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Football’s next kick

A soon-to-be-launched league excites fans of the Beautiful Game, but questions abound about the league’s sustainability
By: - Reporter / @cedelfptINQ
/ 01:24 AM January 15, 2017

When the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) declared in September last year that it was kicking off the Philippines Football League (PFL) in April 2017, the announcement was met with both excitement and apprehension by club owners.

The Metro Manila-based, semi-professional United Football League (UFL) has kept the sport in the limelight, but the idea of having teams based in different provinces and cities in the country playing in a home-and-away format is just as fascinating for fans of the “Beautiful Game” in the country.

Not a few personalities during a recent meeting among PFF officials and potential club owners in a posh hotel at Ortigas Center in Pasig expressed concerns with questions ranging from the timeline until kickoff to club licensing requirements to franchise fees.

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The apprehensions stemmed from the league’s potential to lure crowds and attract sponsors, with lessons from the UFL coming to mind after the league—save for the five-year broadcast deal with TV5 that expired last year—struggled to generate sponsors.

Having clubs based in different cities outside Metro Manila, however, makes the PFL an exciting prospect.

“Making clubs community-based is a game-changer,” says UFL president Randy Roxas. “It’s definitely the way to go. But sustaining it will be a question mark. How much is it going to cost? Until today we haven’t got that answer.”

The PFF and the club owners are in a race against time to get the league up and running for the April launch.

Football took huge strides in recent years with the Azkals’ success in international play and with clubs like Global, Ceres-La Salle, Kaya and Loyola Meralco making their mark in tournaments overseas. But the sport could take its biggest leap yet with the creation of the PFL.

Truly professional league

“International recognition is already there, so we can say that a truly professional league is just what we need to really strengthen the football programs in the country,” says PFF general secretary Edwin Gastanes. “Young players can now aspire to become a football player and see it as a source of livelihood, in the same way young basketball players aspire to be in the PBA.”

The challenge of creating the league is immense as the corporation supposed to be made up of PFF representatives and club owners that will run the day-to-day affairs of the PFL has yet to be formed. Clubs expected to transfer from the UFL also face a tougher challenge financially with rising costs due to the island-hopping, home-and-away format.

History hasn’t been kind to sports competitions with the regional format that require teams to travel all over the country. The Metropolitan Basketball Association, formed in 1998, folded up after four years. The P-League in the early 1990s also hardly created a ripple despite having its games televised.

But Gastanes is firm in his belief that the PFL will succeed, noting a survey conducted by Nielsen that concluded that a professional football league is feasible in the country.

“The major difference is that from Day 1, Fifa and AFC have been behind us,” says Gastanes. “I think football has more traction now compared to five years ago. Sponsors are waiting in the wings. It (PFL) has a better chance than a lot of the previous leagues, and the main difference now is that social media is something that can help an activity like this.”

Stringent AFC criteria

More than the financial aspect, getting the license needed to enter the PFL compels clubs to comply with very stringent criteria under sporting, infrastructure, personnel and administrative and legal requirements set by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Gastanes assures that the PFF is there to “help” rather than “block” bids to join the league. Among other requirements, clubs need a youth development program and are required to have an AFC “A” License coach, while its stadium must pass the bare minimum in competition standards.

“You want to play in the best league in the Philippines,” says Roxas, who also sits in the board of the Loyola Meralco Sparks. “And the best league in the country that also gives you a chance to play in the AFC is the PFL.”

Says Kaya FC general manager Paul Tolentino: “It’s a fantastic project and we all want it to succeed. But the organization and preparation have come too late. What that means is the clubs have to swallow all the costs in operating under this format.”

Kaya recently announced a partnership with Makati as its home base for the league, while Global will have Cebu City as its home. Stallion is eyeing Biñan, Laguna, as its partner LGU, while Ceres-Negros will be based in Bacolod. Loyola Meralco is finalizing an agreement to play at McKinley Stadium in Taguig. JP Voltes is looking at Marikina or Baguio as home base. Green Archers United has yet to name its partner LGU. Another club will be based in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, while Davao will also have its own team.

“We’re looking, on average, [a] P6 million [budget] for travel alone and it’s not going to be easy to find that money for the clubs,” says Tolentino. “With the way the league has moved, realistically we could have launched in 2018. There’s still no structure in place right now. If there are no sponsors, we have no chance.”

With clubs moving to the PFL, Roxas says the UFL will now focus on improving its youth tournament, while possibly holding a second division.

Gastanes justifies the decision to start the PFL early this year, saying the idea was to kick off the league and make it grow—a view shared by Stallion coach Ernie Nierras.

“The important thing is we have a true professional league,” says Nierras. “Not all the leagues in the world have identical programs. Even the top countries had to start somewhere. Start it first, then keep moving forward, sometimes with baby steps. We should not be scared to fail.”

TAGS: PFL, Philippine Football Federation, United Football League
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