What once seemed to only play third, fourth, or even fifth fiddle to more popular sports has in recent past taken the Philippines by storm. I’m happy to be in the middle of this chaotic deluge.
It’s been a week since the 2023 Premier Volleyball League (PVL) Second All-Filipino Conference started. As expected, the games have set volleyball fans abuzz about popular teams, key (and breakout) players, unexpected transfers and turnouts, and the usual social media clamor.
For instance, one of the league’s strongest and most popular teams, the Creamline Cool Smashers, made headlines lately with the sudden exit of 2022 PVL Finals MVP and multi-awarded middle blocker, Celine “Ced” Domingo. Domingo is set to play for Nakhon Ratchasima VC, a Thai professional volleyball club that has hosted players like Nootsara Tomkom, one of the world’s best setters.
Ced follows the lead of former Creamline player and eight-time PVL best setter Jia De Guzman, who is currently playing for the Denso Airybees in the V.League Division 1, a top-level professional league in Japan. She also joins MJ Phillips and Iris Tolenada, who are playing in South Korea for x and x respectively, and Jaja Santiago, who is in the same league as Jia, but playing for JT Marvelous.
By no means is Creamline the only talk of volleyball town, however. For instance, there’s the young Akari team, led by former La Salle setter Michelle Cobb and boosted by the debut of swaggy middle blocker Fifi Sharma, outlasting the predominantly La Salle-laden and champion team F2 Logistics; the return of memorable volleyball characters in the fun-loving Judith Abil (who has an infectious energy in court and on social media) and the explosive Dimdim Pacres (whose spikes generate booming sounds on impact).
And trust me when I say that the PVL-related news is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s the deluge of fan-generated content and conversations about their volleyball idols, their favorites’ love lives, and—as with any sport—the bashing and heckling from fans. That the PVL has grown to foster this kind of bustling community, positive publicity or otherwise, is a welcome development, at least for someone like me—a recreational volleyball player who has followed the sport locally (and eventually, internationally) for almost two decades now.
It was actually my older brother, a left-handed opposite spiker, who first got into volleyball and motivated me to do the same. He began training as a high school varsity player in 2005, and when I entered in 2008—he was a senior and I was a freshman—we got to be on the same team.
Between 2005 and 2008, we would watch games only on free TV, as we didn’t have a cable or internet connection at the time. It was during this period when the Shakey’s V-League, a non-professional volleyball league that hosted teams from the University Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the Cebu Schools Athletic Foundation (CESAFI), was airing on state broadcaster IBC-13, then later on also government-owned NBN-4. 2008 would also see the debut of the UAAP volleyball games on ABS-CBN Sports.
My brother and I had our favorite teams and players, and we’d copy some of the moves and techniques of our idols. However, what I remember most from those free TV games is that there were more empty seats than people on the stands. If the matchup wasn’t exciting or the game wasn’t a championship match, there wasn’t a substantial audience.
Sometime in 2006, our family traveled from Laguna to San Juan to watch an Ateneo-San Sebastian matchup at the Filoil Flying V Arena (now known as the Filoil EcoOil Centre). We were fans of both teams—the ladies in blue and white led by Karla Bello and Charo Soriano, and the women in red and gold boosted by one of the most popular Thai imports of Philippine volleyball, the powerful Jaroensri Bualee.
When we arrived at the arena, we saw a sizable and noisy crowd by the entrance, all the way to the parking lot. A part of me got worried that we had to contend with this chaos to get inside, but I also felt amazed by what seemed to be an energetic sort eager to enter and enjoy the volleyball action that was about to happen.
However, as we passed by the crowd, I realized I was mistaken. Apparently, there had been a Philippine Basketball Association game prior to our schedule, and the players were coming out of the arena. Of course, it’s basketball. I thought to myself. Why did I think that there would be this much fanfare for volleyball?
Make no mistake: Philippine volleyball already had its golden moments and passionate fan bases, though their reach and visibility were absolutely no match for Philippine basketball. In terms of international achievements, our women’s volleyball team already has 15 podium finishes in 41 appearances across competitive events (the Southeast Asian Games, the Asian Women’s Volleyball Cup, and the like). Six of these are gold medals in the SEA Games: 1977, 1979, 1981, 1985, 1987, and 1993. The Philippines had once been recognized as a regional powerhouse in the ASEAN; today, Thailand and Vietnam dominate the scene. And while it’s interesting to trace the downfall (and, dare I say, budding reemergence?) of our own volleyball scene, that is an extensive story for another time (and a can of worms, if I may say so).
However, I can say that the encounter with the basketball players at the Filoil Arena represented what generations of Philippine volleyball fans have long felt, always playing nth fiddle to basketball, boxing, and other sports that garner more attention.
And it wasn’t until an alignment of stars—the acquisition of broadcasting rights by ABS-CBN; the entry of Ateneo’s Fab 5 in Fille Cainglet, Dzi Gervacio, Jem Ferrer, Gretchen Ho, and A Nacachi, and the debut of the “Phenom” and arguably one of the most decorated volleyball players of all time, Alyssa Valdez; and the record-setting, heroic championship game of UAAP Season 76 that saw the Lady Eagles defeat the thrice-to-beat crowd favorite De La Salle Lady Spikers—that skyrocketed women’s volleyball’s popularity, inspiring a generation of young players that now make up the stars of the PVL and other leagues.
There’s also a case to be made for veterans—former national team members and previous collegiate stars returning to go semi-pro and pro—also getting the share of the spotlight that was once elusive for them. They come back as coaches, commentators, or even players themselves, and their loyal fans from years past couldn’t be more elated.
These are but broad strokes that paint how Philippine women’s volleyball has had it better after what seemed to be a slump. More foreign teams and clubs are looking into the talent that we have here. We’ve also witnessed the rise of the first two rookie-MVPs in the UAAP, La Salle’s Angel Canino and National University’s Bella Belen. The Shakey’s Super League is now broadcasting competitive games at the high school level. News outlets are covering almost all movements within schools, club teams, and even abroad; fans are busy creating content for their idols; and even the volleyball players themselves are popular personalities on social media, whether to their benefit or detriment.
So, yes, amid all the noise and crazy fanfare that surrounds Philippine volleyball today, I happily sit in the middle of it all, tuning in like I’m listening to a harmonious symphony. It’s a great time to be a women’s volleyball fan.