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Business

The e-sabong republic

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Strangers and friends alike are now hooked on e-sabong, the online version of that age-old national obsession bequeathed to us by the Spaniards.

Men, young and old; happy or depressed; rich or poor are joining the craze – which grew exponentially since the pandemic struck – from the comforts of their homes or through neighborhood off-track betting stations.

Atong Ang, the biggest e-sabong operator in the country, tells me there are now five million Filipinos who are into the game, perhaps easily surpassing the traditional version. And the number continues to grow.

There are now seven e-sabong operators with 13 registered websites as of this writing, data from gaming regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) showed. But the actual number may be higher because there are unregistered operators.

And if you just look at the anecdotal evidence, just about everybody knows somebody who is hooked on e-sabong.

Why is this? Because it is now so much easier to play e-sabong than to go to the physical cockfights, which the IATF has allowed to resume. You don’t have to wait for the schedule of the games and with the ongoing pandemic, you don’t need to brave the mammoth crowds in the physical cockfights.

E-sabong games run 24/7, with as many as 300 games a day from a single operator alone.

E-sabong with GCash, PayMaya

It is so easy, indeed, especially now with even the Ayala Group’s GCash and the Pangilinan-led PayMaya, these revolutionary fintech platforms, now serving as e-sabong cash-in channels. This means you can watch the games and place your bets through these channels.

PayMaya said “it recognizes the need for consumers and enterprises for safe and reliable payment platforms. Today, we are a cash-in channel for e-sabong platforms authorized and licensed by Pagcor.”

The Duterte administration, through Pagcor and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), mandated this to help the government raise funds for pandemic response, industry sources tell me.

There are safeguards so that children do not have access to the e-sabong apps on their platforms, such that only fully-verified adult users will be able to access the e-sabong platforms, sources also said.

Pagcor, indeed, says that account funding and withdrawal shall be done only through AMLC-compliant channels, such as over-the-counter and online banking and eWallet systems.

“Only those payment solutions or money transfer services accredited by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas shall be considered legitimate and shall be utilized under this framework,” Pagcor says.

With these two main fintech giants now serving as e-sabong platforms and on the back of growing interest in the craze, the industry, I am sure, will grow even bigger.

Regulatory framework

Pagcor, as the regulator, insists that the framework for e-sabong is tough enough to weed out illegal operators. It also says it is able to generate revenues from the industry.

E-sabong operators are subject to a five percent franchise tax and are mandated to pay a fixed regulatory fee of P12,500 per fight or a minimum guaranteed fee of P75 million per month, whichever is higher.

Pagcor says it has already collected more than a billion pesos in fees from the licensed e-sabong operators since regulating the industry in May.

The additional revenue “is a great help in augmenting the depleting coffers of the government to aid in its efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic response,” it claims.

There is no doubt that e-sabong is a huge industry that translates to revenues for the government and employs tens of thousands of Filipinos.

It is a P50 billion industry with a job count of 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.

Social costs

But the social costs cannot be ignored.

No less than Pagcor itself conceded that with various quarantine restrictions being imposed all over the country, people venture on various activities – including e-sabong to relieve their stress, boredom, and fatigue.

It advises players “to consider online games, especially e-sabong only as a form of entertainment and not as a way to make money. ”It advocates responsible gaming, urging players “to bet with money they can afford to lose, to limit their time of play, to avoid playing when feeling depressed or upset, and to never encourage persons below 21 years of age to participate in gambling.”

Of course this is easier said than done. An industry source said that in real life, some teenagers are hooked. ”Everyone can play. I have a 16-year-old cousin who is hooked on e-sabong. It’s just like Mobile Legends,” said a source.

Mobile Legends is a popular multiplayer online battle arena developed by Kuala Lumpur-based Shanghai Moonton Technology, reportedly with over 500 million downloads since its launch in 2016.

So while the Duterte administration can count the revenues from e-sabong, there’s no way we can count the social costs. For my money, that will be quite significant. And yes, I’m willing to bet on it – pun intended.

 

 

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

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