponsorship

SRi has been on the ground in Singapore for five years, during which we have witnessed a significant shift in the state of play within the sports industry throughout Asia.

When we launched in Singapore in 2009, our London head office had an enviable list of clients spread across the UK and Europe. Clients including some of the biggest names in sport; Manchester United, Lagardère Unlimited, Asics, Octagon, NBA, Liverpool FC, Women’s Tennis Association and ESPN. At the time we had little understanding of the commitment Singapore was making to the development of the sports industry and of its goal to position itself as a hub for sports business in the region. To a certain extent we ‘took a punt’.

What we did see however, were signs pointing to potential. The infrastructure investment into the Sports Hub, the growing ‘middle class’, the associated sports media consumption in Asia, as well as the logistical ease of Singapore as a base. Added to this was the fact that despite a few pioneering shining lights in the industry, the region was still relatively unsophisticated in its approach to sports business. We knew something much bigger was about to take place and when it did the demand for talent would increase exponentially. Five years on and each one of those European clients, and many more, are now clients of ours in Asia having themselves committed to the region in some way shape or form.

Our growth

As a firm that solely looks to recruit talent for organisations that operate in the sports industry, and the only one doing this on the ground in Asia, we believe that we can rightly claim to be a strong barometer for the industry across South East Asia. Like many other organisations we ventured into unknown territory. Our growth was organic, initially led by current European and US based clients seeking to establish or cement their presence here.

Years one and two were exploratory and were not helped by a struggling global economy, but it gave us time to establish ourselves, form relationships and conduct research. This allowed us to understand this unique part of the world, its view on sports business and most importantly, accept that things wouldn’t happen overnight.

Our motto at the time was close to an anonymous quote related to sport, “The more you bleed in practice the less you sweat in battle.”

The region’s growth

Our Asia business varies greatly from our other offices. They tend to be dominated by clubs and teams in advanced sports leagues, operating in more mature sports markets. However, in Asia, the focus is on rights holders entering the market selling media and sponsorship rights with media and content related companies and agencies supporting and driving such activity. Sporting goods are a big part of our work particularly in the Greater China region and is on the rise in Singapore as more brands commit to the area as a trading hub or R & D centre.

Consumption whether that be at a live event, purchase of associated products, watching across multiple platforms or elite performance success all work together to drive a solid eco-system for the sports industry. However, ensuring that working in the industry is seen as a credible career is one of our biggest challenges and one which Singapore is rising to. The business of sport is not just a game anymore, it is a credible business and all companies involved have a part to play in driving this reality. This is one of the biggest shifts that has taken place in the region, particularly driven by the efforts of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). It is a business that can have significant impact on cultural identity, national pride and social connectedness while also positively impacting the economy, driving investment and jobs. Singapore’s point of difference is its willingness to be a base from which companies can directly expand into South East Asia, supported by it’s openness to a multi-cultural work force.

What happened next?

In year two to three of our business we doubled our revenue. What changed?

  1. The realisation that sports business is no different to any other business. It will live and die by the quality of its talent. Organisations became more open to investing in getting the very best talent and ensuring they have the technical know how to deliver their products and services across South East Asia.
  2. A genuine rise in the thirst to attract the Asian consumer from the industry and a growing realisation that as other markets stalled, Asia was on the up.
  3. The support from EDB and STB made Singapore an obvious choice. A corporate friendly environment with simple processes, incentives and fast turn around times for corporation set up. A partnership approach and being responsive to the needs of new entrants, positioned the city state head and shoulders above other bases in the region.

A key selling point for Singapore is the potential to use it as a base for multiple market entry. This holds the country in good stead as the market turns from a homogenous ‘pan Asian’ approach and realises the intricate challenges and demands that exist across different ASEAN countries, into Greater China and the Pacific.

Companies as wide ranging as rights holders, event operators, international clubs, agencies and sporting goods brands have joined established businesses such as World Sport Group, One Fighting Championship, Nike, Chelsea FC, Perform, Sportradar and Spectrum Worldwide who have already realised the potential of Singapore. Almost 30 companies dedicated to sports business in some way have set up in Singapore over the last three to fours years and I would estimate there are almost 50 companies calling Singapore their home and having sport as a driving force in their business.

In the past 18 months our growth has continued at pace, as has the increase in organisations actively approaching us asking how and where they should set up and how they should be structured in Asia. Singapore is the base for almost 70% of the assignments we work on, with a large proportion of these roles they containing regional responsibilities. China accounts for 16%, Hong Kong 11% and Malaysia 4%.

Singapore at the centre

As we experience it, sports organisations look at Singapore as a centre for four broad areas:


  • A commercial centre from which they can deliver and drive rights across media and commercial partnership sales. Despite not having large professional league structures and the associated gate revenue, Asia definitely has the ‘eyeballs’. Many international rights holders use Singapore as a base to drive fan engagement. It’s a simple equation of increased fan base equals increased spend and increased attractiveness to potential commercial partners. Again most companies will be utilising Singapore as a hub to drive regional strategy and market-by-market execution.
  • A trading centre. Companies can leverage Singapore’s strengths as a financial centre and efficient global business hub to undertake centralised foreign exchange risk management, product sourcing, supply chain, brand protection and the related ‘support functions’ of HR, finance, and operations. Nike and the Russian sports retailer Sportmaster are good examples.
  • A centre for research and development. Building on their strength in engineering, materials science and composite, Nanyang Technological University’s development of the Institute for Sports Research has built a world leading textile, hard goods and sport science institute and deliver R & D projects for Sportmaster, Taylormade and Babolat, with a team including more than 50 researchers, engineers, program directors and PhD students.
  • Finally a 360 degree regional or global HQ for business strategy and execution. World Sport Group were the first sports business to make this commitment and have shown the true potential of investing in Asia with ground breaking commercial partnerships and the promotion of world class events never been seen before in Singapore.

Who’s working on what?

Along with the growth of the industry comes a wide breadth of roles, many requiring specific technical expertise from within sports and entertainment. For us the biggest demand is for commercial and business development roles where individuals not only understand the complexities of commercial rights negotiation and sponsorship, but also see this as a rewarding and credible career choice. Marketing and communication candidates are next in demand, with fan engagement the latest buzz word as events and brands seek to attract and build a dedicated consumer base.

There has also been a big shift in the workforce here, rising to the challenge of applying skills learnt outside the industry and bringing them into sport. The support industry is ‘unseen’ and becomes broader and more ambiguous as you move into delivery mode. Sports practices are developing within PR or advertising agencies, event operators are working across both corporate and sporting events, law firms are developing sports law capabilities and consulting firms are developing specialist sports consulting functions.

Senior GM or CEO roles to drive strategy across the region form just over 12% of our work, with R & D, events operations, media specialists and corporate services rounding out the list.

What’s next?

With a nod to the future, we see the following opportunities in terms of jobs and sports business for Singapore:

  • Opportunities around all things digital, commercialising content and the changing shape of the media landscape will continue at pace.
  • The growth of mass participation and the potential for Asia wide activities similar to the Cycle Asia initiative from Spectrum Worldwide.
  • The continued attraction of Singapore as a regional or global HQ.
  • More rights holders entering the region and utilising Singapore as their base, leading to the need for more sophisticated marketers to enable brands to cut through.
  • With the investment in infrastructure, more major events hosted by the city state.

With the many forces driving together to build the sports business landscape in Singapore comes the desire for learning, development and innovation, which in turn leads to the rise of sports business events and conferences.  From the first sports conference with attendees numbering 100 at a push compared to the all singing all dancing Sports Matters inaugural event in 2013, the space has come a long way. At Sports Matters we witnessed production values worthy of an industry continually veering into the entertainment space and leaders from internationally renowned brands and rights holders all wanting to make their presence felt on the stage. There is a genuine feeling of a movement building.

Professional development opportunities and exposure to world leading thinking in the area of sports business is essential for Singapore to stay ahead. For an industry still in its infancy and one that needs to chart its own course, learning from established markets but being mindful of the many ‘firsts’ that will happen here in Asia is essential. We can not simply regurgitate the approach of markets that have grown before us. We have a different context, a different work force, a different consumer, but a bright future in this rapidly changing and unique region.

About the Author: Helen Soulsby – Director, Asia

Managing teams in Singapore and Beijing, Helen’s role is to drive performance and growth in the APAC business through partnering with clients to deliver executive search assignments, as well as advising on executive board structures to best lead overall business strategy. The APAC team has built a reputation as the leading business in the region in delivering multi-hire projects that enable sports businesses to launch in the APAC region with maximum impact.