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A league of their own

Amid rise of women’s volleyball, the men’s game seeks its share of limelight

By: , February 26, 2019

There was drama. There were tears. It was a finale like no other. On each side of the court were the sports’ powers—two teams that ruled the league the past five seasons.

They were battling it out ferociously—spike after spike, dig after dig, reception after reception. The stars came out to play, too. In the end, Bryan Bagunas, Kim Dayandante, James Natividad and the National U Bulldogs outlasted Marck Espejo, Ish Polvorosa, Ron Medalla and the Ateneo Blue Eagles, 25-20, 31-29, 22-25, 33-31, for the men’s crown.

The title-clinching set was a gritty display of power with every kill echoing across the walls of Smart Araneta Coliseum. The Big Dome had hosted big fights before—the Thrilla in Manila easily comes to mind. UAAP volleyball has been played in front of the biggest crowds—a women’s finale topping 21,000 in 2014.

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The number of people on hand to watch as NU celebrated its successful quest to end Ateneo’s bid for a “four-peat” in May last year?

3,200.

The gulf between the popularity of the men’s and women’s game in volleyball is nothing short of puzzling. Unlike local sports staples basketball, boxing and even billiards, volleyball wasn’t skewed toward a particular gender.

Three modern events in the sport’s history helped boost the women’s game: The Women’s World Volleyball Grand Prix the country hosted at the turn of the millennium exposed local fans to quality foreign female athletes. The birth of the Shakey’s V-League allowed collegiate stars to stretch their playing careers and fans to continue following them. And there was the 2012 UAAP women’s Finals featuring Ateneo and La Salle, which turned the sport—at least in the distaff side—into must-see events.

But it wasn’t enough to explain why the men’s game continued to languish in the shadows.

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A lot of it has to do with aesthetics—there is just more to see in the women’s game. Also, there’s the misconceptions and stereotypes that volleyball has had to deal with a lot.

“First of all, the reason why the men’s game isn’t as famous as the women’s here is because there’s a belief that men play basketball and women play volleyball,” said Oliver Almadro, a three-time champion coach with Ateneo who now handles the Lady Eagles.

It is a theory that is, in a way, supported by Mary Racelis, a professorial lecturer at Ateneo’s sociology and anthropology department who also teaches at UP’s anthropology department graduate school.

“Traditional gender roles for men and women allocated sports to males and nonsports activities to women,” Racelis told the Inquirer. This stereotype actually boosted women’s volleyball because the feminist advocates saw that the sport helped drive the point of gender equality and backed it with fervor.

Meanwhile, “men’s volleyball used to be seen as feminine,” Almadro said. Ricky Palou, one of the founders of the V-League, admitted that “in the past, a lot of players [in men’s volleyball] were gay. But they played really good volleyball. And they were also very competitive.”

But such stereotyping wouldn’t have been harmful to the men’s game if only people came to watch the games.

“If you watch men’s volleyball there’s speed, strength and intensity, and that brings another layer because the women’s game is more graceful,” Almadro said.

But then, there lies some sort of a catch-22. Because the power and speed that sets give men’s game an appealing edge over women’s matches also prove detrimental aesthetically.

Kung Fu Reyes, the head coach of the University of Santo Tomas Golden Tigresses, said that power denies men’s volleyball the kind of breathtaking rallies that mark women’s matches.

Case in point: The season-opening match between the UP Lady Maroons and the UE Lady Warriors featured 20-hit rallies that had both schools’ supporters in breathless anticipation for a point—including one where the Lady Maroons had thought they had gotten a kill only for the Lady Warriors’ backline defense to extend play. One point during La Salle’s battle against Adamson on Saturday featured 34 hits, one where the Lady Spikers kept the ball in play when one of its players pancaked an apparent kill.

“Everything’s quick in the men’s game and there’s no longer any drama involved,” Reyes said.

Ed Dames, a sports marketer who has over three decades of experience under his belt, agreed.

“Nobody told these men that they are not just playing to win—that they are not just players, they’re also entertainers,” he told the Inquirer. “You have to have two audiences in mind to deliver for: the fans and the sponsors.”

Stars of the sport also noted the difference between the men’s and women’s style of play.

Aby Maraño, one of the top female stars of the sport, said that the women’s game “has more suspense because of longer rallies,” thus amplifying the drama and entertainment.

John Vic de Guzman, who led College of St. Benilde to its only men’s volleyball title back in 2017, understands how the power of the men’s game weighs its popularity down.

“Men’s volleyball, the kills are much quicker, and when the ball is hit, it really is an explosive one,” said De Guzman in Filipino.

Kill. Point. Set. Repeat.

And in an era where sponsors want to squeeze as much mileage as possible, it is easy to understand why there is much more money being poured into the women’s game.

De Guzman pointed out another reason, one that centered on sexuality and put the national team star under fire on social media.

“Let’s be specific about that, the women are sexy,” De Guzman said in Filipino, before joking that, “We (men) cannot play wearing briefs.”

The video of the interview spread like bush fire on a scorching summer day and put De Guzman in an unfortunate situation. The former king Blazer was skewered on social media for his remarks, where he was attacked for being sexist, among other things.

But the statement shed light on a perception bubbling beneath the surface of women’s volleyball’s rise, one that, as proven by the negative pushback on De Guzman’s statement, people seem uncomfortable to deal with.

“We don’t admit it, but [the issue] is there,” said Dames, who has served as consultant to such sporting events like the old Marlboro Tour, the Palarong Pambansa and the PH-Sweden Davis Cup tie. “Some realities aren’t written, aren’t taught. But they’re there.”

Maraño, a two-time UAAP MVP and three-time champion with La Salle admitted “one of the reasons people want to watch women’s volleyball more than men’s volleyball because there are beautiful and sexy players.”

Like De Guzman, Maraño received flak for her statement. The two stars were on the receiving end of social media hate, while other fellow players went to echo a counterpoint: The explanation is sexist and demeans the women’s game and its achievements. Players and fans angered by the comments said such backward thinking should not be aired.

Former UP star Kathy Bersola, even citing research papers, posted on Twitter that “Sana ngayon, hindi na ganun ang thinking ng tao. Gendered ang sport, but let’s limit it na lang to biological and physiological differences.”

Unfortunately, as inconvenient as the stereotype may be for a lot of fans and players, the ugly reality is it exists.

“Sexuality is a factor here,” said Racelis, basing her hypothesis mainly on her rich and deep academic experience viewing the male-female power relations and other gender issues.

How much sexuality is as a factor, nobody can pinpoint exactly. But if the perception is more prevalent than people think it is, then smashing that perception will help improve the popularity of the men’s game.

And neither can anyone predict if the length of rallies is the sole element that tips the favor of the fans toward the women’s game. If it is, perhaps men’s volleyball can find an antidote to quick kills, the way men’s tennis solved the serve-and-volley problem that once weighed it down.

For now, there seems to be only one quick hack to solve the disparity in popularity.

Exposure.

“For sponsors, it’s about value for money, and value for time for the audience,” Dames said.

And Palou hopes that sponsors will be the first to break the chicken-and-egg problem and give men’s volleyball ample funding to grow into its potential as a spectator sport, one that can pack coliseums during important Finals matches.

Palou hopes that the country’s hosting of the SEA Games will be the turning point in the history of the men’s game. A wave of patriotism might drive fans to watch men’s matches live and push the national team to play beyond expectations.

“There’s a lot of talent in the men’s [game],” Palou said. “So I’m thinking maybe, if we get a medal in the SEA Games this year, more of the sponsors—corporate sponsors, would start looking into them.”

De Guzman certainly hopes so: “Maybe if we play well in the SEA Games, sponsors will support us and help give men’s volleyball more exposure.”