Sports hub: No say, no rapport

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By Tan Bah Bah

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For just $50 million, the government did not so much miss as sadly spurn a golden chance to interact with the community in the naming of the Sports Hub.

It is a minor coup for the OCBC Group which will get a 15-year right to name various venues in the facility, including the sports hall and aquatic centre. That works out to $3.3 million a year of corporate exposure in an iconic landmark. Not a bad investment for the bank , since sports is big business today.

While the money is good and will be used for running worthy sports-related grassroots events in a win-win arrangement, the general public perception is that the whole exercise smacks of yet another top-down decision.

It would have been nice and smart to involve the community from the start in some way. Take, for example, the now demolished National Theatre in River Valley Road. Donations were sought from members of the public in a dollar for dollar drive (with the government matching a dollar for each dollar donated) to help realise the people’s dream. Each $1 “bought” a brick. As PR campaigns went, there were few parallels. Many parent who went later for any show at the theatre would tell their children that one brick belonged to them because they gave a dollar to help build the multi-cantilevered structure.

Members of the public were completely in sync with the project from the beginning to the end – and beyond. The sense of ownership was very strong and deep. There was a lot of publicity surrounding the project.

Perhaps because construction delays have been giving the sports hub project some bad publicity, the latest development seemed to have been presented to the public as a fait accompli. In the hope that Singaporeans will overlook this and accept it with little or minimal objection, especially when they are thrown a sop in the form of a non-sequitur pledge that there would no “branding” of the stadium itself.

I think Singaporeans deserve more than such a take-it-or-live-it and condescending treatment.

Was there an imminent danger of an earth-shattering Singapore-undermining debate on whether there should be branding of the sports stadium? None that I am aware of. The National Stadium is the National Stadium. Best not to tamper with it, because if you do the next thing you know is that for $75million, Parliament House would be branded Temasek Holdings Parliament House. Worst come to worst, of course, I would rather Temasek Holdings be tagged on than, say, China Construction Bank or The Oberoi Group or J.P. Morgan. But let us not go anywhere near there.

Should we have also banned branding of the Singapore Sports Hub? If we want to be purists – as with the stadium – the answer is Yes. We have been used to calling the National Stadium the National Stadium. Now that there is a sports hub, we would most likely have been calling it the Sports Hub, collectively speaking, instead of the National Stadium and Sports Hub separately.

Hence, we should not have branded it at all. But many people would use the example of the Emirates Stadium as a case for branding. Emirates is the stadium of Arsenal, a London football club operated on a purely commercial basis, with no taxpayers’ money involved. The airline had a comprehensive sponsorship deal under which it would have its name on T-shirts and naming rights to the stadium through different extendable arrangements all the way till 2038. The total sum quoted by various news sources was $297 million.

The OCBC-Sports Hub deal is a decent compromise. The hub gets money. And sports fans will think of the bank every time they approach the sports hub.

What has been lost is the opportunity of allowing Singaporeans to take part in the process of identifying with the development of the Sports Hub.

They should have been given a say from day one.

If it is not advisable to vote for company or corporate names, they could have been invited to a competition to vote for the type of company (bank, airline, real estate, supermarket, sportswear, etc) they desire to tag onto the sports hub. The publicity drummed up would in itself be good for the whole complex.

As it turned out, a rose by any name does not smell so sweet if it has been thrown down to you like unwanted cakes to undeserving plebs.