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Bets, brawls and blood (First of three parts)

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - March 4, 2021 - 12:00am

On a soil covered indoor cockpit arena, two gamecocks are about to fight for their lives. One has silky white feathers, the other, pitch black with streaks of tangerine.

They circle around each other, waiting for the exact moment to strike the other.

And then it happens. With squared wings and neck feathers ruffled out, they lunge into a brawl – agitated, raging mad and out for the kill. In fractions of a second, between time and space, the two gamecocks leap into a midair attack like samurais from feudal Japan fighting each other with their deadly katanas.

There’s a lot of sparring, a flurry of beating wings, and multiple split-second exchanges of lethal slashes of blades attached to their legs.

In less than a minute, the fight is over and the white-feathered cock – its feathers now visibly smeared with blood – falls to the ground, defeated and trembling to its death.

Ordinarily, hundreds of noisy and wild sabong aficionados would be gathered around to witness this spectacle, just one of the countless fights in this centuries-old blood sport, dubbed as the country’s national pastime.

Electronic sabong

But not anymore. Since COVID-19 struck, cockfighting in the Philippines has turned virtual – the fights are now streamed online and the arena is now the whole country and beyond, with aficionados watching and placing their bets using laptops or mobile phones from the comforts of their homes.

Welcome to the world of e-sabong or online cockfighting. I am inside a licensed cockpit arena in Laguna, owned by the United Association of Cockpit Owners & Operators of the Philippines, a group of around 2,000 cockpit operators led by gambling tycoon Charlie “Atong” Ang.

The arena serves as a studio where the fights are held and streamed online, but there are no spectators here. It is perhaps the most quiet cockfight one could ever witness.

Aficionados watch the fights by subscribing to a streaming service. It’s like Netflix, but solely for cockfights.

Only those who need to be here in Laguna are present – employees, handlers, gaffers, referees, cock doctors, etc., and they are all wearing face masks.

A P50 billion industry

But cockfighting isn’t just a pastime. It’s a huge industry, generating P50 billion in revenues yearly, according to the Games and Amusements Board, the government agency which supervises the sector.

When the pandemic struck and the lockdowns were imposed in March last year, the industry nearly flatlined. Breeding farms closed, sales of related products slumped, and workers lost their jobs.

But e-sabong soon revived the troubled industry, Atong Ang says in a recent interview in his office.

One cock doctor – as the informal veterinarians of gamecocks are called – confirmed this.

“Nabuhay kami ulit nung nagkaroon ng e-sabong. Nawala ang sabong nung nagka-pandemic. Gutom lahat. (The industry recovered when e-sabong started last year. When the pandemic halted cockfighting, we all lost our livelihood),” a 32-year-old cock doctor says in an interview, in between treating injured gamecocks here in Laguna.

In 2019, Ang was already working on creating a landscape for offsite betting for sabong as part of efforts to expand the industry, generate more revenues and further professionalize it.

When COVID-19 struck, the plans were put on hold, but e-sabong pushed through without the offsite betting stations.

“Bago nagkaroon ng e-sabong, dying business na ang sabong pero ngayon nabuhay ulit. (Cockfighting was already a dying business, but because of e-sabong, the industry recovered and workers got back their jobs),” says Ang.

But it’s not just the informal workers in the industry who are happy.

The formal sabong-related businesses – SMEs and agri-feed subsidiaries of conglomerates such as San Miguel Corp. and the Gokongwei and Aboitiz groups – also benefited from the introduction of e-sabong in the country.

These include members of the Philippine Association of Feed Millers Inc., the Philippine Veterinary Drug Association and the Philippine Veterinary Medical Association.

Indeed, the industry is huge, as big as the population of gamecocks in the country – 20 million fighters.

That’s a lot of fighting cocks to feed and nourish, with consumption of feeds for instance at 432,000 metric tons a year.

In a presentation to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in August last year, the industry groups said the sabong industry employs thousands of Filipinos and generates billions in revenues.

The industry job count is 385,000 employees broken down as follows: 200,000 farm workers; 118,000 cockpit personnel; 60,000 poultry store workers; and 6,200 veterinary and feed company employees, industry data showed.

The gamefowl industry accounts for P15 billion in animal feed revenues and P4 to P8 billion in revenues from veterinary medicines.

It’s no surprise that at the height of the lockdown in the country last year, industry stakeholders appealed to the government to allow cockfighting to resume.

They said diseases such as African Swine Fever and Bird Flu have already threatened the growth of the pig and poultry industries.

“Thus, the game fowl market is our sustaining anchor for growth in 2021 and beyond,” said the Philippine Veterinary Drug Association, a group with 37 members.

Fortunately for all these industry stakeholders, e-sabong gained popularity and is now thriving and soaring, riding on Filipinos’ obsession for this centuries-old pastime.

(To be continued)

 

 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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