David Lim, executive chairman and managing director of Rugby Singapore, is striving to make rugby a greater commercial success in Singapore. He is excited about the prospects offered by this month’s HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens

SINGAPORE (Apr 16): David Lim is passionate about all things rugby. On Sundays, one can find him on the field of the UWCSEA International School in Dover, coaching kids who play for Titans Rugby Football Club, a junior rugby club. Lim, who himself used to play the sport, now finds more satisfaction from guiding young players in the tactics and strategies of the game.

Off the pitch, Lim is executive chairman and managing director of Rugby Singapore, the commercial and events arm of local governing body Singapore Rugby Union. He is responsible for the commercial activities surrounding rugby, notably the carnival-like HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens (SG7s). Singapore has been a host country since 2016, after it clinched one of the 10 coveted spots to host the tournament.

As part of the 10-leg HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series (WR7s), Singapore is stop number eight. This annual tournament features 16 of the world’s top teams, and Canada is the defending champion. Traditional powerhouses such as Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia are also participating teams. This year’s game will take place on April 28 and 29 at the 55,000-seat Singapore National Stadium.

Speaking to Options, Lim is excited about the commercial prospects of an increasingly popular sport such as rugby. “Rugby is one of the fastest- growing sports in the world, including in North America,” he says in a recent interview. “Statistically, [the sport] is in our favour; we are trending.”

Lim says an international sports event, such as the Rugby Sevens series, is usually well sought after by corporate clients. “By offering an event of this stature with international names — which is part of the WR7s — we present companies with the opportunity to associate themselves with the sport and brand,” he says.

The tournament has two types of sponsors. Its global sponsors include banking and finance group HSBC Holdings, courier services company DHL Express, tech consulting firm Capgemini, Swiss luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer, and rugby equipment manufacturer Gilbert Rugby. Their brand exposure covers all stops of the tournament. Local sponsors Fiji Airways and beverage manufacturer Fraser and Neave, however, have their brand exposure limited to just Singapore, says Lim.

Another revenue stream for SG7s is the offering of hospitality suites. The Sevens VIP Club is the perfect treat for patrons looking for the ultimate SG7s indulgence. With a dedicated viewing space above the heart of the carnival atmosphere, the Sevens VIP Club provides a five-star luxury experience. This includes free-flow drinks; an international buffet spread; private, air-conditioned lounge with TV screens and WiFi; and exclusive merchandise and gifts.

On the other hand, the Level 3 Hospitality Boxes provide a different kind of luxury fan experience most suited for clients looking to entertain groups of between 36 and 72 people. With some degree of privacy for networking, companies are able to engage guests in an informal, casual and sporty setting, while easily catching the intense action on-pitch. This hospitality package includes a dedicated catering space and beer taps.

David Lim, executive chairman and managing director of Rugby Singapore

Of course, ticketing is an important revenue generator for SG7s. “Our core focus is to fill up the stadium,” says Lim. “In time to come, I [would] like to see the other revenue streams balance it out so that it is not heavily dependent on ticketing revenue, but also sponsorship, rugby carnival brand association and hospitality.”

Carnival atmosphere

While the rugby game itself may prove sufficient to attract and keep the most ardent fans satiated, it takes more than that to deliver a unique sporting experience. Rugby has a culture of touring among players and fans, Lim says. Hence, to exploit that, the Singapore Rugby Carnival brand was created to enhance the experience.

“We see a good proportion of people travelling. They use the WR7s as an excuse to travel to various destinations,” he says. “To make sure that they have a great Singapore experience, we want them to explore the food, culture, retail and other attractions that our country offers. It’s a cornerstone of our strategy in terms of being a world-class event and to provide a uniquely Singaporean flavour to the event that you can’t get anywhere else.”

SG7s has tied up with over 200 outlets from 70 establishments across the F&B, retail, entertainment, hospitality and tourism industries to offer promotions and discounts to ticketholders. Notably, Pan Pacific Hotels Group is offering a 20% discount off total restaurant bills at all participating restaurant outlets at Pan Pacific Singapore. This offer also extends to the PARKROYAL chain of hotels. Additionally, ticketholders get a 15% discount for stays at the hotels and serviced suites of both hotel chains. Pan Pacific has been the official hotel partner of SG7s since 2016.

In F&B, restaurateur Harry’s is offering a 15% discount off the total bill for regular-priced items across its 19 outlets in Singapore. Burger-loving fans can enjoy 10% off their total bill at six branches of Fatboy’s. Bak kwa king Bee Cheng Hiang is selling their products in pairs at a cheaper price.

SG7s has also struck up collaborations with entertainment outlets at Sentosa, Clarke Quay, Resorts World Sentosa and Wildlife Reserve Singapore. Ticket holders can enjoy the thrills and attractions there at special prices before the rugby action gets underway. “It brings an economic impact to the city,” says Lim. “We look towards a more macro type of picture where we are trying to take our brand and use it across the wider spectrum of partners.”

Young children are not left out as SG7s is positioned as a family-friendly sporting event. Parents can drop off their kids at Hasbro’s The Transformers, Nerf and My Little Pony attraction zones throughout the two-day sporting event. Kids can also enjoy other activities, including The Superdudes, Spartan Singapore, and Strider Bikes, and the “Under-the-sea” adventure.

Lim explains that the emphasis on being family-friendly is to differentiate SG7s from the other legs of the tournament. One of Singapore’s unique selling propositions is its security and safe environment, he says. “It is conducive for a family holiday. We don’t have to worry about a child getting kidnapped. [Hence], that is something we should build upon. None of the other countries in the existing series offer as much as we offer, from childcare to free drop off zones for kids.”

Yet to break even

Financially, SG7s’ performance has been mixed. Last year, the event recorded a total revenue of $23.5 million, up 9.3% from 2016. The higher turnover was largely driven by overseas attendees, who made up more than 8,000 ticket holders. Of this, 35% came from Oceania, 22% from Europe, and 21% from Asia. Overseas tourists comprised 24% of the overall ticket-holder population, while 36% and 40% were expats and locals living in Singapore. However, SG7s did not break even, extending its losses from the previous year.

Still, Lim is unfazed. He notes that SG7s is in its early years and still in the phase of tweaking and experimentation. “It’s not a matter of breaking even or not. It’s about how we can make things better,” he says. “It is whether I spend money in the right places to deliver a product that will entice the corporate world to come support our event.”

This phase is still ongoing this year, Lim says, but he has a “much clearer vision” to achieve certain milestones for the event. SG7s has a target to break even by 2023. “We are still at the stage where we invest more money to make sure or prove the concept to stakeholders, sponsors and hospitality customers that this is a great product,” he says. “I would rather spend the money and have a good foundation in the future than to scrimp and aim for profitability in 18 months, and the product is still not what we want [it] to be.

As such, SG7s’ international marketing budget has increased 30%, Lim says. The key areas of investment are in enhancing player and fan experiences. In particular, Lim wants to improve the offerings from tie-ups with F&B, retail and hospitality establishments. “As ambassadors, the players are very influential whether on social media or elsewhere. If you have a South African player who is videoblogging live on social media from Sentosa or from the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands, this has so much value in terms of creating a positive image of Singapore.” Likewise, this is the same for the fans, he adds.

Other rugby tournaments?

Canada beat the US 26-19 in a pulsating final to emerge as champions last year

SG7s currently features only male rugby players, but that could change in the future. Lim says Singapore has submitted a bid to host the women’s category under SG7s. If the bid is successful, SG7s could be extended to a three-day event from the current two-day event. This is likely to present more commercial opportunities.

Will Rugby Singapore introduce other rugby tournaments in Singapore? Lim says Singapore has in the past hosted a one-off match between Scotland and Italy. It could organise more oneoff matches, for instance, a game between New Zealand’s All Blacks and the English team. However, one-off events are difficult to monetise on a sustainable basis, says Lim. “It’s like hitting the jackpot. It doesn’t build for the future. Annual events like SG7s help to build a legacy. It also helps to build the local game and inspire the next generation of players. Moreover, it produces a commercial stream that enables me to reinvest in the sport.”

What about establishing a rugby league? Lim reckons Singapore is not yet ready for that. “The challenge is filling the stadium,” he says. “You need an audience and fans. Are you able to fill a 55,000-seat stadium week in, week out? I dare say that even the local football league has not filled up the stadium, what more rugby, which is less popular among the local community. Hence, I say we are not ready.”

Still, Lim sees a good future for the commercialisation of rugby as a tournament. “Rugby is an Olympic sport. If we are not an Olympic sport, we are not relevant,” he says.

Lim says he often dreams of inspiring the next Joseph Schooling equivalent in rugby through sporting events like SG7s. The swimmer is an Olympic gold medallist. “If we don’t have heroes like this on our own shores, walking into our school fields, playing and doing clinics with our own boys, we will never inspire young Singaporeans to rise up as world-class rugby players. Hence, it is important to have a world-class event here to inspire youngsters.”

Lim, who is a lawyer by training, worked in sports broadcasting for ESPN Star Sports in the mid-1990s. He also played an instrumental role in launching Mission Hills in China — the world’s largest golf club — and the Asian Golf Tour. Apart from the business of sports, Lim had a stint as a marketing consultant for an e-commerce firm. If his resume is anything to go by, Lim appears to be the right person to make SG7s a successful sporting event. “We are trying to take this property and really commercialise, monetise it, and make it relevant to the whole business of big events in Singapore by putting the product out there and making it relatable to corporates.”