The roadmap for Philippine football must go through the women’s game.
In my last article I wrote how the Filipina should be the face of football in the Philippines. As I was writing this second part, I came across something surprising. Something that explains why the best women’s teams are so much better than the rest, and why if the Philippines wants to grow the sport of football it has to go through the women’s game.
If we are hoping to popularise football and grow the sport we should learn from countries who did that too. Think Australia, the United States, Japan, Canada, China. From virtually nothing, they developed the game, the football pyramid, and steady top-flight leagues.
Their men’s teams are good, regionally, but nowhere near the best in the world. Their women’s teams, however, are ALL top 15 in the world. It’s incredible when you look at it. More than one third of the top 20 women’s National Teams are from countries where football is not the number one sport.
In a country boasting one of the best gender equality rates in the world, this is doubly good news for the Philippines. The Malditas are already just one or two games from reaching the World Cup. By comparison, the Azkals are one or two generations away.
So the Philippines has the potential to become a global powerhouse in women’s football. Here’s how.
Step 1: Safe Spaces to Play
The USA are by far the best women’s team in the world right now. The story of how they got there begins with Title IX. Passed in 1972, Title IX required schools to support girls’ sports. It meant facilities, training, and opportunities for girls. The number of girls playing sport exploded as a result.
While the US men’s team
suck aren’t as good, by comparison, the opportunities of Title IX put the USA decades ahead in women’s football. As the great video below points out, in 2006 there were around 3,000,000 young girls playing football worldwide. More than half of them were in the USA.
That’s because the rest of the world still thought women shouldn’t play at all. England’s FA declared the game “quite unsuitable for females”, banning girls from playing football until 1971. Germany and Brazil similarly banned women until 1970 and 1981 respectively.
In developing something new, we need to hit the under-served markets. These are the easiest customers. Later, they become mothers and enrol their children in football too. The USA thought of football (or soccer) as women’s game for a long time because of that. But it grew the game in the country. And that’s the first step: numbers.
In the Philippines, basketball is king. The Philippines has some of the best boxers, pool players, and other sports too. But that’s for men and by men. The women, by contrast, have so little. With all its advantages, the Philippines should be a world power in women’s basketball. It’s only just top 50. Volleyball exploded for a time, but it’s losing traction.
Aside from the politics in Philippine sports, it’s also because so few kids can play in their local community. In the USA, that pathway focused around schools as they had the facilities. There have been movements for something similar in the Philippines and futsal was successfully lobbied to be part of Palaro Pambansa. This is a good step, though in practice we see schools forming a team a few weeks before a competition and training on basketball courts. As soon as the tournament is done, play stops.
Schools were the answer for the USA. They’re not for the Philippines, because they don’t have enough facilities.
So What Can We Do?
Three decades after Title IX, the USA hosted the 1999 Women’s World Cup. In the final, the USA beat China on penalties in front of 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl. That World Cup still has the highest average attendance per game of any women’s World Cup so far.
The chronology is important. Fans don’t just suddenly appear. National Teams don’t suddenly start winning. First you need to develop a big pool of players and they will sustain and grow the game.
As it stands, where can girls play? Men dominate the local barangay basketball courts. Public schools typically have one basketball court for the entire school. Girls will switch to football if they feel there’s something for them. The crowds during Azkals game are already an octave higher than any other stadium I’ve been in. The number of girls playing could explode if they just had a space to play in their own community.
The good news is funding is available for facilities. Having developed two futsal courts ourselves, we see constructing facilities is the easiest part of fundraising.
That doesn’t mean only girls can play; girls and boys both develop better by playing together. It just means a few girls-only training sessions each week along with the open play.
The PFF, clubs, and sporting companies have an opportunity here. Imagine the Kaya Community Court or Bootcamp’s Summer Bootcamp creating a permanent space to play in a local community. Clubs can now partner with a community, develop a youth program, and earn fans to watch their games. People watch football because they play football. Likewise, people buy football gear because they play football. Companies can grow the market by helping to increase the players who will later buy their football boots and football kits. Take a five-year perspective and this investment will have much higher returns than the one-day festivals because it can grow what is a tiny market right now.
Later on, we can talk about the frightening potential of the Philippine Women’s Team in futsal, the future of a Women’s Futsal League, or growing the game in schools. As the USA’s experience shows, though, you start with spaces to play. In the Philippines, that means constructing community courts.
Step 2: A Women’s Football Show
In terms of viewership, the most watched video from the PFL is the final between Ceres and Kaya last November. Both clubs are spending tens of millions of pesos on their teams each season, they’re stocked full of Azkals, and they’ve made history in AFC competition against other clubs in Asia. At the time of writing, 16,000 people watched the final of the men’s professional league on the site’s Facebook page.
Meanwhile in the women’s division, the final PFF Women’s League game between two amateur women’s teams, De La Salle and UST, just passed 10,000 viewers. And it’s not been up for a week yet.
This shows the potential for the women’s game, especially if we improve the media content. The livestreams have been a good start but we can’t attract new fans with 90-minute games. They’re not the right content for where the game is as at. As it stands, very little is being done for media. If you go to the PFF website for the Women’s League right now, it’s not been updated since the 4th or 5th game. The league finished this week. The women deserve better.
So What Can We Do?
A Women’s Football Show.
Whenever possible I tune into the Women’s Football Show in England, a 30-minute show rounding up the action in the Women’s Super League. With highlights of the games, punditry, and interviews with players, it does more in 30 minutes than any single 90-minute game can do.
A highlights show of the PFF Women’s League or Philam 7s creates a focal point for the game, a focal point for marketing efforts, with all teams and all fans sharing the episodes. The Philam 7s started this kind of show for their current season, and while there are improvements to make, it will keep getting better.
With the right content, specifically on the women’s game, the cost wouldn’t be much more than existing marketing efforts. Assuming girls have somewhere to play in their own communities, from Step 1, the viewership could explode as they support their communities and their teams in the leagues.
Step 3: Bring The PFF Women’s League Closer To Home
Funded by FIFA grants, the creation of the PFF Women’s League is a positive step. With ten teams competing in a double round robin, it’s incredible to think there are more clubs in the women’s league than the men’s league. De La Salle University blew away the competition in the first season, 12 points clear in only 13 games, but the second season was closer, and it took until the final game of the third season for them to clinch their third title and the three-peat.
Yet the PFF Women’s League has much more to give. Right now, one of the most obvious concerns is no-one is watching at the stadium. This isn’t unusual for Philippine football, the men’s topflight also has next to no-one in the stands and because of the same problem: the stadium is just so far!
With the PFF National Training Center in Cavite, it’s more than 40km from Manila. Hosting the matches at a central venue might be necessary but hosting games well outside the metro transfers the costs to teams and fans. The distance and cost is why notable teams, like OutKast FC, did not return for the third season and others are considering dropping out of the league. And why fans can’t get there.
What Can We Do?
Host the games at Universities.
While some suggest Rizal Memorial Stadium, the rental costs may be prohibitive for the PFF. Universities hosting games means no rental costs, less travel costs for teams, and more teams joining. In exchange for hosting, they get home field advantage. They can even tap their students and alumni to begin filling the stadiums.
With UP’s turf now up and running, more than half of the Women’s League have their own 11 aside field. It’s crazy to think that the women’s game is closer to a home and away format than the top men’s division, but it is. Not all clubs have their own ground, of course, and that shouldn’t be a requirement to join. But we can take advantage of the assets within the women’s game and with a little negotiation of the minor details there is a big win-win deal to make here.
Closer venues means more local teams would be interested and a second division would be possible, with promotion and relegation. I know if the venues were closer to us, Payatas FC would be very interested in joining a Second Division. I can think of another 5 or 6 teams in a similar situation.
With fans at the stadium and people watching content online, we could start talking about sustainable sponsorship, and such a league would garner international attention with women’s football rapidly growing throughout the world.
Girls are typically the most under-served group in sports and there is a big opportunity for football to become a major, even the top, sport for women. The way most countries popularised football in the last few decades starts the same: get kids playing, especially girls. That’s, in part, because later they become mothers and enrol their children in football too.
If we can create the spaces for girls to play, if we can create good media with a Women’s Football Show to sustain that growth, and then improve the PFF Women’s League, the football pyramid can be built.
Not only could the National Team qualify for a World Cup, but the women’s game could create the demand, the market, and the fans to blaze the trail for the whole of Philippine football.
This is why the future of Philippine football should be female. The challenge now is to make it happen before everyone else figures out the same.