Survival, not challenging basketball is now key for Philippines football

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden looks at the demise of PFL side FC Meralco Manila and its ramifications for football in the Philippines.

Press releases can be boring and inconsequential things. A quick look at the headline and the opening sentence or two usually reveals a need not to go any further but this week there was a bombshell dropping into inboxes up and down the Philippines. The sender was Meralco Manila of the Philippines Football League (PFL).

“Circumstances beyond our control have made it difficult for FC Meralco Manila to continue,” the statement read. “The board and management of the Sparks have tried to arrange for new investors that would keep the organization running, but those efforts have sadly fallen short.”

The long and short of it is that the club will cease to exist and will not be competing in the 2018 season of the league that kicked off for the first time just last year.

As new years go, it is not the best start. On the face of it, the old one went pretty well. On the final day of the regular league season, Meralco jumped above Ceres Negros to take the top spot. The title challenge may have ended in the semi-finals of the play-offs final series but the team had shown that it was one of the leading lights in the country despite losing the Younghusband brothers during the season. Now it no longer exists. The club said that efforts to find new investors were as successful as the semi-final.

It hardly needs to be said that this is a major blow for football in the Philippines. It is to be hoped that the members of a talented squad can find teams and that other employees are taken care of too.

The PFL kicked off in 2017, an attempt to launch a fully nationwide professional league to replace the UFL that was focused on the Metro Manila region. It was never going to be easy. After all, the Philippines is a sprawling archipelago with Manila. the biggest city, the place where football is the least popular. Go to the provinces and there is passion for the beautiful game but in the capital the love of basketball reigns supreme.

Attendances were low. The disorganised start to the new league did not help. Details were sketchy just weeks before it was due to kick off and it was uncertain how many teams would participate and how it would all be organised. Worse was that midway through the season, the league’s broadcasters PTV-4 stopped televising games. That left the league with little exposure to attract new fans and sponsors and less income. With the size of the country, it was always going to be relatively expensive to cover all the logistics and travel.

Dan Palami has put plenty of money into the game in the country whether backing the national team financially or owning Global Cebu. He expressed shock but not much surprise at the demise of Manila.

”The amount of resources that club owners allocate for their operations is staggering,” Palami wrote on social media. “The fans can help by spending money to watch games, buy merchandise, and even offer to be a sponsor. We need to support our clubs before it’s too late.”“But then again, from a purely business point of view, it’s a prudent decision considering the first season experience of all the clubs,” he added.

There is no easy solution. The league can’t afford to lose any more of its clubs. The country can’t afford for the league to fail. Football in the Philippines does have a future but at the moment, all efforts have to be focused on ensuring that the league continues. A broadcasting partner has to be found, and quickly. The sooner promotion starts ahead of the new season, the sooner clubs can try and find new sponsors and explore other potential revenue streams. Palami is correct that fans can help but this is preaching to the converted to a large extent. Philippines football has long wanted to attract more spectators. If it was easy to do so, it would have happened already.

The frustrating part is that standards are improving. The 2017 AFC Cup saw Ceres Negros and Global Cebu show they are among the best in the region. The national team clinching a spot at the 2019 Asian Cup, as could well happen next month, will help. Such boosts are usually temporary but at least authorities need to be ready to take advantage of any good news story that comes their way.

The narrative in Philippines football for the past few years has focused on the improving standard of clubs and national team and whether the game can challenge basketball in the hearts and minds of the people. The long-term potential remains but for now, the focus is on survival.