Larger than Life

Owned by religious group the Iglesia ni Cristo, the 50,000-seater multi-use Philippine Arena opened its doors in July. Could it be transformational for sports hosting in the influential south-east Asian country? Elisha Chauhan finds out.

Based north of Manila, the Philippine capital, the Philippine Arena is the largest-capacity arena in the world.

The Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) commissioned the facility to celebrate its centenary, having been registered as a religious group with the Filipino government on July 27, 1914. Though the venue will mostly be used for religious events, it has also been created to host both sports and other entertainment.

With over 2.25 million Iglesia ni Cristo followers in the Philippines, the venue’s capacity is more than justified for religious events. But its suitability for sporting events is questionable considering the PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) Cup Finals – basketball being the nation’s most popular sport – attracted fewer than 15,000 spectators on average last season.

Internationally-renowned architectural firm Populous was approached by the Inglesia ni Cristo to design the venue, but eyebrows were raised when the religious group proposed building the world’s largest arena.

“The first thing they said to me was that they wanted an arena or theatre of around 50,000 seats. I thought that might be a bit too big, because some of the biggest arenas around the world have a capacity of about 25,000. Then they told me that they initially wanted to accommodate 100,000 people, so I just asked whether they had the money for it,” Andrew James, Populous senior principal and director of the project, told SportBusiness International.

“They did ask me whether it was too big, because if they host sports such as tennis and basketball you wouldn’t see the action from the highest seats. It was all going to depend on the quality of the LED screens, and they installed very large ones in the end.”

Agreeing a $200-million budget, which by-and-large wasn’t exceeded, Populous was left to design the flagship arena. After creating around 15 drafts in two months, the Iglesia felt that the designs were too ecclesiastical and wanted Populous to design the Philippine Arena similar to its design of [English Premier League team] Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

Philippine Arena's landscape masterplan designed by PWP Landscape Architecture

The Prototype

For the interior layout, Populous created a theatre-like design, with all 50,000 seats facing a stage for concerts and religious sermons when a choir is on stage. However, this needed to be able to transform for reduced capacity sports events.

“We have 25,000 seats on the ground tier around the bowl, with executive and corporate boxes above that. The further 25,000 in the top tier can be covered using curtain panels that come down from the roof when hosting sports events,” James explains.

“The flat floor is also large enough for hosting gymnastics, which is bigger than what you would need for an event like tennis. The 2,000 removable seats – originally for the choir – on the stage side can therefore be used as floor seating around a tennis court.”

According to James, arenas of this type will be model for future venues in Asia as they primarily act as large music and entertainment facilities, with the option of being transformed into a smaller platform to host sports events. This is key, he says, because major music events attract more spectators than indoor sports events across the continent.

“The Philippine Arena breaks new ground with a certain building type,” he adds. “I actually think it’s going to end up being a prototype for a lot of the big venues in Asia, because they’ve got so many cities with at least 20 million people in them.

“The reason why the Philippine Arena is so big is because there are huge populations in Asia, and they like to sell tickets for concerts and similar events at a low price. Having more seats allows them to reduce these prices down to $10. Music artists are not making as much money selling records anymore too so they’re doing more tours.”

Philippine Arena's theatre-like design means all 50,000 seats face the stage – Populous.

Home of Sport?

Sports events to be hosted at the Philippine Arena are yet to be finalised, but the PBA is reportedly negotiating with the Iglesia to hold some of its 2014/15 games at the venue. The league is expanding from 10 to 12 teams for the upcoming season, with most matches currently hosted at the 22,000-seater Smart Araneta Coliseum in the Cubao area of Quezon City.

The Philippine Arena has been proposed as the main venue for the 2019 FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Basketball World Cup, of which the Philippines is currently the only confirmed bidder. The host will be named in May 2015.

A 50,000-capacity venue could also attract major sports events including the Asian Games. Though the Arena would be too small to host an opening and closing ceremony, the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, was the first edition to hold its opening ceremony outdoors – a feat that the Philippines could repeat should it wish host its continent’s flagship event.

“Typically you use an athletic stadium as the main venue for a competition like the Asian Games, especially during opening and closing ceremonies,” says James. “You could use the Philippine Arena for an event like that, but the field of play is much smaller. It could easily be used for events like basketball, however.

“It’s a venue that is unlike any other. We can only speculate about how successfully it could be filled to capacity, but it does have the option to reduce seating. A lot of its success will come down to, firstly, how well the venue operators internationally promote and market the venue. Secondly, it depends on whether or not they make good contact with the big players in the sports industry.”

Thriller in Manila?

Ed Picson, executive director of the Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP), gives his take on the potential of the Philippine Arena.

The Philippine Arena is humongous and, realistically, it would be practically impossible for us to fill it up, especially for amateur boxing. The Iglesia ni Cristo has held several big events so the Philippine Arena would still serve its purposes if it wasn’t used for sporting events.

I don’t know if even a boxer like [current WBO welterweight world champion and Philippine-born] Manny Pacquiao can fill it up, because the last time he fought locally at the Smart Araneta Coliseum – which accommodates less than 20,000 – it wasn’t that packed, and there were a lot of empty seats. It may depend on how much tickets would cost to watch such a production in a huge place.

The venue is also off the beaten path; you would need to take an out-of-town bus to get there, so that is something you have to take into consideration. For boxing purposes, we would not look to host events at the Philippine Arena – it’s beyond our capacities at the moment.

However, I certainly hope that amateur boxing would get to a level where it could host events at the Philippine Arena. Basketball is like a religion here, and it’s the only sport that could possibly pack the arena. That’s not a far-fetched idea, but boxing won’t be hosted there in the next 10 years at least.

Even if the Philippines won the hosting rights for the Asian Games, boxing matches would be held in smaller – and more appropriate – venues. We would be rattling inside if we held the sport at the Philippine Arena.

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