“The PPL is a new entity, a rebirth, a reboot,” said Bernard Sumayao at the media launch of the new league last January 23, 2019.
“We have no agenda other than to see the sport develop,” said the 59-year old Filipino media practitioner based in Thailand for the last three decades.
The new competition, which hopes to have eight clubs, replaces the Philippines Football League, which had served as the country's top-tier professional league for the past two years.
The PFL began with eight clubs but contracted to six for its second year after Ilocos United and FC Meralco Manila folded. After the 2018 season Davao Aguilas also pulled out while another team, JPV Marikina, appears to be inactive.
Club football has long struggled to gain a foothold in a Filipino sports landscape dominated by traditional favorites basketball, volleyball, and boxing. Numerous attempts have been made over the years.
In the '90s there was the Manila Premier Football League. The P-League followed soon after. Both eventually closed down after a few seasons.
The most successful competition was the United Football League that began in the late '00s and ran until 2016. The UFL rode the explosion of fan interest in the Azkals, the national team that reached the AFF Suzuki Cup semis for the first time in 2010. At its peak the UFL enjoyed a TV deal on a major channel, two divisions of ten teams each, and fairly decent attendance at its matches.
But by 2017 the PFL had taken over, the UFL closed shop, and most of their top teams moved to the new league. But after two challenging PFL seasons, the PPL now takes the limelight. Already some pieces are falling into shape.
It seems certain that Ceres Negros, last year's PFL League champs, will join, as will Kaya Iloilo, who won the PFL Cup , also known as the Copa Paulino Alcantara. (Paulino Alcantara, Barcelona's legendary striker from the 1910's to the 1920's, was half-Filipino and half-Spanish.)
Also represented in the press launch were officials from Green Archers United and Philippine Air Force, two clubs that played in the UFL but were not a part of the PFL.
Global Cebu was also present in the press conference. The former AFC Cup team hopes to regain its status as a force to be reckoned with in Pinoy football.
Another team from Cebu, the Philippine's second-largest city, Leylam FC, also sent a representative to the press conference.
There appears to be a good chance that Stallion Laguna, who finished fourth in the PFL last year, will also join the fray.
Two university-based clubs are also reportedly considering taking the plunge.
Sumayao says there is a total of eleven applicants for the league but that their goal is to start with eight teams when the league kicks off in March. A final list will be bared in mid-February, according to Sumayao.
There will be two competitions, a League and the Paulino Alcantara Cup. The League will be triple round-robin, while the Cup will likely follow the format of last year, with a group stage and then a knockout stage. Unlike in most football countries, the two competitions will run one after the other and not concurrently.
The PFL tried to be a home-and-away league for a time, but the PPL will play most of its games in a centralized venue in or near Metro Manila. That likely means double headers on Saturday and Sunday every week. This is in line with how other team sports leagues in the Philippines have traditionally been run, especially basketball.
The PPL will also have TV coverage. ESPN5, the Philippine partner of the American sports behemoth, is rebranding its secondary channel to 5 Plus. Every Saturday one PPL game will air there on primetime, from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, according to Sumayao. Livestreaming is also planned for the non-TV games.
Sumayao stressed the importance of improving the overall fan experience at PPL games.
“I feel a lot of the frustration of the fans on social media,” says Sumayao, who will have the title of league commissioner.
The commish says there will be a festive atmosphere at games, especially in the third round-robin leg of the league when the PPL plans to hold matches in provincial football hotbeds like Iloilo and Bacolod.
“I want it to be a massive community event, like a fair, with a chance to meet and greet the players. It will be like a fiesta,” said the league chief, who also wants live music to play a role.
Sumayao also wishes to hire dedicated social media and marketing personnel to promote the league on various channels. This was an area that previous leagues definitely needed improvement on.
Soon, sponsorships will be announced. Right now the league has signed up Adidas as the official ball.
The Azkals have raised the profile of the game in the Philippines over the past eight years. But if Filipino football is to really take off, the club scene will need to grow. The PPL just might be the Philippines' best chance to finally get it right.