Terry O'Connor: It's all about bringing fans closer to a sport they love

Courts Asia's Chief Executive Officer talks to FFT.com editor Zee Ko about growing up in Liverpool, Courts' association with football, and the fruits of sponsoring a development team in the S.League...

Hi Terry, first and foremost, as a boyhood Liverpool fan, how much does it mean to see the Courts-Liverpool Football Academy return for a third year?

The overriding objective is to bring community and fans closer to the sport through our collaboration with various partners and business connections. The opportunity to host the Academy in Singapore and Malaysia came up from our regional partnership with the Liverpool Football Club.

Our focus isn’t only on Liverpool through – we’re very conscious of the fact that we have Manchester United or Arsenal fans, so we need to be balanced. Besides the Liverpool stars, we’ve also brought in Peter Schmeichel, Paul Scholes, Eric Cantona and Vincent Kompany to the delight of fans. On the international front, we’ve hosted the likes of Pele and Fabio Cannavaro.

Fraser Ablett, Anthony Owens and David Kimer - three Liverpool Football Academy coaches here at the same time in the flesh. Any part of you wishing you were a kid again, picking up tips from some of the best?

My staff probably think I’m a kid!

When I was growing up in Liverpool, I used to catch glimpses of the team over tall fences or wait for the players to come out and get their autographs. Having this direct opportunity and connection with Liverpool is amazing, and I’m happy to be able to share it with Singapore and Malaysia. Who knows, the next Steven Gerrard is waiting to be discovered here!

We've noticed a large selection of participants from different groups - some of the best 'B' Division secondary school talents, the Singapore Cerebral Palsy Football Team, the Singapore Special Olympics Football Team, Courts Young Lions, even several lucky fans! Was it always the plan to reach as many people as possible?

It’s not about quantity, as much as how much these young participants will benefit from the Academy. This year, we’ve got the brightest talents from secondary schools, the Cerebral Palsy Football team recently competed in the 2014 Asian Para Games in Korea and are training for the 8th ASEAN Para Games 2015, and the Courts Young Lions are training for the SEA Games next year.  

What is it about football that makes it such a popular sport, worldwide and in Singapore? Is Courts Asia's association with the game largely because of this? Why not other sports, say Formula 1 or the WTA? Or maybe even arts and culture?

Sports such as Formula 1 or golf enjoy global popularity with a passionate following who are well-heeled. However, football appears to everyone across the spectrum, evident in the fact that in Europe, it has grown from industrial towns and cities to becoming the most-watched sport in the world. As support for the teams is passed on from generation to generation, it has become so entrenched and ingrained  in our community – there’s no way to escape it! Also, celebrating a goal together is one of the most infectiously joyous things to do.

Speaking of the Courts Young Lions, what do you think of their performances this season? The team started slow, it wasn't the best of campaigns, but a late surge meant they leapfrogged Harimau Muda and Woodlands. Good signs for the future, especially with upcoming talent like Sahil Suhaimi and Al-Qaasimy Rahman?

The Young Lions are a development team, and the players are 4-5 years from their peak age for a typical footballer. To us, it’s never about trophy success, but the development of the players and watching them grow.

The bulk of this Courts Young Lions team will be participating in the upcoming SEA Games next year. What do you think of Singapore's chances and how much pride is there for Courts Asia as a brand to see promising youngsters blossom into national stars?

I feel an immense sense of pride for the Courts Young Lions, and especially delighted that since our sponsorship of the Young Lions began four seasons ago, the boys have moved on to carve prolific careers for themselves. Hariss Harun, who scored two goals against Myanmar last night, began his career with the Young Lions, and he was captain of the team when we first signed on in 2010. We’ve seen others making an impact in the Malaysia Super League and at the National Level and are very proud of the boys.  

Back to the S.League though. Plenty of uncertainty for fans and players, with Tanjong Pagar dropping out next year and two other clubs merging. Add to that an unusual age limit rule change U-turn... Any thoughts on the decline of our local league and what has to be done to stop the rot?

The ultimate goal is to reenergise the league, make it more competitive and improve fitness. It is pretty clear that the methods first put forward were ill-advised, and hastily thought through. It’s good to see since then that some common sense has prevailed despite the unfortunate fall-out from the initial plans. Moving forward, we need to make the sport more tribal, assess fitness levels fairly without discriminating based on age, and renew our focus and vigour on innovation – all without bypassing any employer norms and practices.

It's almost the end of 2014. Courts turned 40 this year, and once again we saw star names turn up in Singapore to help celebrate. Paul Scholes and Jan Molby just off the top of our heads. Is this something that will definitely be continuing in the future? Is it cool that fans are starting to expect football superstars visiting thanks to Courts every year?

We’re proud to be a pioneer in this space, and seeing other corporations jump on the bandwagon after us. It’s cool that fans now associate us as a brand that brings them closer to the sport they love.