How to save the S.League, Part IV: Forget silly celebrity schemes, pay the bills first

In the fourth part of his series, best-selling author and FourFourTwo columnist Neil Humphreys argues that daft ideas like Ronaldinho academies and international ambassadors create headlines, but not enough cash. Clubs must walk before they can run.

Out of curiosity, the words “S.League” and “salaries” were typed into a Google search. 

The algorithm threw up the following five headlines: Less than $3000 a month and contract worries … Why S.League can’t afford another salary farce … Pay-cut shock for Tampines players … My S.League career ended at 28 …Pennant to be highest paid player in the S.League.

Despite their best intentions, the Stags have become an unwitting case study in unsustainable S.League practices

Google’s search engine had inadvertently encapsulated the haphazard state of the competition.

In essence, the headlines are saying: No money … No money … No money … No money … Loads of money spent on fallen star in gamble to prop up ailing league and let’s worry about balancing the books later.

It’s the muddled S.League in a microcosm, a history of financial struggle occasionally glossed over with another extravagant quick-fix.

Once in a while, the odd publicity stunt can certainly provide a shot in the arm for an ailing club or league. 

It was admirable, but it didn't work

Whether it’s George Best at Hibernian, Pele at New York Santos, a pot-bellied Robbie Fowler in Perth or Jermaine Pennant at Tampines Rovers, any celebrity gimmick that generates interest has no obvious downside – as long as the visiting circus pays for itself. 

If it doesn’t, then the league is left with unpaid bills, red faces and renewed scepticism from a jaded public. 

Despite their best intentions, the Stags have become an unwitting case study in unsustainable S.League practices. When a club is on life support, the oxygen of publicity will never be enough. Publicity doesn’t pay the bills. 

A back-to-basics approach seems the only viable option.

Splashing the non-existent cash

Just over a year ago, Tampines were eager to prove otherwise and a triumvirate of brand names had associated themselves with the S.League outfit. 

Pennant, Ronaldinho and Gerard Houllier are three names that could only ever be linked in the same sentence by a Singapore football club.

How would an S.League club with no jackpot income pay for Pennant, Houllier and Ronaldinho?

Pennant was on-board as resident playmaker, Ronaldinho unveiled an elite football academy and Houllier signed on as an international ambassador.

As the Stags had also turned in their licence to run jackpot operations, an admirable decision made on moral grounds, there was only one question: How would an S.League club with no jackpot income pay for Pennant, Houllier and Ronaldinho?

But to ask as much at the time was to be accused of being churlish and ungrateful, just another whiny S.League cynic criticising the lofty ambition of a forward-thinking club.

Of course, it soon transpired that Tampines struggled to pay for any of the above.

Just over a year later and Pennant had departed for Bury, lambasting the league’s financial strife on the way out.

The former Liverpool boss still hasn't been seen in Singapore

And Ronaldinho’s academy closed down without conducting a single training season, another calamitous episode in Singapore’s unswerving commitment to farce. According to reports, academy staff were owed up to eight months of unpaid salaries.

As for Houllier, the new Tampines international ambassador promised to visit within the year. 

He was unveiled in March 2016 and we’re still waiting.

Instead, the Houllier, Ronaldinho and Pennant storylines took the inevitable twist involving unpaid salaries and disgruntled employees.

[NEXT: The link between gambling and football kicks on]