The Sidelines: Terry O'Connor, Courts Asia CEO

In the second part of our interview with the CEO of Courts Asia we discuss his involvement with the Courts Young Lions and the future of Singapore football
By Afifah Ariffin

Courts recently renewed their sponsorship with the Young Lions, underscoring their commitment to the development of local football and nurturing budding footballers. Terry O'Connor, Courts Asia CEO, opened up to Goal about the retailing giant's investment in the Cubs and the future of Singapore football.

Courts has been sponsoring the Young Lions for a few years now. How did you get involved with Singapore football?
We’ve been looking for many years. We have previously approached clubs and have had discussions with them. But we always maintained that we weren’t interested in a vanilla deal, which only involved putting our name on a shirt.

It had seemed quite difficult to get clubs to be creative, not because the clubs weren’t interested but between the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), clubs, the Singapore Sports Council (SSC), there were just too many stakeholders involved to come to a decision.

We always felt that we wanted to do a naming rights deal so that whatever the coverage; whether it’s a photograph taken, the league table published, or whenever the team name was referenced, your brand was effectively being carried to the public.

What made you decide to link up with the Young Lions?
We had a tick-box of things that were of interest to us. Eventually, after discussions with FAS and the S.league, the Young Lions prospect came up. At least FAS owned them, and you were in a much smaller decision making set and I think that’s what made it work.

There also had to be a CSR component or youth engagement activities with some kind of purpose. Obviously, Young Lions ticked the box in terms of youth development such as future preparations for SEA Games and the likes.

It was never of interest to us to sponsor teams that were on top of the league or winning games every week. Ultimately, those teams already have 6-7 sponsors with a million brands involved and you’re fighting for space. There’s no purpose in that other than branding.

The Young Lions is a great fit because we can see a sense of purpose. We’ve seen some of the players we’ve sponsored move into the Malaysian Super League activity and are playing at a higher level. We also see many of them coming through for SEA Games.

The S.League has been struggling for years to stay competitive and retain fan interest. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s like business where you have to benchmark yourself. The S.league does seem to be getting slightly better attendances. The Malaysian Super League has generally increased interest in local football and the last few years have objectively seen some improvements.

What do you think can be done to improve the local football scene?
If you were analysing it, it comes back to the question of 'What makes fans passionate?'. In the UK or European context, support stems around a city or a town. So, to me, you come back to this word 'tribal'.
At the heart of it you need to come back and ask how the country can be divided territorially, so that when Jurong plays Tampines, it’s got that Liverpool versus Manchester rivalry feel to it. 

But obviously, in Singapore that’s a bit difficult because people move around. This is also a social issue in terms of social mobility because people don’t necessarily live in one area their whole lives. With developments, people shift with the changing infrastructure.

So I don’t think you get the same kind of 'stickiness' or love affair with your hometown team like you would in Europe. 

What do you think about the future of Courts Young Lions and Singapore football as a whole?
Overall, the Malaysian Super League is important because it gets a bit 'tribal' and generates the much-needed rivalry between the Singapore team and Malaysian teams. That might be an answer. If that gets more interest and more attendances, should we get more foreign teams? But that’s for the football authorities to decide, of course.

At the heart of it, go with what makes fans passionate. It’s the same with businesses. We have to build stores around our customers’ needs. How can we get a bit more anticipation amongst fans and recapture the days of the Kallang Roar, which was the hey day of Singapore football?

Read Part 1 of our interview with Terry O'Connor on Goal Singapore Footytalk here