Can niche sports survive in Singapore?

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SINGAPORE: It is not that difficult to find a sporting activity in Singapore to pursue.

From football to swimming, there are plenty of choices to pursue, either recreationally or competitively.

And for those seeking something a little more unusual, there is a thriving network of niche sports, such as canoe polo.

However, with all sports facing the challenge of attracting new participants to sustain their survival and expansion, what chance do the smallest niche sports have when pitted against their more established peers?

HAMPERED BY THE SPORT’S LIMITATIONS

As a niche sport that has one of the smallest followings in Singapore, underwater hockey – also known as octopush – exists as a gathering of not more than 40 enthusiasts playing regular games on weekdays and sometimes at the weekend.

Currently affiliated to the Singapore Underwater Association, the sport has been struggling to add new members to its ranks since becoming established in 2004 in Singapore through Stirling Underwater Hockey Club – the sole outfit in the country.

Outreach efforts to schools bore little fruit over the years. “We don’t have a program in any of the other schools, with competitions between different teams going,” lamented Lim Wee Lit, a local underwater hockey enthusiast.

“We (also) don’t have a critical mass of players in the game who are out there to teach the game,” said the 45-year-old.

“School kids won’t come to us, as it’s too far a jump for them to participate without peers around. It’s too hard for kids and teenagers to come join us,” said Lim, on what is preventing the sport from going mainstream.

Technical challenges may also be a barrier to entry, according to female player Cheoh Pin, although they can be overcome with practice. “The greatest challenge in our sport is to hold our breath, and especially if the game is intense the body gets exhausted and the time taken to hold our breaths shortens,” she said.

“In a normal intensity game, we can hold our breath for about seven to 10 seconds before we need to surface. In the most intense matches, we can only hold for five to seven seconds before needing to come up for air,” the 40-year-old added.

“It is one challenge to learn this as beginners.”

Games of underwater hockey played in deeper pools are usually slower due to the frequent need to surface for air. (Photo: Stirling Underwater Hockey Club)

However, the fact that it is not a spectator sport, at least in Singapore, remains the most significant barrier to wider popularity. “The technicalities of the sport do not exactly put off people to join. But I think it’s mainly because it is not so much a spectator sport unless you can somehow view the action underwater,” said Lim.

“In Sheffield in the UK, there is a tall tank made of glass where you can see the action. But over in other countries, we don’t have such a possibility. As such, we don’t have spectators and without them, you don’t have sponsors and people to rah-rah,” he added.

“All you have is people who would try out of curiosity, and if they don’t like it they won’t stay. It is unlike land sports where it’s somewhat easier to pick up and run around. In our case, not everyone swims or dives.”

Their small numbers and ageing members pose a concern for the sport’s survival in Singapore.

But for now, camaraderie is what keeps them going. “It’s not just about the game itself, as I keep telling everyone that it is the people that make up our club.  We look out for everybody. They all feel at home, and that is very important,” said Stirling Underwater Hockey Club president Twang Say Koon.

“Being a niche sport, we cannot afford to lose players. We want to strive to sustain our numbers,” said the 58-year-old.

THRIVING AT TERTIARY LEVEL, STRUGGLING TO GO MAINSTREAM

For the sport of canoe polo, its steady following in local polytechnics and universities has helped it stay afloat for about a decade.

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Canoe polo players at a recent championship in Singapore. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

But after graduation, careers take precedence over weekend games in the canoe for a significant number of players.

That was the case for a canoe polo club that was based in Tampines, according to national women’s team player Marissa Yeo. “Their players are a lot older and are made up of working professionals. They seem to have problems getting the team together due to working and family commitments,” she said.

“However, they are more geared towards playing canoe polo leisurely, and did form a team for the past two national championships,” said Yeo.

Added the 23-year-old, who is studying at Ngee Ann Polytechnic: “Even though it is mainly a tertiary student crowd, there is also a sizeable amount of alumni players playing. A lot of our categories are made up of alumni teams who are no longer in school any more,” she said.

“I would say, our playing population is made up of about half alumni players who are working, and about half are current tertiary students.”

Despite the sport failing to attain National Sports Association (NSA) recognition, Yeo maintains that her peers are striving to reach higher goals.

“I think we definitely have higher ambitions than being just a tertiary-centric sport. All of us in the national team, even though we don’t receive as much support as other sports do, we still try to strive hard for it as we do believe we deserve the NSA status,” said Yeo, who has been playing for five years.

“One of the reasons why we didn’t get the recognition was because it’s not an Olympic sport or a SEA Games sport, and that itself is a challenge.”

“For us, what we try to do is to try to raise more awareness within the sport,” insisted Yeo.

A MATTER OF TIME

Unlike canoe polo, the sport of tchoukball has managed to sustain the interest of its tertiary demographic even after they have graduated. “Since we introduced the sport in late 2006, the sport has definitely grown a lot,” said Jeff Ang, the Tchoukball Association of Singapore’s general secretary.

“When we started the sport, the focus was on the school scene. We don’t have a precise number, but we estimate having about 8,000 active players in Singapore currently,” he added.

The sport’s performance on the world stage played a big part towards its growth in the country, according to Ang. “We are increasingly getting into the public’s consciousness due to our national teams being in the top-five in the world,” he said.

“We also have a centre of excellence, and programs in school and university. So as a result of that, most of the players’ friends would come down and support their peers, and they too come to know about the sport,” said Ang, on how the sport is reaching out.

“Also, parents of young players get to know about tchoukball as well, as a result there is increased awareness about it.”

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Singapore hosted the World Youth Tchoukball Championship back in 2015. (Photo: Tchoukball Association of Singapore)

As a sport that is similar to handball, albeit with a different scoring method, Ang claims that more people recognise what the sport is all about. “When we started, there was hardly anyone to explain the sport and people looked at us curiously, wondering what we were playing,” he said.

“Nowadays, when people see the “goal” frame that we use, people now know “Oh! That’s tchoukball” and they also know how to pronounce the word as well,” added Ang. “These are the little milestones that we celebrate.”

Their next aim? Applying for NSA status with Sport Singapore to further boost their profile. “We are knocking on the doors to be an NSA as it’ll give us greater recognition.

“This is so that all the players that have been training and have sacrificed so much would be given due recognition for their efforts.”

Read more at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/sport/can-niche-sports-survive-in-singapore-9198826