The ‘human’ league

A whole new ball game: Stuart was FAM general secretary for three years before joining the MFL.

Stuart Ramalingam joined the Malaysian Football League as the chief executive officer in September. An ardent fan of the sport, he is excited to share his plans and ideas to rebrand the image of pro football in the country.

How would you sum up your three-year experience with the Football Association of Malaysia?

The invaluable experience in FAM has helped me to make a quick adjustment in the MFL. It was fantastic to work with the president (Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin), who allowed me to do what we needed to do. I’ve never been a general secretary before but he guided me in understanding the association’s structure and direction.

Why move to MFL?

There was a need to rebrand the product, which includes the league and the people within the set-up. I was the easiest fit. I know how FAM, AFC and FIFA work; I have the understanding about the clubs, the people, the system, and I’ve learnt about MFL from the outside.

They needed someone who can oversee the overall governance and have the ability to capture the commercial side too. My past experiences kind of guided me here. The work is to restructure, create a direction and understand the commercial industry and opportunities out there.

Do you see this role as a huge challenge?

I love a challenge. I know the problems with the Covid-19 pandemic and the past when a few international deals did not work out.

It’s an exciting project and a move forward in my career. It can define and refine me as a well-rounded leader in football.

What’s the exit strategy plan for the league affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

What we do today will redefine where Malaysian football will be in the next 10 years. We have to get out of this tough times correctly and our exit strategy has to be accurate.

Exiting the pandemic is an opportunity as well – an opportunity to reposition the product, the sport and define the industry. We will work closely with the clubs and hopefully, we can reposition the league’s brand in the eyes of our commercial and potential future partners.

We have to make our brand and clubs more relevant in the digital age. It has been five weeks since I took over... I’ve some ideas but everyone has to work together.

What aspects are you looking at to improve MFL?

Two things need to be fixed. First, the product (the league) needs to be reviewed. We’ve to bring its shine back. The second is the commercial direction.

The commercial strategy has to be re-evaluated to ensure that we gain financial reward. In football, there are various business opportunities. The traditional way of selling sponsorship packages can’t work now.

The broadcast and sponsorships aspects have evolved by leaps and bounds in the last four years with the introduction of digitalisation and OTT (over-the-top) ads. We have to speak in the same lingo with commercial partners – it’s not about ticketing and advertising boards anymore.

Are the clubs equally excited for these changes to improve Malaysian football?

I’ve been welcomed on board by all of them. My conversations with them have been encouraging. Yes, there are minor issues with the clubs but we try to come to a point where we agree to disagree.

At times, we make it a point to understand their perspectives. Nothing is taken personally. I must give credit to the clubs. For two years, they have gone through financial difficulties, all kind of standard operating procedures, camp-based training and run their clubs without revenues but they have sustained.

They are still relevant. Some other businesses have closed but our industry has shown resilience.

Despite all the efforts, why do we still hear clubs struggling financially?

Is it perfect? Definitely not. There are some clubs in some financial situation but aren’t we all?

Aren’t all businesses affected by this? We agree that some clubs are repeat offenders (not paying salaries), but I have to say that all clubs have done tremendously well to get to this point of the season. It’s not easy.

Some clubs tried really hard to get everything in order but then, they were hit by the pandemic. When I was in FAM, we had 232 cases (unpaid wages). Today, we have 13 active cases. Some clubs missed one or two months of payment. I have to take 2020 and 2021 as separate reflections and look to readjust in 2022 and 2023.

You got to give space to these clubs. If clubs continue to flout the rules, players and officials can make an official report – we’ll take action.

What do you hope to see in the next four to five years?

I hope every club will be full-fledged football club (FC) in the next four to five years. Privatisation is already taking place. Police have been taken by Red One, Melaka are owned by Ken Group. Then, we have PJ City and JDT, who are privatised.

There have been hiccups but that’s normal. We want lesser reliance on government funding, agencies and more income from commercialisation rights, merchandising, fans development and in-game experience. It has to be professional.

It will eventually develop the social game, mass participation and supply quality players to the national team that will take the sport to greater heights. We want to see more reach of brands into football at every layer of the national football pyramid.

MFL is only as strong as supporting the leagues and development at all levels. I can’t say that I want all the money for MFL. The pie is big enough for all to share.

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