MANILA, Philippines – Bernie Sumayao has an earnest, professorial air about him when I met him in the Peninsula Manila Club Lounge. Wearing a dark suit over a dark sports shirt, the man tasked with taking Philippine club football to the next level exudes someone who means business.
There is plenty of work to be done.
The Philippines Football League has been the nation's most ambitious attempt at a nationwide league. The standard of the play has been good, and our teams have fared quite well in the AFC Cup.
But the league has also dealt with numerous challenges. TV coverage was absent last year, save for the PFL Cup final which aired on ESPN5. Sponsorship has been paltry. Two teams vaporized after 2017, and now a third, JPV Marikina, faces a seriously uncertain future.
Sumayao's history and work experience would show he just might be the man to take club football to the next level.
A background in football and media
The chairman of Triple CH Holdings is the 59-year-old son of a former auto executive and is a true La Sallian, from elementary to university.
Sumayao began his media career producing English-language lifestyle programs for the burgeoning cable TV industry in Thailand, where he has spent most of his professional life. In 1993 he was the programming and production head of Universal Cable Television, a company now known as True Visions.
Sumayao bought rights to numerous sports properties, including football. One of his big catches was a fledgling competition known as the English Premier League, with teams drawn from the former First Division of the English pyramid. It was the first time that the English top tier was aired on cable TV in Thailand.
“It was a great education for me, learning from the most progressive football league in the world,” recalls Sumayao.
"They were head and shoulders above the other leagues in terms of marketing,” he continues.
In 2004 he incorporated Triple CH, resigning from True Visions two years later. Triple CH specialized in content rights, representing such properties like the 2012 European Football Championship to the Thai market.
He also hawked World Wresting Entertainment and ad time in channels like AXN and TNT. In the era before internet streaming, it was a lucrative business.
In 2015, Triple CH began a partnership with Qatar-based sports channel BeIN Sports. Sumayao represented them in the Thai market for advertising and sponsorship. Soon after that BeIN and all its European football could be seen on cable in the Philippines.
“Being on cable only contributed to football's image in the Philippines of being an elitist sport when it should be a mass sport.”
Sumayao did something about it in 2017, brokering a deal with ABS-CBN to air selected European football games on free TV. The content was broadcast to explore how much of a market there was for football here.
“I thought La Liga would be more popular but it was EPL,” remembers Sumayao.
The ratings of the football on ABS-CBN surprised Sumayao.
"After a while it started growing and growing. There were some matches where we hit a significant share at a ridiculous time of night."
A plan to reenergize the local league
"European leagues were a great door opener for us to see what the market was like in this country," relates Sumayao.
"But I have one firm belief: that if you wanted football to develop in this country you must somehow have some involvement with the domestic league. The Philippines had a pro league but the fundamentals were difficult and challenging."
Sumayao has had numerous conversations with PFF president Nonong Araneta and he is convinced of the football chief's desire to make the league succeed.
"The development of the pro league still needs support from the federation. But PFF also needs to give league room to grow by itself through proper fundamentals."
"I could see from Nonong's eyes that he is concerned about this league and he wants it to grow and become sound and secure. He wanted to find the right people to run this league. People who have no real agenda other than to develop. People who are genuinely dedicated."
Sumayao has spent plenty of time recently in Manila coordinating with teams, networks, and other stakeholders. And there are some changes to next year's league that he can already announce.
The league will be rebranded as the Philippine Premier League.
"I love the acronym, PPL. Its people's football," says the chief. The league is intended to kick off in March.
Sumayao wants more than 6 clubs. "Next year our minimum is 8 clubs. 10 is good but I don't know if we can do it. We want to prequalify the teams."
Sumayao also wants to bridge the gap between big spending teams and clubs with more modest budgets. He envisions each club generating income and being more competitive.
TV is a must. "I'm in discussions with more than just one network. Timing is good because of Suzuki Cup, the AFC Asian Cup, and the SEA Games coming up."
Sumayao is also clear about one thing: full, live games are mandatory.
"I'm pushing for 2 maybe 3 live matches a week. Am quite adamant that they should be live. Delayed telecast matches mean nothing. They have no value for me," asserts Sumayao.
“Highlights can be done, but it's an education. We need to get people to watch whole game. If it's an exciting game they will talk about it and think 'I should have seen it.'”
“It's a whole educational process. If it goes on for 10 years they will get used to it. You can never assume you know what the casual fans want.”
Sumayao attended the Azkals' 1-0 win over Singapore in Bacolod and noticed that many fans were knowledgeable.
Corollary to this he wants Taglish commentary to build up the popularity of the sport with the masses.
He also wants the league to be sponsor-friendly.
“In my opinion there should only be one restricted category for a lockout, and that is the title sponsor.”
Sumayao explains that if the title sponsor is not automotive, one team can have Toyota support them, and another could have Nissan, for example.
Sumayao also wants to make the league more affordable for teams. He will do away with the franchise fee and revert to a more reasonable registration fee that will be substantially less than the current PFL franchise tariff of P5 million a year.
“Every price structure for everything with the league must be logical and reasonable. We need to understand that well. Once you're out of that spectrum, you are out of the game,” insists Sumayao.
The new boss is also convinced that the new league can still be brought to fans in the province, although with a twist.
“I would take all the teams for 3 weeks to play in, say Cebu. Then Cebu will be like football heaven. The players will be walking around the mall, going all over the place. We will have concerts, and other stuff.”
Sumayao says he will have live music after some games, a tried-and-true tactic already used by leagues all over the world.
“The city wins because it generates revenue. You can get sponsorship for hotels and airlines. The teams won't need to spend much. Then they play several games. Then, we could go play somewhere else, like Bacolod.”
Related to this is Sumayao's belief that the league needs to create and promote stars.
“The definition of sports for me is that it is the home of heroes. You gotta create heroes. Fans need to look up to them, they should be in your community, you should be able to touch and feel them. They should be your best friend. Each team must have at least one (hero).”
How about the AFC club licensing regulations and our participation in the AFC Cup? Sumayao believes it is something that still has to be studied.
Sumayao appeals for patience, and for help. He knows that he cannot do this alone. He is no messiah.
“Many things need to be sorted out. This is not a quick fix. We need help from all sectors. I'm appealing for help. Not financial help, we don't need that. We need to fast track our education on the industry here. We need to implement solutions.”
I ask if Triple CH will be sinking money into this venture. Sumayao breaks out into a broad smile.
“It's a given, man.”
Deja vu all over again
Two things seem to give him confidence. He says research shows that basketball's dominance in the Philippines is on the wane, with more options being made available through the smartphone and other digital devices. There will be space for football.
The other thing is history. Sumayao has been here before. He helped sort out the broadcasting rights for the Thai Premier league when it was launched in 2001.
“In 2001 it had no broadcasting. No one was interested. This is deja vu for me. When I go to a match here and there are 50 people, it's exactly like it was when I was in Thailand.”
“Then pay TV came in. It grew to 3 or 4 channels. Then sponsors came in and started to do activations. Telcos started to come in and give free sims at games. Or do raffle draws. Give them something to entice them to come in.”
The Thai league is now a multi-billion-baht behemoth, with teams like Muangthong and Buriram drawing tens of thousands of fans to games and countless more on TV. Thailand's pro football pyramid now boasts three tiers.
Sumayao knows the challenge is different here since Thailand is a football country unlike the Philippines, but he is undaunted.
“If we plan this right we have a very good chance of creating a lot of enthusiasm and energy behind the league,” he insists.
After too many false starts, Philippine club football needs this to work. The stakes are higher than ever. The next 3 months will be very interesting indeed. – Rappler.com