Malaysia’s capable sports leaders: The dawn of a new era

The president of a national cycling governing body was removed after allegations of conflict of interest and dishonesty for acting as a consultant to a company that was a vendor to the same national governing body (NGB).

One cannot be faulted for thinking it reads like an episode out of Malaysian sport. On the contrary, this was an actual scenario with the British Cycling Federation back in 1996 involving its then-president, Tony Doyle.

Structural changes in British sport

British Cycling went through a meltdown in the mid-1990s; everything from badly managed programmes, falling memberships, internal disputes, to imminent bankruptcy. In November 1996, former board members were shown the door via a vote of no confidence, and 11 new office bearers were voted in, with Brian Cookson as president. A new paid professional executive team led by chief executive officer (CEO), Peter King, was subsequently put in place.

The leadership changes, National Lottery funding; major transformation in high performance development via the World Class Podium Programme, and the structural changes to the NGB of sports laid the foundation for cycling’s major transformation. United Kingdom Sport’s “A Code for Sports Governance” is now regarded as the world’s best practice for an NGB’s governing structure.

A point to note here is the introduction of professional management within the NGBs, under leadership and structural changes. In short, paid professionals were hired to run the sport. The title “chief executive” began mushrooming around the NGBs in the UK.

British Cycling is one of the greatest beneficiaries of these various milestones. Its revenue shot up from £1 million in 1996 to £32 million in 2019. British Cycling only had 14,000 members in 1996, as opposed to 165,000 members in 2020. Along the way, major sponsors like Adidas, Fiat, Pinarello and Sky went on to associate themselves with British Cycling. Sky built on the successful partnership with British Cycling to fund Team GB’s professional cycling outfit, which went on to win multiple Tours De France.

Marginal gains and sport technology

Peter King introduced the “no compromise” approach with the single-minded focus to win medals and become the Number One Cycling Nation by 2012.

In 2003, David Brailsford was hired as British Cycling’s performance director. As a proponent of marginal gains, David Brailsford and British Cycling kick-started the “secret squirrel club” in 2004, a top-secret research and development project that sparked the dominance that is Team GB Cycling today. Having only won two gold medals from cycling at the Olympics since British Cycling’s founding in 1957 until 1996, Team GB Cycling has been an Olympic medal juggernaut, winning 30 Olympic gold medals over a stretch of 16 years until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Sport technology enabled the research and development team to extract every marginal gain. The highest level of experts were gathered to work on the project, including those from Formula One racing, where innovations were hidden away in a secret bunker dubbed “Room X”.

Two years before the 2016 Rio Olympics, a new data driven system known as the “Readiness Index” (RI) was developed to ensure British Cycling remained ahead of the game. Such is their advancement, in an interview with the Financial Times in 2016, Andy Harrison, programme director of British Cycling, had this to say: “A nation can win a maximum of 34 cycling medals at a Games. It may be impossible to win the lot but the RI (Readiness Index) is an attempt to get closer. This is not marginal gains, This is new. This is how we get a dynasty.”

Professional managers in British sport leadership

The structural change in the way NGBs operate and are managed opened the floodgates for a different type of leadership – one that is more professional, accountable, innovative and progressive. It can be argued that the structural changes and funding became the catalyst to attracting better sporting leaders in a global world of professional sport.

It even saw the cross pollination of ideas by sporting leaders across various sport. Sir Clive Woodward went from coaching England’s rugby World Cup winning team in 2003 to Team GB’s Director of Sport, from 2006 to 2012, overseeing the most minute of details to ensure their 542 athletes were able to perform at their best for the London 2012 Olympics.

The professionalisation of management in British sports brought a greater mix of leaders from various backgrounds like engineering, corporate, legal, marketing, and accounting.

Bill Sweeney, the current chief executive officer of the Rugby Football Union, was also the CEO of the British Olympic Association, where he presided over Team GB’s record-breaking performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Sweeney’s early career was in corporate management with Shell, Mars, and Unilever.

Ash Cox was an engineer before delving into the legal world and in private legal practice. As the CEO of British Swimming, he now oversees all legal, commercial, and strategic aspects of the sport.

The CEO of the British Olympic Association, Andy Anson, has had a prolific career in professional sport. Amongst others, Andy was the Commercial Director at Manchester United, CEO of the ATP World Tour, President of Fanatics International, and worked in a senior level at the Walt Disney Company.

British Rowing’s CEO, Alistair Marks, is from a strong commercial background working with various sports agencies and brands. He handled sponsorship in McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s, and Aviva before entering sport via the Rugby Football Union, British Gymnastics, and British Rowing.

The English Football Association’s deputy chief executive, Mark Burrows, is a chartered accountant and came from senior roles in finance at Virgin Mobile and BSkyB.

The Malaysian leadership

Malaysia’s last major transformation was for the Kuala Lumpur 1998 Commonwealth Games (KL98) and it has produced its fair share of sporting leaders. A young American-trained sport management graduate, Datuk Wira Mazlan Ahmad, at 44 years old, was given the unenviable task of preparing our sport for an event of such a scale that had never been seen on Malaysian soil. He successfully led Malaysian sport through this transformation as the National Sports Council (NSC) director-general for 12 years. It is no surprise that he was accorded the “Tokoh Sukan Negara 2022” at the National Sports Awards earlier this year.

There were many in sport who contributed to KL98’s success. At the NSC, three of them rose to succeed Datuk Wira Mazlan; Datuk Dr Ramlan Aziz, the late Datuk Seri Zolkples Embong, and Datuk Ahmad Shapawi Ismail. The capacity of Malaysian sport was enhanced, especially through world-class facilities, better sports medicine delivery, and the spawning of sport science support. It was an era that demanded such a transformation.

Last week saw the appointment of the unassuming, but forward-thinking, Abdul Rashid Yaakub as the new NSC director-general, following the retirement of Ahmad Shapawi. Rashid’s experience, management skills, and approach to sport as an industry are key to any transformation of the NSC, moving forward.

Former NSC deputy director-general Suhardi Alias was also recently promoted to Sports Commissioner. As another strong proponent of the sport industry and having done his PhD in sport governance at Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence, University of Stirling, it is an apt appointment.

The Sports Commissioner has to look into building the capacity of our national sports associations (NSAs) to match the era of global professional sport we are competing in; elevating them from the current amateur system and tying it to the commercialisation potential of self sustainability.

A key benchmark is UK Sport’s, “A Code for Sports Governance”, documenting an approach that ties governance with tiered government funding. This will also enhance the NSA’s “investment potential” to attract brands as partners to develop their respective sport.

In 2011, the National Sports Institute (NSI) moved from being a unit under the NSC to come into its own as another corporation under the Youth and Sports Ministry. Dr Ramlan was made the first chief executive officer of the NSI and began to grow its sport medicine and science component further whilst delving into sports technology and commercialisation of NSI’s services.

NSI CEO, Ahmad Faedzal Md Ramli, has taken to commercialisation and sports technology like a duck to water. During the 12th anniversary celebrations this year, various technology partnerships were announced and witnessed by Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh.

A student athlete himself and another young graduate of the American system of sports management, Ahmad Faedzal understands the importance of technology in sport and has been driving the development of Malaysia’s cycling team’s WX-R Vorteq bicycle together with the sports technology experts from the early days of British Cycling’s Room X. Ahmad Faedzal knows sport is big business and the potential for Malaysia going professional is there.

Malaysia’s amateur system of sport is still mostly run by unpaid volunteers like the British system we inherited. Aside from football and badminton, professional sport administrators in the country are few and far between. In the Malaysian badminton scene, we have Datuk Kenny Goh and Michelle Chai. Football has the likes of KL City FC chief executive officer Stanley Bernard, and Johor Darul Ta’zim chief executive officer Alistair Edwards.

Lawyer Izham Ismail is the CEO of the Professional Footballers Association of Malaysia. Rugby, hockey, and several other sports also have their “professional management” in a limited form.

One who stands out is Datuk Stuart Michael Ramalingam. He deserves a special mention for his unique skillset of being in a national sports association, running the Malaysian Football League, as well as experience in the private sector, heading Dentsu Sport in Malaysia to work on the commercial side of sport. He was also an entrepreneur in sports.

If we go slightly “left field” at the other key sectors in the sport industry, there are experienced professionals who are leaders in our sport from the private sector.

Leong Wai Yin, the marketing director at 100Plus is no stranger to the sports industry, having successfully crafted the sports marketing strategy of the drink for many years now. A long-standing brand also built through sport from the days of Datuk Kamal Harun.

In a similar vein, Nestle’s Milo has seen Datuk Dina Rizal, Ng Ping Loong, and, now, Kerwin Lim, leading the brand’s sports marketing endeavours over the last 40 years.

Petronas also has its fair share of senior executives adept at sports marketing, sponsorship and other related skillsets. Currently, there is Datin Anita Azrina Abdul Aziz, senior general manager of group strategic relations and communications. Anita also sits on the Malaysia Stadium Corporation board and used to preside over the Petronas Motorsports team. Khairul Hisham Mazlan is another noteworthy professional from the brand and sponsorship side of sport.

The world class exposure and training that Petronas provides has given Azhan Shafriman Hanif the opportunity to be the chief executive officer of Sepang International Circuit. His mechanical engineering background had previously opened up learning access to sponsorships, sports marketing, and strategic partnerships. Shafriman is now taking his wealth of experience in everything motorsports, be it two, or four wheeled, into making the Sepang International Circuit a leading sports and entertainment hub in Asia.

Lee Choong Kay, the chief executive officer at SPOTV and formerly head of sport at Astro, has extensive international experience in the area of sports broadcast, rights, and creating new professional sporting assets like the Sepak Takraw League. Lee’s successor, Nicholas John, also has similar extensive expertise and is also overseeing Astro’s Netball Super League, among many others.

Datuk Ahmad Zaharul Annuar, the founder of Sports Media, has been building a portfolio of sports intellectual property rights and licences for the Malaysian market, and prior to that, was a leading sports marketer, managing brands like Dunhill, Perilly’s, Rothmans, and others.

Padmanabhan Manickam is also a sports marketing veteran in the cigarette and mobile industries from the early days of sports marketing until today. ProEvents Malaysia managing director, San Boon Wah, is one of the pioneers in international football matches and licencing around Asia, for over 20 years.

There are also former athletes like Datuk Nicol David, Datuk Lee Chong Wei, Sharon Wee, Daphne Ng, Nurul Huda Abdullah, Azlan Iskandar, Sarina Sundarajah, and many other luminaries who have successfully transitioned to be professional managers and entrepreneurs on the private sector side of the sport industry.

It will not do this list justice without mentioning Ron Hogg, the man synonymous with motor racing in Asia. Through his company Two Wheels Motor Racing, he has been instrumental in three sports assets, the Asia Road Racing Championship, the Malaysian CubPrix Championship, and the Malaysian Superbike Championship. His team also organises the mini CubPrix for children between the ages of 6 and 12. Hogg’s experience is arguably the best in terms of creating and building a sport asset into a long-standing international success.

Always improving on those assets, they are a true case study for Malaysian sport.

As the future is in the digital world, we have up and coming professionals coming from the new frontier. One to take note is Elli Famira. She is an athlete, advocate, read law, and a media commentator/host who is now pursuing her postgraduate qualification at the prestigious Loughborough London University, under the Chevening scholarship.

All have had numerous interactions and deep working relationships with many local and international sporting organisations. They understand sport. However, we need more of these as there are not enough to build a sustainable ecosystem.

There is room to emulate the key success factors of the British transformation, as our sport governing systems are similar. Together with professional management, there is a need to have more professional leagues, clubs, athletes, and coaches amongst others.

The dawn of a new era in Malaysian sport

Global sport competitiveness is on the rise on the back of professional systems; be it the governing body, leagues, clubs, or athletes. Saudi Arabia is the latest to invest in their leagues and spending big to shorten the time to maturity.

Leaders like Peter King and David Brailsford were brave to make drastic changes by injecting the science of marginal gains and sport technology into British Cycling. They are leaders with a strong sense of belief and foresight in what needs to be done.

Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh has set in place a strong team led by Abdul Rashid and supported by Suhardi, Ahmad Faedzal, and Stuart, at the very top. Including the minister herself, all are progressive thinkers capable of formulating and implementing the major sport transformation that is required.

Exciting times ahead for Malaysian sport as we look forward to the dawn of a new era.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.