Singaporeans cannot seem to get enough of five-a-side football, a smaller version of the beautiful game.
Three new venues housing five-a-side pitches have opened in the past seven months, adding to the more than 20 existing spaces that are scattered across the island.
Later this year, long-time private operator Premier Pitch plans to open its fourth outlet in the Upper Thomson area.
A five-a-side game, as its name suggests, requires only five players in a team. This is unlike the traditional version of the game that requires 11 players.
The pitch typically measures 25m by 15m, about one-third the size of an average football pitch.
The game can be played indoors or outdoors, but the pitches are usually enclosed to prevent the ball from flying out of the perimeter.
Five-a-side football is commonly confused with futsal, which also has five players in a team, but there are differences between the two.
Five-a-side pitches mostly have an astroturf or artificial grass surface that is easier on the knees for players. In contrast, futsal is officially played on a hard court.
The ball used in five-a-side is the same one used in regular football matches, whereas a smaller ball with less of a bounce is used for futsal matches.
Whatever their similarities and differences, futsal and five-a-side football are clearly a favourite activity among recreational players for the ease of organising a game compared to traditional football.
“It’s really difficult to find 11 players a team, let alone 22 to play a match,” says sailing coach Jackson Ho, 29, who plays five-a-side two to three times a week at SkyPark Arena.
He plays with different groups of football enthusiasts each time and is a regular at the rooftop facility.
For risk analyst Hong Deqi, 34, the smaller pitch size allows him to play a more eventful and less tiring game.
Besides playing 11-a-side football weekly, Mr Hong also kicks about on a five-a-side pitch once a month with his friends and colleagues at various places, including Kovan Sports Centre and Tampines Safra.
“There is less running and more opportunity to come into contact with the ball,” he says, adding that each game is shorter compared to a traditional football match.
For slightly bigger teams, there are six-, seven- and eight-a-side pitches available too.
Booking a pitch at privately operated venues starts at $70 an hour during peak periods, which are usually after 6pm on weekdays and all day on weekends.
The healthy demand for these smaller-side pitches spells good news for private pitch operators.
New entrants SkyPark Arena and FutsalArena @ Yishun have experienced a steady growth in bookings over the past six months.
Both cite location and regular pitch maintenance as crucial factors in drawing customers.
SkyPark Arena is situated on the rooftop of Sime Darby Centre that is minutes away from King Albert Park MRT station. FutsalArena @ Yishun is a short walk away from Yishun MRT station and the bus interchange. Both opened in July last year.
Mr Ian Wong, 32, director of Sky Sports Singapore, the company that runs SkyPark Arena, says he offers customers “a premium experience”.
The company invested close to $500,000 in the 2,865 sq m space and the cost includes buying goalpost nets used in the 2014 World Cup.
Next door to the two five-a-side pitches is a cosy air-conditioned room with entertainment facilities such as a foosball table and karaoke system to cater to the partners or kids of the football warriors, Mr Wong adds.
Meanwhile, existing pitch operators have been working hard to continously draw and retain customers.
When The Straits Times reached out to some of the businesses, the majority say that demand has held steady or has been rising gradually.
Asia Sports Holdings, the operator of the Home United Youth Football Academy in Mattar Road, notes that its 12 pitches are almost at full capacity during peak periods on weekdays.
A spokesman adds that the company is looking into providing shade for its outdoor pitches to boost bookings over the weekends.
Others such as Uber Sports, which has three outlets, regularly organises tournaments and family-friendly activities such as carnivals. It recently closed its pioneer space at East Coast Park due to the land’s redevelopment.
Mr Bertrand Thum, its events and marketing manager, says about 160 to 200 events were held last year.
More operators are opening up their pitches to other activities besides football too.
At The Cage in Kallang, the first company to introduce indoor pitches in 2005, more pitches are being booked in the daytime on weekdays for offbeat activities such as bubble soccer and archery tag.
The Cage’s co-director Rajesh Mulani, 47, says, “We want to host more services so people have more options. Not everyone wants to play football.”
Bookings at its other outlet at Turf Club Road has increased by 30 per cent in the past six months, he adds.
Will the popularity of five-a-side overtake 11-a-side football in Singapore though?
Ms Karen Magracia, 33, the sports operations and development executive for amateur football league organiser ESPZEN, says that is unlikely.
She says that there are more than 250 teams playing 11-a-side football actively with ESPZEN in various leagues compared to the 30 teams playing five-a-side.
“It is a bit unfair to put one in comparison with the other,” she says.