Rebuilding a footballing nation
Malaysia Football

While the commodification of football has its own drawbacks, it is arguably the best means to grow the sport commercially and achieve global stature

By MARK RAO 

Football is undisputedly the world’s most played sport today and every four years, it becomes an important element that could easily unite the entire world as nations “battle” to bring home the coveted world cup.

The game, as we know today, has its origins in 1863 England when the Football Association was established as a separate entity from the rugby league.

Football’s earlier beginning can be traced as far back as the BC-era where variants of the sport were played in China, Japan and Greece.

Malaysia’s own footballing history began when the British introduced the sport during the colonisation era, which eventually culminated in the formation of the Football Association of Malaya (now the Football Association of Malaysia — FAM) in 1933.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was later named Malaysia’s first prime minister in 1957 following the country’s independence, was named FAM president in 1951, which could have started the course of an illustrious footballing nation.

This was best attested to during the heyday of Malaysian football in the 70s and 80s, which saw the likes of Mokhtar Dahari, Santokh Singh and Soh Chin Aun gracing the local and regional football scenes.

Today, Malaysia’s performance at the national level has been less than stellar with the country’s FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) ranking dropping from 79th in 1993 to 171th today, placing us behind Cambodia and ahead of Singapore.

This can be attributed in part to the challenges that beset Malaysia’s local football leagues including the over-reliance on state-sourced funding, dated management styles and absence of commercial growth.

Moving past these issues and building a sustainable and viable football industry is the task currently being helmed by Football Malaysia Ltd Liability Partnership (FMLLP).

Breaking the Stasis of Malaysian Football

FMLLP  CEO Kevin Ramalingam

Ramalingam says FMLLP has made a difference in the industry especially in its ability to expand the coverage of local football games (Pic Dzul Asyraf/TMR)

FMLLP was formed in 2015 when FAM took the league private and is tasked in managing the operations of two leagues and three cup tournaments in Malaysia.

According to its CEO Kevin Ramalingam, the footballing body had not anticipated the challenges it would face when it assumed management of the league in the 2016 season.

“When we first incorporated FMLLP, most of the plans were done by looking at Malaysian football and the operations of the leagues from the outside,” he told The Malaysian Reserve.

“Once we got involved, we then had access to what went on internally and the challenges that we faced were different from what we thought from the outside.”

For FMLLP, this meant recognising that different stakeholders are at different points in their growth, navigating the highly regulated industry and weeding out management practices that are not conducive to progress.

“We all have to realise that it is an industry which has been in a certain way for tens of years, and to change that mindset is a lot more difficult than starting something from scratch,” Ramalingam said.

He said FMLLP has made a difference in the industry, especially in its ability to expand the coverage of local football games, which led to “unprecedented” returns to investors who play a vital part in commercialising the sport.

With all available Super League or top division games available to the public, Malaysian football is now bringing in higher value and new investments aided by the privatisation of the league, which is a more attractive structure for corporates.

“I felt that in the 2016 to 2017 season, a lot of the work was done behind the scenes in trying to develop the regulations that the public did not see,” Ramalingam said.

“For the 2018 season, the public has seen big changes as this season is front-facing due to the broadcast level and the money coming in.”

A Long Journey Ahead

Despite the visible success achieved by FMLLP and FAM, contributing 20% to 30% of a top-division team’s annual budget of between RM10 million and RM15 million, Malaysian football is still a far cry from the big-money leagues in Europe.

While the commodification of football has its own drawbacks as attested to by the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal, which forever mars the game, it is arguably the best means to grow the sport commercially and achieve global stature.

One such measure is by publicly listing the league for capital-raising and future investments in order to have a strong and liquid base.

Ramalingam said Malaysia is not at this stage yet as a lot of internal issues need to be sorted and a proper self-regulating industry needs to be in place first.

“I think we have got another five years of this journey before we are completely stable. The components need to be stable because you cannot attempt to go public when you have teams that are still struggling to survive,” he said.

He said Malaysia still has another five years before the way teams are managed and structured are changed to suit the value and direction of the league.

The Next Stage of Growth

While corporate investments and sponsorship deals are key in helping Malaysian football secure sustainable modes of income and reduce teams’ reliance on state funding, which is often inconsistent, FMLLP is already looking at the next stage of growth for the industry.

This is expected to be in the form of a fan-driven and fan-sustained local football broadcast medium or the Football Malaysia Channel (FMC).

The footballing body already inked a 10-year deal with iflix to live stream all Super League games and Piala Malaysia cup fixtures, and an eight-year sponsorship agreement with Telekom Malaysia Bhd (TM) worth a total of RM480 million or RM60 a year.

Ramalingam said FMLLP is looking at the end of the TM contract to be groundbreaking with the launch of FMC.

“Over the next eight years, we are hoping to eventually make the channel a direct delivery to football fans,” he said.

“In the long term, we are hoping that subscriptions to the channel would actually be the sustainability that we need going forward rather than having to rely heavily on broadcast and sponsorship deals.”

He said this is part of its strategy to ensure a fan-driven industry that creates a basis of stability going forward, while sponsorship or broadcast money will be additional fiscal drivers as opposed to core income.

The growth of the local Malaysian football league should then contribute to the national level as the success of countries competing at the top level typically corresponds with well-performing local leagues.

“Once we provide a sustainable and solid platform and as young players come through the system, I believe it will contribute to national team success,” Ramalingam said, speaking on the outlook for Malaysian football.

“A vibrant local football industry will always contribute to the national level.”