How volleyball got its game back
The powerful spikes used to echo in the gym.
It’s a sound he remembers well, says coach Ramil de Jesus of this season’s champions, the La Salle women’s volleyball team. On many occasions, he had to deal with the loneliness of a quiet court.
“We’d even give away tickets just so people would watch (the games). Still, there were no takers,” De Jesus recalls with a laugh.
“It was mainly a quiet coverage,” agrees sportscaster Boom Gonzalez of broadcast giant ABS-CBN. “We had the parents, game enthusiasts and the pep squad. If we saw a crowd of about 400, we were really happy.”
These days, though, a queue of passionate fans can be seen snaking around the venues, or yelling their lungs out inside the country’s biggest sports arenas that regularly explode with a crazy cacophony of cheers, jeers and shrieks.
“Until now I feel overwhelmed,” admits Ateneo spiker Gretchen Ho, whose tenacity, coupled with her chinita charm, made her one of the sport’s darlings. “It’s amazing and great to see that volleyball has this kind of following now.”
Such adulation for volleyball’s best—and prettiest—started over a decade ago when a Brazilian bombshell strutted her stuff in Manila.
Drawing a crowd that only local basketball can muster, Leila Barros of Brazil’s national volleyball team turned many Filipinos into instant converts when Manila hosted the 2000 World Grand Prix.
Thousands trooped to the Ultra stadium in Pasig City, filling the venue to the rafters just to get a glimpse of the 5’8” stunner with a cropped ’do and a magnetic smile.
“I was there. I was one of the junior directors at that time when Leila Barros was here,” recalls ABS-CBN Sports program director Abet Ramos. “When we started out, we saw the clamor of people for tickets. Ultra was filled to capacity with a crowd of about 8,000. The passion was there.”
Yet what seemed like a newfound love turned out to be momentary passion. Soon, only hardcore fans and students stood by when action heated up among powerhouse squads University of Santo Tomas, Far Eastern University and La Salle in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) and the Shakey’s V-League amateur tournament.
The “Leilamania,” apparently, was a tough template to match.
But definitely, there were enough volleyball poster girls serving up a potent mix of good looks and talent: FEU’s Rachel Anne Daquis, La Salle’s Manilla Santos, Ateneo’s Charo Soriano, UST’s Mary Jean Balse and the University of the East’s Suzanne Roces. These volleybelles kept the sport on the radar.
“The previous players (were) a big factor in volleyball’s popularity now. They started it,” says La Salle’s Abigail Maraño, the back-to-back UAAP Most Valuable Player this season. “Sila ang ugat nito (Everything started from them). We need to thank them. We’re enjoying the (game’s) popularity now, but without them, we won’t be here.”
Here, of course, refers to the phenomenal record of 19,638 fans who shook the Mall of Asia Arena last February when fierce rivals La Salle and Ateneo clashed on the final day of UAAP eliminations.
“I knew from the start that volleyball is going to be the next big thing to basketball, or even bigger than basketball. But it surprised me that it happened this year,” says Ramos, adding that the gate attendance could have been a world record for a volleyball match.
“I think it broke all records for volleyball, not just in the Philippines but also in the world. MOA Arena is one of the biggest sports venues in the world. So this may be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, crowd for volleyball.”
Gonzalez admits that the monster turnout-carried over in the Final Four (12,000) and Game 1 of the Finals (17,408) at Smart Araneta Coliseum and Game 2 (18,779) at MOA Arena—also came as a shock for him and fellow commentators Mozzy Ravena and Ian Laurel.
“I would be totally lying if I said we expected the 19,000,” says Gonzalez, who has been part of the UAAP volleyball coverage for seven years.
Added the TV sportscaster: “We were thinking that maybe we can do this in Ultra. That was the goal back then. But I used to tell Mozzy and Ian that (volleyball) is a sleeping giant. Did I imagine that things would change this fast? Maybe not. I knew that this is coming, but maybe a year or two away.”
La Salle ace Michele Gumabao—who is as wildly popular as teammates Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, Melissa Gohing and Maraño—still can’t believe the rock-star treatment the Lady Archers have been getting even before their third straight UAAP title romp last March.
“I’m super honored. Whenever I hear old players talk about the past seasons, they’re saying that the hype was never this high,” says Gumabao, the comely UAAP Finals MVP who stands just a shade below 5’10”. “It’s very rewarding to have this kind of crowd. They really have a different effect on us.”
“Dati, kahit sino (lang ang) dumating sa games. Kung wala, okay lang (It used to be that we didn’t mind whoever comes to our games. If no one did, that was fine with us),” says Maraño. “But when the people came, it was in droves. We’re really thankful.”
She adds: “Nagugulat ako kasi minsan, naglalakad lang ako tapos may babati, may magpapa-picture (I get surprised when people say hi or have their picture taken with me).”
With fans, autograph-seekers and camera-wielders threatening to becoming a mob, Ateneo decided to get extra security for its much adored squad led by Ho, Fille Cainglet, Alyssa Valdez, Dzi Gervacio and Jem Ferrer.
“Through good times and bad, these people are there to support us,” Ho says after her Lady Eagles bowed to the Lady Archers in the UAAP Finals. “Even if we didn’t win the championship, I’m still happy. It’s really monumental to bring Ateneo’s volleyball team to this level.”
De Jesus, who steered La Salle to eight championships in the last 15 years, has also started to touch base with the sport’s busload of supporters.
“It’s heartening that some came all the way from the province). They come here just to watch the games,” says De Jesus.
For Ramos, it was a pleasant discovery that the TV broadcast of the games made such an impact that it prompted fans from as far as Baguio and Cebu to go to Manila just to witness live how these sweet-looking girls hammer down the ball with such force.
“People are really into it,” says Ramos. “It’s not just the alumni or the fanatics. Most of them, we found out, are not from the UAAP schools. They come from the province just to watch (the game) and leave for home the next day.”
She adds that, in fact, the volleyball viewership this season rivals the crowd-pleasing UAAP cheerdance competition, and the centerpiece men’s basketball games.
“In basketball, you anticipate that players would bring the ball to the other end of the court. But (in volleyball), it’s action all the way,” explains Ramos. “(For) every spike, every dig, people will cheer. You don’t know where the ball is going to bounce next. The ball’s movement is quicker (than what the eye can anticipate).”
Along with the surge in the sport’s popularity are the fair-weather fans who come to be seen rather than to see the action.
Gonzalez, though, hardly minds. “I always say bandwagon fans are welcome,” he says. “I have no hatred for them because that’s where it all starts. Of course some fans jump into it only to get out after a season. But there are also those who jump in, then get hooked.”
A former volleyball player himself, Gonzalez says he can’t help but look forward to the “trickle-down effect” of this breakout year.
“We believe (this passion for volleyball) still has to peak. Imagine the high school players watching now and thinking this is something they want to be part of. They see the spotlight, the coverage, the kind of teams they can go to,” says Gonzalez.
True enough, that’s exactly how Ho got fired up and started working on her hits and blocks as an Immaculate Conception Academy varsity player.
“When I was in high school, the volleyball hype was already starting. That was the time of Illa Santos and Charo Soriano and we really looked up to them as our idols,” says the 5’7” player.
There’s also a “confluence of events,” Gonzalez believes, that propelled volleyball to unprecedented heights this season.
“We have a lot of players in the past—maybe one from this team, one from the other—who not only have great skills, but also the charm. But it is rare to have a team that have all these players who are really good and charming at the same time,” he adds.
“I always believe that for any sport to surge—any sport outside our regulars of boxing and basketball—there should always be a confluence of events,” says Gonzalez. “There’s not one thing, not one player, not one team that will bring about that boom. Part of it is also live and consistent coverage. It makes a big difference. More media coverage, more personalities. All of that coming together at the right time, I felt, is what happened.”
As arena cleaners sweep off the championship confetti that rained on La Salle, a throng of die-hard fans patiently wait outside for two of the most popular collegiate teams. Soon, they file out. Shrieks greet the girls.
But for De Jesus, there’s still that loneliness of a quiet court. Only this time, it comes after the girls and the crowd have stepped out. •