Volleyball is giving basketball a run for its money

Volleyball is giving basketball a run for its money
Volleyball has been stealing the hearts and attention of fans all over the world. —PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE ANG-BUBAN

As soon as the players emerged from the arena’s dugout, the fans screamed and waved banners marked with the names of their favorite teams while a flurry of picture- and video-taking took place. 

It’s the kind of adulation normally seen for hoopsters in this basketball-crazy country, except that this time, the frenzy was caused by women players of volleyball, a sport that has lately been giving local basketball a run for its money. 

Volleyball has been stealing hearts and attention all over the world. In fact, the website volleyballacademy.ae reported that during the 2016 Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, volleyball tickets were the first to be sold out among the sporting events. And according to the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), “it is also now one of the big five international sports, and the FIVB, with its 220 affiliated national federations, is the largest international sporting federation in the world.” 

Not overnight

Philippine Volleyball League Commissioner
Premier Volleyball League Commissioner Sherwin Malonzo says that one of the factors that makes volleyball popular is because it’s more of a family sport.

In the Philippines, the interest in volleyball “wasn’t an overnight thing,” said Sherwin Malonzo, commissioner of the Premier Volleyball League (PVL), the first professional volleyball league in the country. 

Malonzo recalled the 2000 FIVB Grand Prix held in Manila, in which Leila Barros, a skillful volleyball player with the looks of a telenovela star, was part of the Brazilian volleyball team. “She was so popular, and many people flocked to see her play,” he told CoverStory.ph. 

But the interest raised by the 2000 FIVB Grand Prix was not sustained. Hard to believe, but even the volleyball games of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) that now play at jampacked venues were once largely ignored. “Back then, no one watched the UAAP (or University Athletic Association of the Philippines) games,” Malonzo said.

Not anymore. Now PVL president Ricky Palou, together with a group of basketball enthusiasts and players, formed the Sports Vision Management Group Inc. in 2004, and in the same year invested in the Shakey’s V-League, a mix of players from the UAAP and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

“I was already part of the very first Shakey’s V-League held in Lyceum in 2004. That was the start,” Malonzo said. And it marked the beginning of something special because the following year, the Rizal Memorial Coliseum where the championship game between De La Salle University (DLSU) and the University of Santo Tomas (UST) was held, was packed with spectators.

The potential to make people permanently embrace volleyball was there, and full TV coverage of the UAAP games in 2008 boosted the interest of casual viewers and the enthusiasm of avid fans, especially in 2014, when DLSU lost to a gritty Ateneo de Manila University team headed by its captain, Alyssa Valdez. 

Valdez was awarded most valuable player both for the UAAP Season 76 women’s volleyball and finals’ match.

Bigger venues

Malonzo said Ateneo’s Cinderella run in 2014 was a big factor in making women’s volleyball a popular sport. “[We suddenly found] that we needed to shift to bigger venues,” he said. “Before, we were happy holding games at the Filoil EcoOil Centre in San Juan City, but people started to complain that they wanted to watch the volleyball games but could no longer be accommodated.”

Eventually the UAAP games were held at venues that could seat more spectators, like Smart Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City and the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena in Pasay City.

Malonzo likened Valdez to the actress Nora Aunor, who has a rare charisma. He said Valdez was “a big help in boosting the popularity of the sport.” (I completely agree, and would dare say that Valdez’s playing years in the UAAP paved the way for other UAAP and NCAA players to be noticed and eventually bring their volleyball brilliance to the professional league.)

The Covid-19 pandemic affected everyone and everything, especially sporting events around the world that thrive on fans watching live games. But as the saying goes, there’s always a rainbow after the rain. The PVL (formerly called the V-League, with the latter name brought back in 2022 as a separate league exclusively for collegiate teams) apparently also found a pot of gold when it decided to turn professional in 2021, and resumed volleyball games via a bubble tournament in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte. The games were televised and streamed, to the delight of fans nationwide. 

Fast forward to 2024. Women’s volleyball has hit a high in terms of popularity. Rivalries among schools and professional clubs have made the games more exciting to the point that venues would be filled to the rafters when popular teams faced each other.

Who’d forget the record-setting crowd of 24,459 that watched the December 2023 PVL game between the Choco Mucho Flying Titans and the Creamline Cool Smashers at Smart Araneta Coliseum? Or the March 16, 2024, game that pitted the Chery Tiggo Crossovers against Creamline at the Santa Rosa Sports Complex in Laguna, where the venue held around 6,000 people, or 300 more than its actual seating capacity of 5,700?

Not to be outdone, the UAAP women’s volleyball is also set to break records with the much-anticipated game between DLSU and UST on April 27 at Smart Araneta Coliseum. (Their prior meeting last Feb. 25, in which the DLSU Lady Spikers lost to the UST Golden Tigresses had a sellout crowd at the MOA Arena.)

‘Family sport’

volleyball game
The game between the Choco Mucho Flying Titans and the Creamline Cool Smashers last April 18 attracted a crowd of 17,396 on a weekday. The photo was taken five hours before game time with only general admission tickets available.

Women’s volleyball in the Philippines has come a long way, and Malonzo cited an important factor in its success: “Volleyball caters to all ages and not just to women. It is more of a family sport.” He fondly remembered that during the Shakey’s V-League there were games during weekdays and the crowd was mostly composed of senior citizens. “They probably watched because they were allowed inside for free, or they just wanted to relax and escape an extremely hot day,” he said. “But they enjoyed the games and kept coming back.”  

Malonzo further said that because volleyball is not a contact sport, unlike, say, basketball or football, it emits a family-entertainment vibe.

It surely does. I witnessed a father-and-daughter discussion while watching a volleyball game live, with him explaining to her possible scenarios that could have happened had the coach not replaced a certain player, or had the player adjusted her serve. 

It’s also fun to watch when a player jokingly swags at an opponent when she gets a point (former DLSU star and now Chery Tiggo captain Aby Maraño comes to mind); or when Adamson University’s Jema Galanza or University of the Philippines’ Tots Carlos (now Creamline teammates in the PVL) or UST’s Sisi Rondina (heading to her second year as a Choco Mucho Flying Titan) fire strong attacks, only to be foiled by a dig by DLSU’s superb libero Dawn Macandili-Catindig, who now wears the Cignal HD Spikers’ uniform.

I can go on and on mentioning players like a volleyball rally that always elicits oohs and aahs from the crowd, and I will not run out of the game’s plus factors. 

This unpredictable game has probably reached its peak, but there’s definitely no looking back for women’s volleyball in the Philippines.

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