Semi-pro sports thriving in PH

What with so many awful things happening back home, please allow me a slight change of pace to discuss something positive about life in the Philippines.

As an avid sports fan, I am happy to note that this odd thing called “semi-pro” sports is not only alive and well, but thriving. Many sports heroes are developed, their talents showcased before excited crowds.

The Philippines’ most popular spectator sport is, of course, basketball. The professional Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) is doing very well, thank you. I no longer follow it because I got bored a decade or so ago, when it seemed that the pay-for-pay league had hit the doldrums. From what I gather, it is back on its feet. Good for them.

The big surprise has been an alternate basketball league founded by none other than Manny Pacquiao. Called the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League (MPBL), it has been growing by leaps and bounds since it was launched less than two years ago.

The MPBL is succeeding where an earlier league that dared to go against the PBA failed many moons ago. Cities and provinces were tapped to form their own home teams, and private companies were then invited to co-own the teams.

There was no shortage of players to try out with the provincial or city teams. Cagers who had little hope of making it in the PBA tried out for the MPBL instead. The pay may not have been as high, but the top players could still earn six-figure salaries.

A handful of PBA cast offs, as well as former stars were enticed to join the various clubs. The biggest name at the start was Marlou Aquino, a valid PBA superstar in his heyday. The big guy showed he could still play and he became an instant MPBL attraction.

Also, collegiate players who could not make it to the PBA such as centers who were too short or forwards who were not flashy enough or guards not quite quick enough made their way to the MPBL.

Then there were the hometown talents. Guys who were known in their localities but for one reason or another could not even make it to the UAAP or NCAA were given the opportunity to strut their wares.

The ABS-CBN sports channel helped the MPBL succeed by covering the games regularly.

It is noticeable that some games draw large crowds (in the thousands) while others play to only a few hundred fans.

Besides the MPBL, the PBA also has a “development league” ala-NBA. There, aspiring players can show that they are good enough for the big league. Like the MPBL, players in the D-League are paid decent salaries.

These developments have created jobs for hundreds of athletes and sports staff.

Yet another development bears watching. I am no longer surprised that the sport of volleyball now has a huge following. Specifically, women’s volleyball.

For some reason that I cannot fathom, men’s volleyball is not as popular. This is true in the UAAP as well as the NCAA.

I guess maybe the women players are more popular to men and women alike because they are so emotional in victory or defeat. At the start of this week, the UAAP began this year’s volleyball season, and to nobody’s surprise the game between Ateneo and La Salle drew a crowd of more than 17,000 at the Mall of Asia arena.

These two glamour teams are not the only ones to draw large, fanatical crowds. Almost all the other teams such as FEU, UP, UST, and the rest have their own stars and superstars, all of whom have rabid followers.

Even when their stars’ college playing years are over, the fans can’t get enough of them. For this reason, there is not one but two semi-professional leagues for women’s volleyball. Their games are also televised.

I watch the games on TV and I only hope that the two competing leagues merge into one professional – not semi-professional – super league.

It is worth noting that a few local volleybelles have been invited to play abroad, where they have earned millions. Considered the greatest local player is former Ateneo star Alyssa Valdez. She was featured in a show recently and she showed off her mini-mansion, built from earnings from her volleyball career, which included a stint in Japan. The tall Santiago sisters have also played in the Asian circuit and have certainly padded their bank accounts.

No doubt, semi-professional sports is growing in the Philippines and should continue to do so in the years and decades to come. This is terrific news for us sports junkies.