EPL big boys coming to Singapore, but at what cost?

Arsenal, Everton and Stoke City are coming to Singapore, but Neil Humphreys warns against sky high ticket prices that might drive fans away...

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In the Singapore media last week, the Barclays Asia Trophy was referred to as a chance of a lifetime for the island’s English Premier League supporters. If that’s the case, then these supporters might want to go home and rethink their lives.

In England, the proverbial wet Wednesday night watching Stoke has long been trumpeted as a yardstick to measure the league’s muscular, rough and tumble approach. In Singapore, an evening with Stoke is a chance of a lifetime.

We should consider revising our ambitions.

Of course, it’s easy to be facetious. English heavyweights Arsenal and Merseyside lightweights Everton will accompany those bruisers from the Potteries to the tropics to face a Singapore Select XI at the Sports Hub in July. Both EPL sides undoubtedly put bums on seats, but that patronizing whiff hangs in the air like Per Mertesacker mistiming his jump at a set-piece.

Premier League Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore, has already expressed his delight at putting on a tournament worthy of Singapore’s 50th birthday celebrations. SG50 already has the heritage exhibitions, but what it really needs is Peter Crouch in the six-yard box.

Premier League saturation

Singapore’s EPL fans are unlikely to fall for such PR fluff anymore. Those hallowed days of English sides turning up for a lazy kickaround on the National Stadium’s pockmarked pitch ended when the Grand Old Lady of Kallang was pulled down. The impressive Sports Hub covets such talent on a reasonably regular basis now and supporters are right to demand bang for their buck. They will not pay top dollar to watch a pre-season junket and organisers should not assume otherwise.

The Premier League’s name is no longer quite enough. The product’s omnipresence has diluted its potency. It’s everywhere, all the time. It’s always available, on different platforms, every day. Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, just a mild sense of the mundane. It’s commonplace.

That certainly wasn’t the case during the heady visits of Liverpool and Manchester United in 2001. Both clubs were front and back page news for days. Cable television and digital media were still in their relative infancy. The clubs’ visits predated social media and YouTube clips. And they arrived at the height of Beckham-mania.

A confluence of social, technological and pop cultural factors turned David Beckham into a celebrity not seen since Old Hollywood. He was recognized everywhere from Manchester to Marine Parade, but he was still remote and inaccessible. I spent 45 minutes alone with him in a KL hotel lounge and learned almost nothing. Asian fans knew even less. It only added to the aura.

At Changi Airport, thousands of supporters welcomed Beckham’s United and Michael Owen’s Liverpool as if they were distant, mythical sporting gods from another dimension because they largely were. They weren’t just men. They were giant billboards on Orchard Road, far beyond the reach of Singaporeans.  They were elusive and unattainable.

Now, thanks to Twitter, we know what most footballers had for breakfast before it passes through their digestive system.

The celebrity bubble burst moments after the first EPL player sent his first tweet. There is no mystique, curtain or VIP rope anymore. The Barclays Asia Trophy will not bring untouchable demigods, but a few authentic superstars (in Arsenal jerseys), a couple of decent sides and Stoke.

That’s the reality. Everything else will be PR smoke and mirrors designed to fool the average fan already being charged an arm and a leg for his cable subscription package. We’re all fools for love, but that doesn’t mean we’ll fall for a fixture between Stoke and a Singapore Selection side.

Modern realities

Singapore has metamorphosed from that naïve island of 2001, when queues snaked around Marina Square as fans waited for a glimpse of Liverpool’s “treble” of trophies. The country practically bowed and scraped in gratitude for being considered worthy of an EPL visit.

But the Singapore Grand Prix is now an annual magnet for household names. The golf tournaments attract the best from the women’s game and Serena Williams treated the place like a second home last year. The EPL remains the biggest act in town, but it faces stiff competition. Its pre-season tournament cannot get by on past glories.

In truth, the Barclays Asia Trophy could be locally renamed as “that tournament with Arsenal and the club for sentimental fans who still remember Graeme Sharp and the other club that no one wants to go to on a wet Wednesday night.” If that sounds harsh, watch Singaporeans turn their backs on an empty stadium if ticket prices are deemed too high. That’ll be harsh.

Singapore has not moved away from the EPL, but it has moved on. The Premier League remains a rush. It just can’t take anyone for a ride.

So the ticket prices should be sensible. And leftovers could be released – either discounted or even free – to children and students shortly after kick-off on match days. Any lost revenue would be offset by the corporate goodwill generated by the gesture and the positive PR images of a packed, vibrant stadium. Or better yet, hand out a few freebies to students eligible for the Ministry of Education’s Financial Assistance Scheme.

For these kids, a ticket to watch a Barclays Asia Trophy game might be considered a chance of lifetime – as long as it’s not Stoke.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. His newest book, Marina Bay Sins, launches in Singapore on 21 March at Kinokuniya! You can find his website right here.