The past decade, the PBA and UAAP Basketball occupied the enviable position as the country’s top sports crowd-drawers. With the likes of Robert Jaworski, Atoy Co, Alvin Patrimonio and Samboy Lim as poster boys for the country’s cage kingdom, it seemed that no other sport could give them a run for their money.
A few years ago, we saw soccer football make a surge with a string of superb performances offered by the country’s Azkals. Leading the soccer challenge were Fil-Brits Phil and James Younghusband, two clean-cut kids every mother would love to have visit their daughters. Today, the United Football League (UFL), which started as a semi-pro soccer league in 2009, continues to move forward with a fast-growing fan base.
Recently though, another sport has been slowly but surely gaining ground on basketball and soccer. The recently-concluded Philippine Super Liga for women’s volleyball showed us the great potential of a league that would cater to the distaff side. Actual attendance at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena drew thousands of rabid fans, a pleasant surprise that showed how far the game has progressed. And the TV ratings with Solar Sports were clearly encouraging.
Volleybelle-mania actually started in 1999 when Manila hosted a leg of the World Women’s Volleyball Grand Prix. This brought in topnotch international stars who were not just ball-bangers but serious lookers as well. Drop-dead gorgeous striker Leila Barros of Brazil was easily the “Most Popular Player” of the Grand Prix, captivating our hearts as she ever-so-sexily smashed the opposition in a virtual volleyball feast for the eyes. Oooh-la-la!
And they were back for an encore the following year, she and the rest of these volleyball goddesses who epitomized the perfect mix of beauty and athletic ability. After only two brief appearances in the country, these heroines were able to provide the oomph to make volleyball the popular sport of choice for our young women in school.
Pretty soon, women’s volleyball would become the toast of the UAAP, as more and more fans trooped to the stadium to watch long-legged charmers such as the sisters Michelle and Mayette Carolino, Mary Jean Balse, and quite lately, Michele Gumabao, Rachel Ann Daquis (considered the face of Philippine women’s volleyball today), Gretchen Ho and many more.
With Shakey’s forming an intercollegiate women’s volleyball league in 2004, interest in the sport gained further momentum. And as more and more promising volleybelles graduated from college, the Shakey’s management – bless their souls – found a way to keep their passion for the sport burning. Graduates were allowed to play as imports, and much later, due to the sheer number of talents available, a Shakey’s V-League Open Conference was opened, allowing non-school teams to join the league.
Today, women’s volleyball is ready to take center-stage. In the UAAP, the Ateneo-La Salle finals at the MOA achieved attendance numbers far better than the PBA playoffs. The stands were rocking, with fans cheering themselves hoarse. Ditto with the Shakey’s V-League conferences. From their humble beginnings at the Fil-Oil Flying V Arena in San Juan, games are now played at the MOA and the PhilSports Arena to accommodate more fans.
With the success of the Philippines Super Liga’s inaugural season – won by the veteran team from the Army – there is nowhere else to go but up. This August 18, the Shakey’s V-League Open Conference unfolds. With the commercial teams allowed to have as much as two imports each, expect the competition level to go a notch or two higher. Of course, the decibel level from our diehard fans is expected to likewise go up. Suddenly, there is now life after college for women’s volleyball. And to a certain extent, let me say that it will be the poster girls of today who will determine which direction the sport takes.
The question is: will our poster girls be up to it?
(Photos courtesy of the Army Women’s Volleyball Team, volleywood.net, yahoo.com, rappler, dlsuwvt.com, pep.ph, roy afable, arnold cruz, josh albelda, jelvin base)