MANILA, Philippines – As you may or may not know, we are set to have a national football league that will be truly nationwide in scope, unlike the Manila-based United Football League.
In all likelihood the national league will kick off around 2017. There will be teams based all over the country playing home and away, just like they do in other countries. I don’t think the competition has a name yet. A task force is still undergoing feasibility studies on it, I’m told.
I am excited as anyone for this development, but there are challenges. The concept of “home and away” has never really been a part of Philippine sports culture. Plus most of the wealth in this nation that could support teams is centered in Metro Manila and other key cities.
The new national league needs to be competitive, exciting, and eventually, sustainable. Here are some ideas to do just that.
Conferences. The knee-jerk instinct is to make the national league just like top leagues like the English Premier League or La Liga. Just copy-paste, right? Er, not really.
These European set-ups are time-honored competitions that typically involve a single-table, double-round robin format, no playoffs, and a system of promotion and relegation between upper and lower tiers, often referred to as a “pyramid.”
But what works in the context of a wealthy football-loving nation may not pan out in a developing country that happens to also be an archipelago, where football is nowhere near the number one sport.
In my opinion our national football league needs to be like, ironically, the National Football League of American football, which, like all the major American sports, has two conferences. However the NBA, with its East and West conferences, is the real template.
I’d like to see a north conference of teams centered in and around Metro Manila. That would include teams that could be based in Pampanga and maybe as far south as Batangas. Then there could be a South conference for sides from Iloilo, Bacolod, Cebu, and maybe even Mindanao.
Just like in the United States, teams within their conference will play each other more often, and have inter-conference play less often. Let’s say each team plays its conference-mates two or three times, and the teams from the other conference once a season.
What this does is help keep the travel and hotel costs down. This will be a big issue for these teams who will very likely struggle to make money in the beginning. The Visayas and Mindanao teams can hopefully rely on inter-island ferries to hop from one game to another.
Playoffs. Yes, we really need playoffs. I know the traditionalists will howl that a pure league is a better test, and I can’t disagree with them. But Filipino sports fans are, like American sports fans, used to a league system that builds to a climax.
In each conference you could have a playoff structure that gives an advantage to teams that did well in the regular season, like home-field, twice-to-beat, or even a combination of both. That adds more meaning to the regular season, like how the twice-to-beat advantage does in the UAAP. Then the conference champions could either meet in a one-game Superbowl-like match, or over two legs, home and away.
Mature football nations like the United States and Australia have playoffs, so why can’t we?
The problem with a pure league system is that once a team compiles the necessary points to become the champ, the rest of the matches, which still must be played, are meaningless. Of course in Europe there are things like Europa Cup and Champions League spots that will be decided by these games, so there is motivation to win. But here, nothing of the sort, just places on the standings.
A playoff system that adequately rewards regular-season performance, then builds to a final match or series is best for us.
We can also explore having two seasons in one, like the PBA, which has three competitions in one calendar year. This is not a new idea to world football. Some Latin American countries like Mexico and Argentina do this, with an “opening” or apertura season followed by a “closing” or clausura” season. Oftentimes the champions of the two seasons meet in a special title match.
One of the advantages of this system is that teams that underperform in the apertura can start with a clean slate in the clausura instead of slogging through a long and dreary season with little to hope for.
This format also deserves some consideration because its closer to what fans here, weaned on the PBA, are accustomed to.
Parity. Right now there is very little of this in Filipino club football. The top clubs, with bigger war chests, regularly lord it over the lesser clubs in the UFL, with Wednesday’s results, wins by Jeepney and GAU over Stallion and Kaya respectively, a major aberration.
One of the many reasons why UAAP hoops has become so engaging over the last few years is that there is real parity in the league. As many as six teams have legitimate final four aspirations, and that makes games incredibly close and unpredictable. Right now Philippine club football can only dream of having a league that tight. Blowouts are more common.
We could have a salary cap, but that is difficult to enforce. Profit-sharing is great, but what if there are no profits to be divvied up?
I have an idea, and it’s borrowed from the PBA. In the PBA weaker teams can bring in imports without height limits. Why not give struggling teams an advantage by allowing them to field one more foreigner, say four, while the other teams can only use three at a time? It may seem odd but at least it will make for closer games. Which brings me to my next point…
Foreigner caps. I say the league should gradually work towards having a maximum of three foreigners on the pitch (with the above example being the exception.) The rest must be Philippine citizens and passport holders.
This will mean more Filipino players will see action for the national pool, but there are other advantages too.
Having fewer foreigners will theoretically mean a lower payroll for all the teams. The league can help the teams from spending themselves into oblivion in this manner.
Plus, regulations for regional competitions like the AFC Cup stipulate only three foreigners on the pitch at one time. If we get used to that here in domestic competition then it can help us in the long run going forward.
I’d also love to see a gentleman’s agreement where teams have at least five homegrown players on their roster at all times. This will inspire the youth players when they see Filipinos coming up through our system succeeding.
Television. I don’t think that this league needs to have its games live on national television.
Let me repeat that.
I don’t think that this league needs to have its games live on national television.
That might sound like heresy, but please hear me out.
Yes, the games should be available live, but on Internet streaming, straight to Youtube. Football is still a niche product in the Philippines, so it should be treated that way FOR NOW. I honestly haven’t done my research, but I think it’s not a stretch to assume that Internet live streaming can be more cost-effective than airing matches live on TV with all the OB vans and satellites and such.
I would definitely have a highlights show on network TV, or even games edited down to twenty or thirty minutes aired on a delayed telecast-basis. That, for me, matches the Filipino attention span when it comes to football.
For this league to be successful we need to get the eyeballs of the casual fans and the non-fans. Stuffing a 90-minute game that may or may not have goals down their throats might be a bit of a stretch for them.
If you want to see the whole game it’s there on youtube for you to enjoy any time you wish.
Hopefully once interest picks up and advertisers start to come in, then games can be aired live and in full on the mainstream channels.
There are other things you can do with either TV or web-based shows. I’d love to see programming in both Cebuano and Ilonggo that would target fans in the provinces in their language.
Right now I don’t know who will be the broadcaster for the league but I know that ABS-CBN has a presence in the task force.
The national league is an opportunity to transform Philippine football. It could help raise the standard of play several notches higher than what the UFL is showing us. The UFL could prove be a good larval stage for the national league to really take off and bring Philippine football to new heights.
But we must do it right. It has to be sustainable and adhere to a solid long-term plan. Lets hope Filipino club football finally finds its place in the sun starting in 2017. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.
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