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Igniting interest, passion in sports
JOSEPH Schooling's big splash in Rio de Janeiro last Saturday, where he outswam the competition in the men's 100-metre butterfly final, will do wonders to boost the popularity and commercial viability of swimming as one of the marquee sports in Singapore.
This is the view of Ashoke Sengupta, the managing director (Asia and the Middle East) of sport marketing agency Lagardère Sports, who feels that Schooling's heroics in the pool can be a springboard to boost interest in sports participation and sponsorship here.
"Every sport needs a hero that people, especially our young, can look up to, and Schooling is that hero for swimming. Having heroes is one of many factors essential for any sport to take off," he tells BT Weekend in an interview at his office at AXA Tower.
Aside from leading the new business development efforts and strategic direction across Asia and the Middle East, Mr Sengupta also oversees the group's business operations including finance, legal, human resources, corporate communications and IT.
Lagardère Sports is the exclusive commercial partner of the Singapore Sports Hub and the Asian Football Confederation.
It is also the event promoter for major tournaments such as the BNP Paribas Women's Tennis Association Finals in Singapore, the SMBC Singapore Open and Emirates Australian Open (both golf) and the AFF Suzuki Cup (football).
The following is an edited excerpt of the interview with Mr Sengupta, where he talks about the key elements needed for any sport to thrive for the long haul, among other topics.
BT: We've seen what Schooling has done at the Olympics, and how so many people, young and old, are interested in swimming, both as a sport and activity. What are the factors for a sport to be successful across all segments of society?
Ashoke Sengupta (AS): The sport has to be in the DNA or the culture of the country. Is it part of the growing-up experience of every kid? Do the kids play football, badminton or cricket everywhere, and at every opportunity they get?
Secondly, the sport has to be widely available and accessible, not just in terms of infrastructure but also media coverage. Television brought sports into the homes of people. It's the next best thing to being there "live". You can create an environment and enjoy the sport with your family and friends. People enjoy it, they get excited and they want to see the "live" action.
Then you must have heroes, people who we can look up to and try to emulate. Look at Schooling, he won and brought Singapore its first Olympic gold medal. You could see everyone cheering him on. It's fantastic.
Finally, we need sponsorship money. Once the companies are aware that this particular sport is popular and widely accessible, they will want to reach out to this fan base to market their products and services.
BT: Do all these factors have to happen at the same time?
AS: It's important to have a confluence of these four factors. These don't have to exist at the same time, but at some point they need to come together.
When they do, that's when the sport goes beyond the tipping point and becomes extremely popular.
To test whether a particular sport can ignite passion among people and have a huge following, it must tick all the four boxes, or at least three of the four. The fourth can follow later.
BT: How does Singapore rank in terms of having this DNA to become a sporting nation?
AS: We should focus on sports that Singaporeans are culturally inclined towards. Next, invest in the infrastructure to broaden grassroots participation and groom more sporting talent from a young age.
To influence fan engagement, we must ensure "live" sporting events and sports consumption on media platforms are widely accessible. We need to build and celebrate our sporting heroes, and create pathways for them to excel on the global stage which will drive commercial sponsorship to further support the athlete.
Just as importantly, we must redefine what success is, and consider sports as a viable career to integrate this into the Singaporean DNA.
BT: You oversee the Asia and Middle East regions. What are the priorities at the moment, and which are the markets with the most potential for the company?
AS: There are some markets that we look at more closely than others. We have a long presence in China, primarily through our partnership with the AFC. We've just set up a new office in Shanghai, and there's a team based there looking for new business opportunities. China is a focus market, and that's inevitable when you talk about Asia.
In South-east Asia, we think Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand all have great potential. Myanmar is opening up but we haven't gone in as yet.
Over in India, we're looking at what more we can do beyond cricket, the most popular sport.
The second and third-biggest sports there are football and kabaddi. The latter has become so popular to the extent that they are now looking at having two seasons in a year. It's exciting and entertaining, made for TV and with an interesting format.