The road back from a lost year for sports

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By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

SPORTS FANS will long remember 2020 as a year like no other, with cancelled tournaments, empty stadiums, and the Olympic year moving to 2021 after the Tokyo Games were lost to the pandemic.

In the Philippines, the sports ecosystem, just like any other industry, is trying to cope with the cards it’s been dealt. But after the initial trauma of cancelled games and broadcast-industry upheaval, thoughts have now turned to rebuilding from the wreckage and the long road back.

“We were taken by surprise by the pandemic, leaving stakeholders scrambling (for a plan of action) to move forward,” sports marketer Rely San Agustin said in a Zoom interview.

The revenue hit taken by the various sports leagues that had to shut down because of the quarantine was compounded in sports supported by public funds as budgets were directed to matters deemed more urgent, like containing the pandemic or reviving the economy.


The Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), for one, said it lost some P30 million a month from foregone gate receipts, television, and sponsorships in the seven months it was out. The estimate covers only the league office and does not reflect the financial pressures on the 12 individual teams.  

In collegiate sports, meanwhile, many schools were forced to overhaul their athletic programs, even shutting down some of their varsity teams.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which cut short its Season 95 because of the pandemic, said at least five thousand individuals, including athletes, coaches and officials, were affected financially as a result of various budget cuts implemented by member schools, whose core source of income — tuition revenue — took a hit from the health crisis.

The University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), home to some of the country’s biggest universities, was not spared as well.

Compounding the problems of the two TV-friendly leagues was the non-renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN Corp. by the House of Representatives in May, which entailed the loss of their broadcast partner.

“It’s a hit for the UAAP and NCAA as apart from the reach that ABS-CBN gave them, they lost broadcast money, which is basically the funds that support the leagues (in recruiting) athletes and developing their programs. But good thing, there are other networks they can turn to,” according to Mr. San Agustin, who is also football commissioner for the UAAP.

The UAAP has since partnered with Cignal TV and its affiliate TV5, while the NCAA has chosen GMA Network, Inc.

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics forced the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) to overhaul its budget for Filipino athletes’ Olympic campaigns, reducing allowances by as much as half for both competitors and coaches.

The PSC spent some P351 million in the first six months of 2020 on Olympic candidates, a level of spending it is now obliged to maintain in some form for another year with the Games delayed.

Ten months into the pandemic, the process of picking up the pieces continues for the sports community.

“We’re still finding our way back. The only sane way to go about it is to think we are in this together. We have to be patient and resilient during these times,” according to Mr. San Agustin, who runs RSA 1 Sports Group.

Chatri Sityodtong, CEO and founder of Singapore-based sports media property ONE Championship, said times are tough, but this should not stop anyone from trying to make things happen.

“The keys to success in this environment are twofold. One is creativity, because we are going to be faced with problems we’ve never seen before. So we have to be even more creative about solutions and products that we launch. And then resilience — we are going to get more rejections, failures, obstacles, setbacks, and mistakes than ever before,” said Mr. Sityodtong in response to a query from BusinessWorld during a media briefing.

ONE Championship counts the Philippines as a prime destination for live events. It has been staging combat sports cards in China, Thailand, and Singapore since June, after suspending activity in March.

One of the established avenues for getting leagues to move on with their seasons is to organize tournaments within a protective “bubble.”

Pro leagues like the PBA, Chooks-to-Go 3×3 Pilipinas, and Philippines Football League took the bubble route, confining all tournament participants inside a defined venue with extensive testing to detect infection promptly.

The NCAA and the UAAP are considering bubbles as well, as are the national athletes in training. 

“A bubble setup makes sense,” said Mr. San Agustin. “Seclusion is needed. You really have to control movement in and out of the venues.”

He cautioned however that once committed to a bubble, organizers have to accept everything that goes with it, particularly the cost.

“Looking at the bubble, the NBA (National Basketball Association) did it and it cost them $150 million. The PBA followed suit, and it cost P65 million, PFL (the Philippines Football League) did a semi-bubble for P6 million. They are spending money, but how do they earn from this? Ticket sales are gone. Games are shown on TV, but are corporate sponsors noticing?” he said.

“The PBA should be fine since it has FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) teams and telcos, but for the smaller leagues, it will be a challenge,” Mr. San Agustin said.

Martin Aguda, Jr., a safety, resilience and crisis management consultant, said the bubble concept has broader applications for business.

“The bubble setup can be adopted not only in sports, but also in other businesses, so there will be less disruption… if done properly, a bubble can be effective,” according to Mr. Aguda, who is affiliated with The Safety Project PH and helped Chooks-to-Go 3×3 Pilipinas review the protocols for its tournament bubble at the INSPIRE Sports Academy in Laguna in October.

The bubble, he said, needs the three Cs — Compliance with all government regulations; Consistency in the implementation of the protocols; and Concern for the health and safety of the people inside it.

Other organizations considering a bubble for their events are the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League and volleyball associations Philippine Superliga and Premier Volleyball League.  

The sporting community is taking tentative steps out of the crisis and is playing things by ear.

“We’re still in wait-and-see. We’re taking it a step at a time. Focus right now. The tournament is at hand and for it to be finished… We are looking at what works and what doesn’t as we plan our next moves,” said PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial, whose organization was in the homestretch of its tournament bubble in Clark City in Pampanga at the time of writing.

The same goes for the collegiate leagues, which have written 2020 off and are now looking at resuming competition late in the first quarter next year, assuming the government approves. Of particular importance are the education agencies, which have indirect oversight over student-athletes.

The Commission on Higher Education has drafted guidelines for the return to training of collegiate athletes, but has not said when it will allow competitions to resume.

Mr. San Agustin said the sports community must make use of the idle time to carefully chart the path it plans to take.

“They have to have solid plans moving forward, despite the fact that at this point, everybody is going through a learning process,” Mr. San Agustin said.

“Expanding your business by going digital would help. We really have to be in tune with the times and go digital — online and social media. People are on their mobile phones much of the time. Leagues and businesses can create online campaigns for their brands. Capitalize on athletes and get the fans engaged,” he said.

He added, “You have to create value for sponsors for them to continue to support your brand, or for those who left, entice them back. At the end of the day, sponsors will come back and ask what you have done for us. Everything can be branded.”

Following the lead of the NBA, the PBA came up with an app for a “virtual experience” as a way of engaging with fans.

Through the app, fans are featured on LED screens at the Angeles University Foundation Arena in Pampanga, the official game venue for its bubble.

PBA games, too, have been live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube to complement the television broadcast, and they have been well-received.

Mr. San Agustin also touts the potential of esports, which he sees as a solid option for games organizers.

“Esports is getting a big boost during this time and experts say it will continue to grow bigger. The players and the following are there.”

Collegiate leagues are now considering including esports in the calendar of events for their upcoming seasons. They may go their own way, apart from the events offered by established esports leagues and organizations.

Mr. Sityodtong views the crisis as a test of the industry’s leadership.

“Ships are not made for the calm waters of the harbor, ships are made for the rough seas in search of new horizons and great captains are made in rough seas, never in the calm of the harbor… I genuinely believe that the best companies will not only survive, they will thrive in this environment. The show must go on,” he said.

Mr. San Agustin said the recovery will come for sports eventually, but patience and adaptability are needed.

“Right now, everything is at a standstill… But we will recover gradually. Patience is needed. Stay resilient and adapt.”