Is women’s volleyball now rivaling the popularity of men’s basketball?


Womens_Volleyball_more_popular_than_basketball_philippinesSince the 1960s, basketball has been the nation’s passion as early leagues such as the NCAA’s Ateneo-La Salle rivalry and eventually the Manila Industrial and Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA) brought this traditionally “big man’s sport” to the little brown men of the orient and began a Filipino love affair with cage hoops.

When the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) opened its doors in 1975, the MICAA wars levelled up and because of the eventual popularity of Asia’s first play-for-pay circuit, many began zeroing in on the saga fledgling future pros were undertaking to make it to superstardom. In 1984, the Philippine Amateur Basketball Association (PABL)—which eventually became the Philippine Basketball League (PBL)—began televising the baby steps of future PBA icons such as Alvin Patrimonio, Jojo Lastimosa, Benjie Paras and—in 1987—even showcased an unknown high school phenom winning a slam dunk contest against the best wunderkinds in the league. That kid by the name of Vergel Meneses, would eventually become the PBA’s 1995 MVP.

Basketball has such a lush history in the archipelago ever since the formative years that featured Lou Salvador, to the exploits of “The Big Difference” Caloy Loyzaga, to the emergence of “The Big J” Robert Jaworski and eventually the Fil-Am invasion that produced such stars as Asi Taulava, Kelly Williams and Jimmy Alapag. The College wars have never been left behind and in this year’s Season 76 men’s basketball finals Game 3 in the UAAP, a staggering crowd of about 25,000 packed the 18,000-seater Mall of Asia Arena to witness La Salle’s triumph over UST, indicating to all that basketball is still the main draw among Filipino sports fans.

Women’s volleyball is not as illustrious.

As a nation, the Philippines dominated the volleyball scene in the Asean region for decades and it was only recently that countries such as Thailand and Vietnam began progressing into the world stage and leaving the Philippines behind—for the moment.

After several fiascos involving the former National Sports Agency (NSA) of the sport, the Philippines has been out of international indoor volleyball circulation for eight years—yes, the beach volleyball program never stopped. In 2004, the Shakey’s V-League first opened its doors and televised women’s volleyball entered the mainstream. ABS-CBN Sports also began showing the women’s volleyball matches of the UAAP on television and a niche was born among sports fans looking for an alternative to basketball.

For some reason (still unexplained), the gradual growth of the popularity of women’s volleyball suddenly exploded in the early part of this year and many have either defected to following women’s volleyball or have adopted it as a new favorite sport to watch.

The UAAP women’s volleyball matches began drawing crowds akin to that of its basketball brothers. The Shakey’s V-League was compelled to hold its first conference championship series at the bigger Mall of Asia Arena and the people came in droves. The inaugural Philippine Super Liga (PSL) Invitational had a phalanx of rabid fans in attendance in all of its competition days and it all climaxed in the finals when—once again held at the Mall of Asia Arena—they had a near sellout. The recently concluded Shakey’s V-League Open Conference also broke attendance records for its final two series and many are foreseeing the upcoming PSL Grand Prix to have an influx of even more converts; now part of an ever swelling community.

A bird’s eye view of the almost 19,000 fans at the 2013 UAAP women’s volleyball finals (Photo: Kevin de la Cru …
When I got involved in the Shakey’s V-League as a broadcaster in 2007, I was amazed at the ferocity of loyalty its fans had for the league and its players, but wasn’t impressed with the number of supporters who showed up at the games—until the semis and the finals. I began thinking that in time women’s volleyball could actually rival men’s basketball in terms of not only live audience shares, but even in television ratings. It sounded like a farfetched notion in 2007, but a mere six years later, here we are.

The renaissance of women’s volleyball is upon us and I kept wondering what triggered the sudden upsurge in women’s volleyball’s popularity.

Was it that many basketball fans have hit their saturation point? There are indeed a lot of leagues to follow for the basketball aficionado: the PBA, the UAAP/NCAA, the NBA, the US NCAA, the PBA D-League, the Euroleague, the ACB Liga Endesa, FIBA, etc.

The UAAP is one of a multitude of league the average basketball fan follows (Photo: Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images …
For women’s volleyball (unless you have an online subscription to access the various FIVB tournaments happening worldwide) it’s only the Shakey’s V-League first conference (from March-June), the PSL Invitational (June-July), the Shakey’s V-League Open Conference (August-October), the PSL Grand Prix (November-December) and the UAAP/NCAA (December-February). The leagues and tournaments don’t overlap. In between there are pocket tourneys such as the Cagayan Friendship Cup (mid-June) and the University Games (presently ongoing). In short, it’s easier to follow and there are no distractions coming from other local entities.

Another observation is that the stars of women’s volleyball are, well, women. This provides a breath of fresh air for the sports enthusiasts who have had their fill of manly action and exchange that for the grace and beauty of a sport that is also as challenging as basketball. Many say that volleyball is more exciting due to the fast-paced nature of the game, while others just admire the uniforms utilized in women’s volleyball—a more honest answer from many male fans.

Beautiful athletes such as Rachel Anne Daquis, Michele Gumabao, Fille Cainglet and Jheck Dionela seamlessly blend looks, abilities and competitive fire when they play and have endeared them and many more to legions. There are also new rising stars such as recently crowned Shakey’s V-League MVP Jovelyn Gonzaga, Letran libero Justyne Tadeo and FEU spiker Toni Basas who will be spearheading a new youth movement in the sport, and with it bring a new set of followers.

But this remains an open question.

Is women’s volleyball really rivaling men’s basketball in terms of popularity among Filipino sports fans?
I’m quite sure many basketball fans will say it’s not even close. I may subscribe to that. I also venture that many volleyball fans will answer affirmatively. I can also relate.

Maybe when women’s volleyball achieves some kind of international success in this generation, then maybe I can ask this question again. Women’s volleyball lacks the heritage that basketball has—by a very long shot. But this new generation of Twitter trending, Facebook-liking, Instagram-posting breed could turn out to be a game-changer for the rise from the doldrums of women’s volleyball. After all, it’s not really about the past; it could be about the now.

By : Noel Zarate (Twitter (@NoelZarate) and email

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