- The Philippines has hosted the SEA Games three times previously
- One of the limitations for most sports in the Philippines has always been infrastructure issues
- Organisers say the 2019 SEA Games are already being run at a level comparable to the Asian Games
The Philippines has historically been on the periphery of the sporting scene in Southeast Asia, with European football team tours and most major events passing through Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore without reaching Manila.
But this could be about to change with the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, which take place in the country this November and December.
If all goes to plan, the 30th edition of the regional multi-sports event, which is held every other year, will put the country on the map like never before.
Preparations have not always been as smooth as organisers would have liked, but there is growing optimism that this will not only be the biggest-ever edition of the event but the best.
The Philippines has hosted the SEA Games, which is contested by 11 countries, three times before. Previously, the action has been confined to the crowded capital of Manila, with its insane traffic and overstretched infrastructure. This time, the event will be spread around the country. More than 7,000 athletes will participate in more than 500 events in more than 50 different sports in four designated ‘clusters’ – Metro Manila, Clark, Subic and ‘other areas’.
“It can change things in many different ways,” Dan Palami, the manager of the nation’s football team tells SportBusiness Asia. “One of the limitations for most sports in the Philippines has always been the infrastructure – except for basketball.”
Unlike in the rest of Southeast Asia, football is far from the most popular sport in the Philippines. The former American colony loves basketball and is one of the game’s leading nations outside the US in terms of the size and fervour of the fanbase.
The Philippines won bronze at the 1954 Fiba World Championships, the best-ever showing of any Asian nation, and started the world’s first professional basketball league outside the US. The game is popular all over the archipelago – unlike football, which has its strongholds but has always struggled to make a breakthrough in Manila, where a lack of recreation space has favoured basketball.
The NBA said in June that it has over seven million likes on its Facebook page in the Philippines, more than any market outside the US. In 2013, the Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers played an exhibition there. The likes of LeBron James have appeared in Manila on promotional visits. Nike reports that the country is its third-largest basketball market after the US and China.
“Basketball gets 80 to 90 per cent of corporate sponsorship [in the Philippines] with the rest battling for spare change,” Palami says. The biggest football team to be hosted in the country was David Beckham’s LA Galaxy in 2011, he remembers:
“We had to cram them into a small stadium, and it does not make for a good business model for those involved in marketing the event and bringing the team here. It is very difficult to recover money from ticket sales. Newly-renovated stadiums give us that chance and the SEA Games can be a catalyst for change.”
Football is not the only sport that will benefit from the SEA Games infrastructure investment, according to sports journalist Ryan Fenix: “They’re developing the main venue in Clark, near a former American military base that is set for a revival – there have been plans to move government buildings to Clark to decongest Manila. The SEA Games, with the corresponding infrastructure, will kickstart that.
“Before, in the Philippines, where could you host athletic or swimming events? Now we can. Basketball aside, there were not many world-class venues.”
There is now a 20,000-capacity athletics stadium in Clark and an aquatics centre in Capas, both built for the games. The former was awarded ‘Class 1’ status in October by the International Association of Athletics Federations, for being in full compliance with the body’s technical requirements.
Funding and politics
Sponsors have got on board with the games. Twenty-two companies – including national, regional, continental and international brands – have signed on as sponsors so far. Six top-tier platinum partners and three gold partners are reported by local media to be paying around $3m and $2m, respectively.
Despite the strong private-sector backing, funding and political issues in the public sector have threatened to derail the event.
The rights to host the 2019 SEA Games were originally awarded to Brunei, in 2015. The tiny Sultanate quickly pulled out and the Philippines stepped in. In July 2017, Philippine Sports Commission chairman Butch Ramirez announced that it too was pulling out because the country had to focus on combating Islamic extremism in the south of the country.
Singapore was reportedly ready to step in, but within days the Philippines’ withdrawal was reversed. “There wasn’t really any cancellation,” Philippine Olympic Committee president Peping Cojuangco later said. “There was nothing certain about it. It was some kind of idea…that’s why from the beginning, I never uttered or commented anything about it.”
Palami says: “It has been a learning experience for the government and the different sporting communities. To bring it all together is not as easy as people think. The Philippines has very strict government procurement laws and since government money is being used then everything takes a long time and there are a lot of different stakeholders involved.”
Wrangling over public funding continued after it was confirmed that the country was going ahead with the games. The Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organising Committee (Phisgoc) requested PHP 7.5bn (€134m/$149m) in 2018, but the budget awarded by the country’s Congress was only PHP 5bn. An additional billion was granted earlier this year by the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte.
The intervention by the president not only gave a boost to the organisers but showed that the country understood that there was more at stake than money.
“The President agreed to augment the current budget of the SEA Games because he understood the importance of the SEA Games to the Filipino athletes and its long-term benefits to the tourism and economic sectors in the country,” says Alan Cayetano, chairman of Phisgoc. “We are very much encouraged by the support of the president and the cabinet. During the cabinet briefing, we committed to have the best-viewed and best-hosted SEA Games.”
Cayetano had given a presentation to the cabinet arguing that the SEA Games was worth investing in to boost the country’s image overseas. Pulling out of hosting due to the security situation at home would have been damaging, whereas hosting a successful SEA Games could show that the Philippines is an up-and-coming sports destination, and not just for basketball. Critically, it could also send a message that the country is open for business.
Beyond Southeast Asia
There are still major challenges for the 2019 SEA Games. Manila’s traffic, for example, is perhaps the worst in Asia and will be a big frustration, as Cayetano has admitted: “Here in the Southeast Asian Games, you may be able to control the traffic for the athletes and coaches, but how about the spectators?” he says. “We can’t make them commute for three to four hours to watch a one-hour game, right? It’s really going to be a challenge.”
But the country’s sports industry is already looking at the event as a springboard into the future. The nation is weighing up a bid to host the 2030 Asian Games, one of the biggest multi-sports events in the world. A successful SEA Games will help but there is likely to be stiff competition, with Qatar, India, Uzbekistan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan also interested in hosting the event.
Phisgoc says the 2019 SEA Games are already being organised at a level comparable to the Asian Games. “We are not doing a SEA Games-level of organising [for] the event, we are doing it [at] Asian Games-level,” Ramon Suzara, the chief operating officer of the 2019 games said in August. “The return on investment will come within 20 years and that will benefit the local people, national athletes, [and] commercial areas also.”
Palami also believes the SEA Games could be the start of something much bigger: “We will have to wait and see, but now we have the facilities…the foundation. If the country can get behind the SEA Games, then it could take sport here to the next level.”