SINGAPORE: Eight of the Singapore Premier League's (SPL) locally-based clubs will share four stadiums as part of a new initiative aimed at consolidating resources and improving match-day experience for fans, said the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Tuesday (Feb 19).
The move will see Home United and Balestier Khalsa share Bishan stadium, Young Lions and Hougang United share Jalan Besar stadium, Albirex Niigata and Warriors FC share Jurong East Stadium and Tampines Rovers and Geylang International share Our Tampines Hub.
Foreign side Brunei DPMM, based in Bandar Seri Begawan, will continue to play their home games at the Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium.
Speaking to reporters, FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari said that the stadium optimisation plan would allow the four venues to be more "football-centric". This is also part of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth's Sports Facilities Master Plan.
"There's a consolidation of resources so that there's a focus on each of these four stadiums to have (those) programmes purely for football - more football-centric," he said.
"Secondly, (when) you have a stadium like that with an infrastructure upgrade, it creates more opportunities for commercial optimisation for the clubs."
The move is a "semi-permanent" one, added Yazeen. He cited the example of the soon-to-be built Regional Sports Centre in Punggol, which a club like Hougang could possibly call home in time.
There will be infrastructure upgrades carried out at the four stadiums,including sound console and system improvements, the installation of high-speed internet for live streaming, as well as bucket seats in the stands.
Other improvements include Jumbotrons measuring 9.6m by 5.7m installed at Jalan Besar, Bishan and Jurong East stadiums, as well as LED banners and screens set up outside stadiums to keep fans updated on upcoming fixtures.
Work on the upgrades have commenced, said the FAS.
While there are concerns by fans that the sharing of stadiums would mean the local game losing its identity, Yazeen pointed out that clubs will continue to train at their existing resident stadiums and continue with their community involvement work.
One day before the match-day, clubs will then train at the match venue. They will have their own dedicated dressing rooms in the shared venue.
"With the shared stadiums initiative, there were questions as to how, for example, Hougang is going to evoke the community...knowing Hougang is moving to Jalan Besar," he said.
"But to a certain extent we will be able to find solutions to that, because at the end of the day the shared stadiums are competition venues. Where they operate as a club, where their identity is as a club, is still going to be where they were all this while."
The secretary general said the FAS met with fans ahead of the move.
"In December last year, we met groups of these fans. The Hools were represented as well," he added.
"They're valid concerns because they have always been ever-present at Hougang Stadium and ever-present at each and every away game.
"They have a certain connection to the place, but we explained to them that this investment in the shared stadiums is to increase the match-day experience and given the infrastructure that exists in Hougang stadium, to upgrade Hougang, it was seen as a less likely, (less) attractive as compared to doing it at Jalan Besar.
"We also, to a certain extent, explained that it is not a permanent switch, you need some overlap of a timeline in order to get public stadiums done up."
POSITIVE SIGNS FOR THE FUTURE
The FAS is targeting an average attendance of 2,200 per game this season, said Yazeen, with numbers doubling from an average of about 900 in 2017 to 1,800 per game last year.
"It may not look big as far as numbers are concerned...but if you look at the stadiums which on average hold about 3,000, an average attendance of 1,800 was something we looked at positively. Of course, we would like to see that increased," he added.
There was also a total viewership of 1.17 million for the 98 league games live-streamed online last season.
The league underwent a major overhaul last season, with a name change from S.League to Singapore Premier League as part of efforts to revive its ailing fortunes, 22 years after its founding.
As part of an emphasis on youth, it imposed age quotas which meant all local sides in the nine-team SPL, save for the Young Lions, were required to have at least six local Under-23 players in their ranks.
At least three of them had to be named in the starting line-up for all league games. If a U-23 player is substituted in the first half, he needed to be replaced by another U-23 player.
This move saw an increase of nearly 20 percent in local U-23 players registered to play in the league, said the FAS. Excluding the Young Lions, the U-23 players made up 30.4 per cent of the league, as compared to 13.6 per cent the season before.
Japanese side Albirex Niigata, which was required to sign two local players last season, will be mandated to sign four this season.
They are also required to start a minimum of two local players, who have to be played throughout the first half of a fixture.
"Even prior to last year, Albirex have always made known to us that their aspirations are to develop more Singapore players, which was something that we were very happy to hear," said Yazeen.
"This year, they were required to sign four but they have signed six to date. They want to build an Albirex team around Singaporeans."
The Japanese outfit have swept all the trophies on offer in Singapore's domestic league since 2006, finishing last season's campaign unbeaten.
However Yazeen rebuffed suggestions that this move was meant to give local clubs a leg up.
"The inclusion of Singaporean players in the roster this year is not part of wanting to make them less dominant," he said.
"We want Albirex to be an environment young Singaporeans can learn in, and that's something they (Albirex) really wanted to take on as well."
While local clubs could only sign two foreign players last season, they will be allowed to sign an additional Under-21 foreigner this season, revealed Yazeen.
"One of the thought processes is to see how we could bring back the Foreign Talent scheme," he said. "Bringing (in) these Under-21 players does not mean that we will want to make any of them foreign talent, but it gives us opportunities for us to see younger foreign players who may want to have their career in Singapore."
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One player which has been ear-marked for the scheme is Home United's Song Ui-young, and Yazeen said that there have been "very positive developments" as his application has been assessed by relevant ministries.
"It's not just because of the fact that he plays relatively well for his club and the FAS sees strength in him and the value add that he could bring if he is a Singaporean...But from the ministry's standpoint, they also see him as someone who is very much grounded here in Singapore," he added.
The league is slated to begin in early March, with a curtain-raiser on Feb 23 when defending champions Albirex Niigata face Home United in the Community Shield.