Crowded sports arenas will not be possible in the foreseeable future. Photo from ABS-CBN Sports
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The sad future of sports: closed-door games, training via Zoom, and fans cheering thru masks

We won’t be cheering for our favorite teams live any time soon as social distancing protocols will be in place even after COVID-19. Still, teams and leagues are finding ways to cope. BY ANTON ROXAS
ANCX | May 07 2020

Imagine sitting down courtside at the Mall of Asia Arena. You’ve got the best seat in the house to the hottest ticket in town. It’s Ateneo versus La Salle with a combined 12,907 screaming fans in attendance. That was the scene when the defending champion Lady Eagles played against their arch-nemesis Lady Spikers last March 7 in the Women’s Volleyball tournament of UAAP Season 82. A great match between the two schools was played that day, another classic encounter in the most storied rivalry in the history of Philippine Sports. More excitement was to be anticipated in the weeks to come. After all, the tournament had just started. But, what nobody knew, especially those who were there and those who watched on TV or online, was that they just witnessed the last Ateneo-La Salle game for the foreseeable future. 

That same weekend, the UAAP suspended all ongoing competitions before eventually cancelling the season altogether a month later on April 7.

The Coronavirus has hit the sports industry harder than any punch Manny Pacquiao has thrown inside the ring. Even up to this day, there’s no telling when exactly any of the major leagues in the country will be able to get back up on its feet.

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According to UAAP executive director, Atty. Rebo Saguisag, a lot of factors will have to be taken into consideration when deciding when the games will be able to return. “As in decisions past, we will be guided by the experts and we cannot run counter against any governmental directive. We really do not know what’s going to happen. A lot depends on what government will eventually decide on. Of course, Corona also has a lot to say,” he says. “I’m as big a sports fan as anybody, but leagues need to follow the science and do the right thing.” He further explains that they have to make a distinction between fitness, which is arguably essential, and holding sports events. While they don’t when the next UAAP season will start, they have been preparing for different scenarios. “The only surefire way to prevent the virus from resurfacing is when majority, if not all of the population is immunized, through vaccination or perhaps some sort of herd immunity.”

UAAP executive director Rebo Saguisag says they are working with different possible scenarios for future seasons. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Saguisag cited the Champions League Football match between Atalanta and Valencia that took place on March 10 in Bergamo, Italy as the probable cause of the “nightmare in Italy.” Even the Mayor of Bergamo himself, Giorgio Gori stated that the match was a “biological bomb” because over 44,000 people were in attendance inside the 21,000 capacity San Siro stadium.

“We have to get our heads around the ‘we’ concept. It’s not just you. Not me. Not the student-athlete but somebody else’s potential death,” Saguisag, an elected Makati councilor, says.

 

Events on pause

Prior to the UAAP’s decision, the other major collegiate league in the country, the NCAA, had already decided on terminating the rest of the season even though majority of their sporting events were close to being concluded. The College of St. Benilde Lady Blazers saw their championship aspirations and unbeaten streak in Women’s Volleyball vanish into thin air when the league announced its decision to shut down all operations on March 19.

Recently, there have been talks amongst the NCAA stakeholders about pushing back the usual start of the next season from June to November. “We’re inclined to push through with NCAA Season 96 even if it means holding it toward the end of the year,” Fr. Vic Calvo O.P., incoming NCAA Management Committee Chairman, says.

For the meantime, Calvo believes that it is possible to hold several events that don’t require the physical presence of competitors and spectators in the same venue in an effort to keep the student-athletes of the NCAA and its fans engaged. “We have to be creative in making the NCAA relevant during the GCQ (General Community Quarantine). There are tournaments being held online nowadays like Chess.”

If ever sports does make a comeback earlier than expected, Calvo envisions a very different environment as compared to the usual crowded venues flocked by students.

“Closed door tapos naka-mask at may social distancing,” he describes.

Think about that type of setup at a basketball game with the most popular team in the PBA, Ginebra taking the court. How can you tell those die-hard fans not to stick together like they normally do and shout “HEE-NEH-BRA!” at the top of their lungs with masks covering their mouths? It’s just unheard of. But, then again, so is the crisis we are currently dealing with.

With his players stuck at home, Coach Olsen Racela says that they mustrely on inner motivation so that they can remain game ready.

Olsen Racela, one of the country’s most accomplished point guards who played 18 years in the PBA, never fathomed the idea of basketball—or sports for that matter—being shut down almost completely. “I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime. It’s like the whole world took a break,” he says. Racela is currently an assistant coach with Ginebra in the PBA and the head coach of the Far Eastern University (FEU) men’s basketball team.

Both Ginebra and FEU haven’t had a real team practice since March 12. The only workouts they are able to manage together are via Zoom. Having competed in all levels throughout his career, Racela says that this is a challenge he has never ever faced. “It’s hard because you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Inner motivation is very crucial during times like this,” the nine-time PBA champion shares. “From what I learned, which I tell my players also. It’s not about what happens to you but what happens in you that counts.”

 

Lifeline for athletes

The fourth season of the Premier Volleyball League was supposed to begin this month. Even that has been postponed and the idea of having two conferences instead of the standard three conferences was raised by league organizers.

Not knowing when their season will begin, the Creamline Cool Smashers, two-time defending champions of the PVL Open Conference have also relied on Zoom to hold their team workouts. Alyssa Valdez, who plays for Creamline, believes in the importance of keeping the communication lines open despite the uncertainty of their situation.

Alyssa Valdez says that her regular virtual meetings with her teammates help them stay connected, and mentally stable. Photo by Arvin Lim, ABS-CBN Sports

“As a team, we make sure we meet three times a week not only to work out together but for us to spend time to talk and have a conversation with one another,” the three-time PVL MVP says. “As much as we want to be physically active and healthy, we also need to be mentally stable.” Their conversations and meetings keep them sane, she shares.

“Imagine, we used to be together every single day and now, we hardly see each other so this is good for our mental state to see the people we regularly spend our days with,” Valdez says.

For the massively popular volleyball player, there is a bigger picture to all of this. Her daily workouts now carry more weight and meaning than ever before. She trains not just to win more championships but to be in the best health possible. “I’ve been working out at home for the past two months not only to stay in condition, strengthen all the muscles and recover in preparation for the PVL but also to stay healthy and active to fight this pandemic,” Valdez says. “That’s why no matter how hard it is to get up in the morning or pause a little from watching your favorite series, knowing that health is wealth, you got to get up and spare some time to work out.”

Sports may be suspended. But, the people who work for every league in the country are searching for ways to overcome this hurdle. Coaches are devising new game plans while players, well, they never really stopped playing. We’re all just playing a different game right now. Nobody knows when that starting pistol will be fired once again but for the meantime, all we can do is hope and keep the energy going at home.

If the NBA was able to solve the lack of competitiveness in the All-Star Game, then we should believe that the world’s best scientists will find a cure for the Coronavirus. When they do, may it be as potent as the left hook Pacquiao landed on Ricky Hatton’s jaw that the fight instantly reached a definitive end.

 

Anton Roxas is a sports commentator for ABS-CBN sports. He tweets at @MrPureBusiness.