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Ball's in our court

What mega sports events bring to Singapore, and where we stand in the sports tourism game.

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Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic.

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Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.

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In its 11th year, Singapore's iconic night race scored its highest attendance since it started in 2008. The 2018 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix attracted an attendance of more than 263,000 over the three-day event.

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The HSBC Rugby Singapore Sevens, held in April, attracted about 55,000 attendees, one of the highest numbers since its inaugural edition in 2016.

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Angela Lee of Singapore in action against Mei Yamaguchi of Japan during the Women's Atomweight World Championship bout of ONE Championship: Unstoppable Dreams at Singapore Indoor Stadium on May 18. As many as 12,000 fans packed into the stadium to watch the ONE Championship.

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"We work with the organisers to refresh the lifestyle content for each edition, so that fans return to a different experience each time." - Jean Ng, director of sports at Singapore Tourism Board (STB)

TOMORROW will mark one of the most exciting tennis matches in Singapore, as two of the world's highest seeded female players battle it out for the magnificent Billie Jean King Trophy. It will also be the last time Singapore presents the trophy to the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Finals winner, as the Republic hands the baton of hosting the tournament over to Shenzhen next year. The Chinese city will host the end-of-season matches for the next 10 years, and double the prize money of US$7 million to a rich US$14 million.

Shenzhen's offer was a tough act to follow, despite the Singapore series hitting the high notes in its fifth year. At its year-end press conference on Wednesday, WTA chief executive officer Steve Simon said: "From my perspective, the WTA, at least during my time here and during the years in which I was a board member and before that as a tournament director, has never felt or seemed stronger or better than it is today."

"There is no question that the WTA Finals and its product and its brand of an event is at a significantly higher level than it was five years ago," added Mr Simon. "I think you can see that through this year we will have record attendance again. I believe it will exceed last year's 133,000 people. You have seen it the first few nights at the event. You have seen it in the evolution of the fans here."

Still, not only did Shenzhen double the prize purse, Chinese builder Gemdale Corporation also promised a new US$450 million facility including a stadium with a capacity of 12,000 - similar to the seating capacity of Singapore's Indoor Stadium.

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In total, Shenzhen will shell out US$1 billion in investment for the WTA. The proposition, combined with China's exponentially larger audience, proved too good to pass up. (Singapore reportedly invested around US$14 million for this year's WTA event)

Nonetheless, the WTA Finals - the most important match in the WTA Tour after the four Grand Slams of Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens - has afforded much benefit for Singapore, both culturally and economically over the last few years.

"Sport tourism draws overseas sport fans and helps to not only drive long-term visitor arrivals and tourism receipts, but also enhance our calendar of events," says Jean Ng, director of sports at Singapore Tourism Board (STB).

Hosting the WTA Finals would also put Singapore, the 9th city to host the end-of-season tournament (and the first in the Asia-Pacific), and Asia on the map as a budding market with the capability to host major international sporting events.

The inaugural event here opened with a bang, coinciding with the opening of the Singapore Sports Hub in 2014 and attracting around 129,000 in attendance. At that time, it would also have the largest recorded prize money for the WTA of US$6.5 million and feature both singles and doubles matches.

WTA Finals organiser and promoter, media conglomerate Lagardère Sports, reports that the WTA Finals would have welcomed half a million people since 2014 to its matches and fringe events, by the end of 2018.

Sarah Clements, vice-president, tennis (Asia) at Lagardère Sports, adds that the 2017 event delivered a record US$372 million of year-round publicity and promotion for both sponsors and the tournament. Overseas attendees made up 15 per cent of attendance figures, and a larger number of foreign fans are coming to Singapore, staying longer and spending more. Also, patron satisfaction scores peaked last year, with more return attendees across all patron groups affirming improvements in attendance, match experience and event organisation.

Crown jewel

The WTA Finals is just one of many anchor events in Singapore's sporting calendar. Perhaps the crown jewel, the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix alone has generated strong numbers and global branding value over the past decade. Garnering a global audience of more than 760 million viewers, it also welcomed more than 450,000 international visitors during the same period. International visitors made up more than 40 per cent of the race attendees.

In its 11th year, the iconic night race scored its highest attendance since the Singapore Grand Prix started in 2008. The 2018 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix attracted an attendance of more than 263,000 over the three-day event, up slightly over 2017's 260,400, while 300,000 flocked to the world's first Formula One night race here in 2008.

Singapore has extended its F1 contract until 2021, and is currently the only South-east Asian destination on the F1 calendar with Malaysia dropping out of the race last year.

Market research firm Nielsen Sports reported that impressions and video views for the Singapore Grand Prix surged by 124 per cent and 283 per cent respectively in 2017 compared to 2016. The number of F1 followers more than doubled to 10 million last year, with the most prominent growth on YouTube and Instagram.

Another high-profile event is the HSBC Rugby Singapore Sevens held in April. This year's series attracted about 55,000 attendees, one of the highest numbers since its inaugural edition in 2016, which drew 52,000 fans. The Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) hopes that these numbers will grow to 72,000 in 2019.

The Singapore Sevens was named Best International Event in 2016 and 2017, and has been touted as one of the top five sporting events in Singapore.

Next year's Singapore Sevens will be the last in the four-year contract. The SRU has submitted a bid to continue hosting the series from 2020 to 2023, but has yet to hear the results of its bid.

Nearby Hong Kong also hosts the HSBC Rugby Sevens, earlier in the same month as the Singapore event. Could the two events be getting too close for comfort?

In fact, the Singapore Sevens saw more fans attending this year - 55,000 - compared to the Hong Kong Sevens' 40,000. The Singapore Indoor Stadium has a greater seating capacity than the current Hong Kong Sevens venue, and Singapore tickets are priced lower than in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, however, sees more sold out matches and boasts a more lively atmosphere, topped with glitzy after-parties.

What must be gratifying for the STB is data showing that Singapore tourism won big with its bet on sports events.

From 2008, when the Singapore Grand Prix first flagged off, to 2017, international visitor arrivals saw a compound annual growth rate of 6.2 per cent. Visitor arrivals have also spiked during the months of the events.

Before Singapore started hosting the F1 in 2008, September's monthly visitor arrivals averaged around 700,000. The September numbers have since been steadily increasing and hit a high of 1.3 million in 2017. Similarly, April 2018 saw an increase of around 30 per cent in foreign visitors from 2015, a year before the HSBC Rugby Sevens was held.

Taking it to the next level

What the marquee events also deliver is a huge boost to the sport itself. George Danapal, chief operating officer of SRU, comments that the number of entry-level (junior and youth) rugby players have increased since the start of the Singapore Sevens. SRU invests S$6 million annually in the event.

Hosting the Singapore Sevens has also allowed the SRU to capitalise on opportunities to widen its network and host international test matches, super rugby games as well as giving them greater media exposure.

Similarly, the WTA Finals lifted the local tennis scene to a new stage. According to survey findings by Sports SG, the number of people who played tennis at least once a week jumped from nearly 10,000 in 2015 to around 18,500 to 2017.

Foreign press have covered the events extensively, putting Singapore in the spotlight of the world's sporting arena. Social media posts from mega sports stars like Lewis Hamilton and Caroline Wozniacki also turned media attention to our little red dot.

Lagardère reports that the WTA Finals reaches nearly 30 million global television viewers each year, while social media video views have grown to 27.8 million in the last tournament. The WTA projected a broadcast viewership of 600 million for 2018, and digital viewership of 300 million, "up 20 per cent from last year".

The WTA Finals currently registers around 61,000 Facebook followers while it has about 12,200 followers and 13,000 followers for its Instagram and Twitter pages respectively. The HSBC Rugby Sevens also has around 61,000 followers on its Facebook page, according to the SRU. Other social media insights for the Rugby Sevens are unavailable.

Let's get this show on the road

While attendance for the biggest sports events is on the upside, keeping audiences engaged has become an increasingly high-stakes play. Fans expect to be blitzed not only with top-of-the-league sporting action, they also look forward to the entertainment that is packaged with the events, which in itself too draws those who will be there to party.

STB has been collaborating with various public and private agencies, aiming to create and present unforgettable event experiences with fresh and innovative content each year. "We also work with the organisers to refresh the lifestyle content for each edition, so that fans return to a different experience each time," Ms Ng adds.

For instance, the Singapore Grand Prix's F1 concert series brings big names to the Padang each year, and is one of the top gigs on the Republic's concert calendar. Up to 60,000 flock to the stage each night to see acts from Jay Chou and The Killers to Dua Lipa and Martin Garrix. Past performers at the three-night concert have also included Beyonce, Imagine Dragons, Calvin Harris and Ariana Grande.

Also running alongside the night race are ritzy parties, in-circuit entertainment, and exclusive hospitality suites where tycoons and corporates host guests each year.

The WTA Finals has followed suit. Apart from the court action, it also features fringe activities such as concerts; fan villages at the stadium and across the city; industry conferences; cocktails and meet-and-greet sessions; and month-long grassroots tennis activities.

Not to be left out, the HSBC Rugby Singapore Sevens last year revamped to cater to the family crowd, with more kid-friendly activities based on themes such as Nerf, Transformers and My Little Pony. They also organised the Singapore Rugby Carnival where highlights include fan meetings with star rugby players, game booths and an opportunity to get discounted tickets for the matches.

The HSBC Women's Champions too rostered a music festival that included star attractions such as British boy band Take That and Korean actor-singer Lee Joon Gi, while fan zones and engagements such as meet-the-player sessions were set up around the city during the International Champions Cup.

Good for business

One of the biggest beneficiaries is the hospitality sector. STB's Ms Ng elaborates that sporting events create opportunities for organisers to work with industry stakeholders to encourage repeat visits.

Pan Pacific Hotels Group (PPHG) has been supporting the Rugby Sevens since the tournament's inception in 2016. As official hotel sponsor for the HSBC Rugby Sevens, PPHG gained much brand recognition as the preferred hotel for large international sporting events.

Cinn Tan, PPHG chief sales & marketing officer, says that international event organisers now look to Pan Pacific Singapore not just to meet their business and MICE accommodation needs, but also to host and support such events.

"The positive branding has resulted in more business opportunities and interest in the events we organise, or held at our hotels," she says.

Ms Tan says PPHG sees a "healthy occupancy" during the months of the Rugby Sevens as well as other sporting events, when the hotels house guests who are in Singapore for the events as well as the rugby teams and support personnel in town.

And the gains are not just monetary.

Lagardère states the WTA Finals has presented them with an opportunity to showcase their abilities in producing premium international events that resonate with Singaporeans.

"With the support of the Singapore government and our partners, we have transformed a year-end tournament into one of the world's greatest sporting, entertainment, and lifestyle festivals," says Lagardère's Ms Clements.

While unable to disclose financial figures, Ms Clements says Lagardère Sports has certainly made a major investment in bringing this event to Singapore, not just in monetary terms, but in terms of time and effort spent. Not only were dividends gained for Singapore, the WTA, their clients and partners, Lagardère has also developed a pool of local experts who will continue to contribute to Singapore's success in staging international events, she adds.

Will the loss of the WTA Finals hamstring Singapore's sporting ambitions?

"Singapore is not dependent on any single attraction or event as it's a multi-faceted destination with a variety of world class attractions and experiences such as Gardens by the Bay, Night Safari and the National Gallery that continue to draw visitors to our shores," says STB's Ms Ng.

Sports fans can look forward to new events on the horizon.

In 2017, Singapore began hosting The International Champions Cup, a series of friendly football matches held between celebrity teams such as the English Premier League's Chelsea and Spanish La Liga team Atlético de Madrid. The tournament will be held in Singapore until 2020 as part of a four-year partnership with STB.

The inaugural edition saw 100,000 fans attending at the National Stadium. Although this year's attendance dropped slightly to 95,000, the matches have attracted a global audience of 17 million viewers, with more than 25 per cent of those watching the match at the National Stadium being foreign visitors.

And while it may not be as high-profile worldwide as the other arena events, sports media property ONE Championship is no lightweight when it comes to drawing the crowds. The fights frequently fill stadiums across Asia, with 12,000 fans packing into the Singapore Indoor Stadium, at the recent match in May 2018.

ONE Championship founder and chairman Chatri Sityodtong has said he is not looking to expand the event into other parts of the world but intends to focus on Asia, given its large population of four billion people. His vision is to have 52 events in Asia and to allow fans to "taste, feel and touch" the experience.

Future of sports in Singapore

Looking to the future, STB aims to grow and cultivate a pipeline of diverse, world class sporting events that can bolster the events calendar and add to Singapore's vibrancy and attractiveness as a lifestyle destination. Those already in the game, like SRU's Mr Danapal, feel that Singapore has the makings and infrastructure in place to be a world class sporting city.

Yet a poll ranking the world's top sport cities - in terms of public perception - by Burson Marsteller Sport shows that Singapore dropped from 5th position in 2012 to 31st place in 2017. The same poll showed other Asian cities such as Tokyo and Pyeongchang - both recent Olympics hosts - jumping ahead of Singapore.

Song Seng Wun, CIMB economist, points out that Singapore is not the cheapest place to host events. "Singapore is a small city-state with a small population, there is little 'economies of scale'. Therefore, we have to depend on visitors from around the region to attend events in Singapore if they are to be economically viable."

Despite this, Lagardère is confident that Singapore will continue to be a hub for major events. The company sees strong potential in developing sporting properties with local resonance such as netball, table tennis, badminton, and mass participation events, as well as in other areas such as eSports and health and wellness.

Indeed, even tennis legend Billie Jean King shares their sentiments, saying: "Singapore did so well and we're always going to be indebted to them to be the first that started this high-profile event for women. It's an amazing legacy they're going to be leaving behind historically."

Amendment: A previous version of this story referred to Lagardere Sports as a WTA sponsor. That is incorrect, Lagardere is in fact the WTA Finals organiser and promoter. We are sorry for the error.