Is FAS playing a dangerous game with World Sport Group?


By Gangasudhan

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has a close working relationship with World Sport Group (WSG), notably by way of the current campaign to incorporate an ASEAN Super League (ASL), featuring the representative football teams from ASEAN countries.

The ASL is being organised by the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) which is itself a subset of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The committee spearheading the ASL project is led by Zainudin Nordin who is the president of FAS.

As AFF is not recognized by FIFA, the world governing body for football, FAS will be making the official application to run the ASL on record while the concept for the competition itself has been drawn up by WSG.

Currently, several major footballing events organised in Singapore are managed by WSG such as the Brazil-Japan and Juventus-Singapore Selection friendlies that were held in 2014. Beyond the local football scene, other Singapore-based projects handled by WSG include the creation of the official website for the Asian Youth Games in 2009, and promoting sports events such as the BNP Baripas WTA Finals Singapore 2015 and SMBC Singapore Open 2016. It also appears as though the Singapore Sports Hub consortium had originally included WSG but the eventual team only comprises a handful of partners that does not include it.

The idea of an ASL has not been particularly well received by the local football fraternity and many in Singapore feel that this endeavour will be at the expense of the national football league, The S.League. But besides the footballing implications, there is also the problematic association with WSG as a major partner in this project.


WSG’s Chequered Past

WSG is currently the subject of a scandal with regard to the AFC’s $1 billion master rights agreement which was flagged in 2012 by a PricewaterhouseCoopers independent audit of the AFC president’s financial management of the organisation. In addition, it continues to be part of a media rights scandal in relation to the Indian Premier League (IPL) since 2010 in which WSG is said to have received about S$26 million of which a portion “was transferred to wholly owned group companies in Hong Kong and Singapore”.

On the international scene, WSG has been linked with a sports marketing  company called Traffic with regard to the international TV rights of the Gold Cup and Concacaf Champions League – the owner of Traffic is currently ‘assisting investigations’ by the FBI and has admitted to “crimes including money laundering, fraud and extortion”.

WSG was first incorporated as AFC Marketing Limited (AML) in Hong Kong in 1992 to manage the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC’s) marketing and promotion of events and was involved in promoting the Tiger Cup as well. According to filing records it was eventually deregistered in 2008. WSG is also currently registered in Singapore as World Sport Group Pte. Ltd. since 2002 and World Sport Group Consulting Pte. Ltd. (formerly knowns as Active Rights Management (Asia) Pte. Ltd.) since 2006.

Since 2008, Lagardère Sports (now known as Lagardère Unlimited), a sport marketing firm based in Paris, has taken 70% ownership of WSG with International Sports Event and Dentsu being the remaining shareholders. Presently all URLs at www.wsgworld.com redirect automatically to Lagardère’s landing page at www.lagardere-se.com and all press releases, project information and other details from WSG appear not to be accessible online. However, the structural change appears to be only in terms of the named ownership and “the current WSG management (including founder and principal executive Seamus O’Brien) will stay at the helm”.


Football Development or Media Rights Development?

It would not be unrealistic to interpret the ASL project as a media rights marketing strategy. This would mean the motivation to create this football league is primarily to create a novel platform that is aimed at generating revenue through advertising and sponsorship, and not exactly to raise the football standard of the SouthEast Asian region as has been reiterated publically.

While it may be argued that such platforms require good football on display in order to be attractive to advertisers to come on board, it is not a necessary criterion for such an objective to be achieved. In fact, it would be far easier for WSG to simply use the fact that an ASEAN-level football platform exists (i.e. novelty factor) to canvass for first-time advertisers instead. It is not farfetched at all to expect major corporations whose business spans across several countries in the region to be enticed into devoting advertising dollars towards the ASL.

But the biggest cause for concern lies in the fact that WSG appear to practise an aggressive strategy (to put it politely) with regard to the contracts and agreements it engages in. As it stands, Seamus O’Brien and Andrew Georgiou could very well be directly involved in at least two major scandals, and it is very likely that they will be making the final decisions as far as how the ASL project pans out.

This in itself may not be an issue as they have not yet been convicted or charged with any crime, but the issue of inherent risk cannot be ignored, especially when FAS is the one going on record to lead the project in an official capacity. The very real possibility of FAS’s reputation (and the Singapore brand by extension) being tarnished as a result of WSG’s methods (even if their actions remain on the right side of the law) is reason to pause.


Prudent to Halt ASL Plans

Currently, it is unclear if a detailed plan exists that outlines the footballing considerations on whether the ASL will enhance the footballing standard in the region. There is also no reference point from which it can be determined if this project does achieve its objectives – be they footballing or financial outcomes.

It is therefore in the best interests of Singapore Football as well as the local governing body FAS to suspend the ASL project until a proper plan and roadmap can be made available to the soccer fraternity, if not the public. Any such plan should clearly address the benefits to local football and regional football, and provide an idea of the intended outcomes for all the stakeholders who are directly involved. In addition, because of WSG’s history of problematic media rights issues, it should further include a specific description of the types of media rights involved and how they will benefit the teams participating, together with the AFF and FAS.

Otherwise, we may end up paying too high a financial price for mediocre success, or worse, getting the short end of the stick altogether with nothing to show for it – Singapore has suffered enough with bad footballing decisions.

Note: While this article details allegations of scandals involving World Sport Group, and earlier mentions of Seamus O’Brien and Andrew Georgiou, it must be noted that the cases are still being investigated and wrangled in legal battle, with none having been charged with any wrongdoing at the time of writing this article. This clarification is particularly necessary as WSG has made legal applications to the Supreme Court here in the past to force one journalist to reveal his source (the application was dismissed).