History lessons
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 10, 2018 - 12:00am

In the last 32 years since this writer started covering sports, sports has evolved and covered so much more ground that it’s mind-boggling. The number of sports and the explosion of media covering them has allowed it to become a full-time occupation, something that wasn’t possible until about a decade ago.

In the late 1980’s (and I’m revealing my age here), the constants were the Philippine Basketball Association, bowling, billiards, darts and a smattering of other sports. The PBA played thrice a week, and bowling associations had regular monthly tournaments. Then Arianne Cerdeña won the gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, though it didn’t count in the medal tally. There was a round-robin of billiards tournaments, and darts had a very active community. The lack of sports competitions on a daily basis made these events attractive to the very young broadcast news industry. After the EDSA uprising, the print and broadcast industries opened up to new and old players, as freedom of the press was re-established.

Boxing gradually improved, particularly in the 1990’s, as safety regulations were instituted and more boxing organizations like the WBO took root. After a string of one-shot wonders who disappeared after their first or second title defenses, champions like Luisito Espinosa showed the world that Filipinos could stand toe-to-toe against anybody. In 1989, the Orient Pacific Boxing Federation (OPBF) had renamed its Boxer of the Year Award the Gabriel “Flash” Elorde trophy. The boxer would receive a miniature of the perpetual trophy, and his name would be etched into the actual one.

In 1991, the Philippines hosted the Southeast Asian Games, and heroes like Akiko Thomson, Eric Buhain and Bea Lucero would bring the country close to overall first. The country also hosted the World Chess Championship. Soon, however, politics would rear its ugly head, infecting and pulling many sports into the mire. The young Philippine Sports Commission’s leadership then would inevitably be questioned about the issues of funds involving the two landmark events. This stigma, though unresolved, would stick with the agency for years to come. It would be a long time before events of such magnitude would come to the country. Great upheavals were yet to come.

The end of the decade saw the emergence of the Metropolitan Basketball Association, a regional basketball league which blanketed the countryside. This is where the MPBL directly traces its roots. Its impact on Philippine basketball cannot be overstated. The opening to an abundance of Filipino-foreign players also allowed cheats and fakes to infiltrate the country’s major leagues. Though the MBA only allowed a maximum of two hybrid players, some PBA teams would have up to eight or more Fil-Ams. It was only in 2003 that the PBA was able to right the ship by clamping down on requirements for players with mixed heritage. Besides, a decade before, basketball had joined tennis as the first sports which no longer distinguished between pro and amateur.

Come the early 2000’s, mixed martial arts took hold and became the bailiwick of men and the frustrated youth. Texting, though now accompanied by a charge after initially being free, gave new sports traction. Billiards exploded, thanks to Bata Reyes’ triumph in the first World 9-Ball Championships in Wales. We still feel the impact of his historic win today. Other pool events like snooker and 10-ball came into our consciousness, and gave Filipinos more platforms to beat the world. More and more sports, some variations of existing sports, started growing internationally. 

Board sports, initially just recreation for bored urban youth and teens in seaside communities, became a force to be reckoned with. Sponsors and media soon found a new market, whether it be in the snow, on the water, or in the concrete jungles of the US and Europe. The Philippines has finally felt the impact of these sports in its own concrete jungles. Capoeira, meanwhile, though attractive to Filipinos, struggled with the length of time it needed to develop enough masters to grow at a marketable rate.

The last decade and a half has seen the resurgence of football, boxing and basketball. Since 2010, the Azkals have been top of mind, Philippine rugby has been in the World Cup, and tackle football has been organized. But the groundwork was laid long before that in the less painful versions of flag, frisbee and touch football. Manny Pacquiao’s inspiring conquests from over a decade ago gave Philippine boxing momentum to today’s record number of world champions. And outside of the mainland US, the Philippines has the largest NBA audience in the digital age.

But now, the games themselves have evolved. Mobile and wireless technology have now become a triple threat. It was once merely a distribution channel people didn’t know what to do with. Then it became a means of simulating several sports. And now that more than half of Filipinos consume TV content through their mobile devices (thanks in large measure to urban traffic), it will be the sport itself. Electronic games will be part of the 2019 Philippine SEA Games and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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