Philippine club football, which has struggled to get a foothold in the local sports market, hopes to get it right this time with a major reboot in the form of the Philippine Premier League, or PPL, which was formally launched Wednesday at the Fairmont Hotel in Makati.
The PPL, a replacement for the Philippines Football League, hopes to have eight teams when play kicks off in late March.
"We believe this is a new dawn for Pinoy club football," said Bernard Sumayao, the PPL commissioner, at the media launch.
"We've achieved success on the national team front, and I'm very proud of that. I'm very, very proud of the Azkals," added Sumayao, who brings with him over 25 years' worth of relevant experience from working on media and content rights in Thailand, including exposure to the country's professional league. "It's about time that we do something in our country to at least be on par if not surpass what is happening around the region. This is the vision that the PPL has."
The PPL's predecessor, the PFL, was wracked by lack of media exposure and financial difficulties, which led to some clubs withdrawing by the second season. Sumayao hopes to avoid those pitfalls.
"For this league to be successful, the fundamentals need to be right," he said. "First and foremost, the teams themselves need to be financially viable. They need to be able to pay for their expenses. They need to be able to sustain themselves.
"The PPL is a new entity. It's a re-birth, it's a reboot. We are in this because we have no other agenda than to see the development of the sport. We don't have any political agenda, we don't have any financial agenda in mind. Our agenda is to be able to reach the same level as what we see around today. That means the other leagues around the region. That is truly the goal of the PPL."
The eight teams will play a triple round-robin format, or three legs, for a total of 21 matches per club. Games will be played on weekends, with a double header on each day. To make the league more sustainable in the short term and also ease the financial burden of the clubs, the PPL will have matches in centralized venues.
"We are planning to have what we call centralized matches, which means that we will be having those matches in specific locations," Sumayao explained. "For a couple of weeks, all the matches will be played in a specific location, and it will become a massive community event. We will have concerts, we will have fairs, we will have activations, we will have fan engagement, we will have players meet and greet. All of these will create a fiesta event in that particular area.
"We want to increase fan engagement. We have plans to join up with certain companies that have access to music. If you look at the demographic of football, most of them that come to games are young people. The collaboration of music and sport is an interesting one. It has been proven in certain markets."
Also in the pipeline are an online merchandise store and a regular magazine.
Ritchie Gannaban, the tournament director, said aside from the league competition the PPL will be retaining the Copa Paulino Alcantara, which was held by the PFL last year. This is partly in line with Asian Football Confederation regulations for their club competitions.
"Based on AFC regulations, should a club want to qualify for an AFC club competition, it needs to play the required number of minimum matches, which is 25. So for an eight-club league, that would guarantee 21 matches in the league and a minimum of six matches in the Copa Alcantara for a total of 27 matches. All in all there will be 111 matches for the season."
Gannaban added that the initial leg will be held primarily in Metro Manila, with the University of Makati emerging as one of the main venues. The U-Mak pitch was recently installed with artificial turf and has a FIFA rating of two stars.
Each leg will take approximately seven weeks, according to Gannaban, with a rest week in between legs. The league expects to end its first season on December 7.
The Philippine Football Federation has given Sumayao and PPL Sports Group Inc. the rights to operate and market the league. PFF president Mariano Araneta expressed optimism for the new venture.
"A vibrant domestic league is important for the growth of the game and we think the PPL has what it takes to succeed. We are all very excited," said Araneta.
"I hope what you heard from Bernie will really inspire you to participate in this league," added the PFF head, addressing the team owners present.
Clubs can also expect a lower annual fee, which will reportedly be a fraction of what they paid the PFL over the last two years. Araneta also said clubs will have an equity share in the company that will run the PPL.
"We promised the clubs 40% of the shares in the board for the new entity which they can invest in."
The final cast of clubs is still being finalized, but the initial cast will include PFL League champs Ceres Negros, Copa Paulino Alcantara holders Kaya Iloilo, Stallion Laguna, and Green Archers United Globe. Philippine Air Force is also likely to join.
Starting n the second year, the league plans to add a second and third divisions. "This is very crucial," Sumayao said. "In my opinion we need to have the proper first, second and third division. But that will take a little bit of time. This first year, the plan is to increase the teams from six to eight. Moving on to year 2 and year 3, we will have a second division with a proper promotion-relegation system."
ESPN5 will be the league's broadcaster, airing around 23 matches live on new channel 5 Plus, with highlights on ESPN5's nightly magazine show, SportsCenter. Live streaming of matches is also planned. There will be one live match aired every Saturday on the 7-9PM prime time slot.
"It will be very beneficial to the clubs that we have a TV partner which is willing to invest in the league as well," Araneta said. "Hopefully this will bring in more interest to football in the country."
5 president Chot Reyes added that their decision to be involved in the PPL is simply an extension of their commitment to air football content.
"Football has always occupied a special place in my heart, and we have tried to bring to the Filipino audience as much football content as possible. We covered the Suzuki Cup. We really wanted to cover the Asian Cup. We made what we thought was a very competitive bid. Unfortunately it wasn't awarded to us.
"Our involvement with the PPL is a continuation of our involvement in and our passion for football. And if we are present in international competitions, we felt we should also be present in local competitions. Hopefully this will spur development of the sport even more."
With reporting from ESPN5's Sid Ventura