COMMENT: A reflection on the demise of the Meralco Sparks

Rick Olivares

Posted at Jan 11 2018 01:40 PM

When I first heard about the possibility that Meralco FC Manila (formerly the Loyola Meralco Sparks) would cease operations about two months ago, I understood why yet felt 'sayang.'

As the team’s former “media officer” from 2011-2013, I saw the ups and downs of their club as they came close to winning championships only to be stymied by Philippine Air Force, to representing the country with aplomb in the Singapore Cup. My last for the club was when they won the UFL Cup in 2014 after which I left my coverage of football. 

The cost of running a professional football team has risen sharply with the arrival of the Philippines Football League (PFL). And in my opinion, Meralco or even along with PLDT and Smart as part of the MVP group of Companies has given a lot to both the team and to the game. And not just since 2010.

I recall back in 2006, the first televised games of the Azkals over Solar Sports were made possible by PLDT. And that continued up to 2008. So it is even wrong to think the MVP Group of Companies jumped the bandwagon following the 2010 Suzuki Cup. In fact, aside from the Sparks, they also ran the Smart Club Championships and even helped make the Football for Peace program in Mindanao possible. 

Speaking to the club’s last coach and former national team head coach and Philippine Football Federation (PFF) technical director Aris Caslib this Thursday morning, this isn’t even the first time that Meralco, as a company and not simply part of the MVP Group of Companies, “left football.” It happened before in the 1960s but so did many other companies.

I recall the late and former PFF general-secretary Chris Monfort telling me that all he needed back in the 1990s was P1 million and he could run a professional football league. Obviously, those days are long gone. What is the operating expense of a club especially since 2010? It started with P5-10 million for the corporate clubs and it has gone up from a minimum of P25 million to anywhere to P40 million and more. 

You can say that is chump change that can be earned back easily since people have to pay their electric bills. That is such a simplistic way of looking at things.

You have to look at football as a game and its state.

The game has simply waned in popularity about four years after the Miracle of Hanoi. Football vaulted to the second-most popular sport in the country at that time but has since slid to third with the ascent of volleyball. Two of the drivers of the game – the national team and the old United Football League – aren’t what they once were.

Leagues and teams should look into ways of helping its investors. It isn’t enough to slap their logo on a shirt. One question that should be asked is – are there shirt sales? Go further – are there revenue or gate receipts? Is there television money? Does the PFL or any other league have a coherent marketing, sales, media, or even growth plan? Or are clubs simply throwing away disposable income? What can be learned from the defunct Metropolitan Basketball Association? What can be learned from our neighbors and how they make their leagues work?

Are the people running leagues and clubs the best ones available? I think some get bogged down handling operations when they miss out on the bigger picture of marketing, growth, and other concerns. And maybe even worse, it’s still an old boys clubs with others suddenly adopting this sense of entitlement attitude. 

I distinctly recall while I worked for one year as the UFL’s media officer in 2013, I brought it up to some of the league’s directors about looking at parity and helping out the less moneyed clubs in some form and thus felt for clubs from the Armed Forces or even the Division II teams. I always believe that a healthy and competitive league generates excitement and fans. But these folks were either concerned with their own teams to even look at the big picture. Perhaps, they thought that football would be forever ascending and were unmindful that the bubble would burst.

That can all be distilled into one question – so what’s the plan?

The departure of Meralco will have the other PFL clubs think of what they are doing. There will be concerns that if a club that big can call it a day, how much more the smaller ones? Conversely, it also begs the question, if some clubs aren’t in the red, then what are they doing right? Who are these folks in charge and what can be learned from them?

In my conversation with Caslib, he opined that football in this modern era is still in its infancy. But mechanisms aren’t in place to study how the game can prosper. While the game hasn’t sunk to pre-2010 levels, it is still better. Untenable? Economically viable? 

That needs further discussion. However, if pro football wants to survive in this country, they better pay attention to the demise of FC Meralco Manila. You know what the saying is about not learning from history.

So the Sparks are gone. Maybe just for now. Maybe forever. I have my memories of the club -- its heroes, incredible wins and crushing defeats, its characters and even rogues. And you know, for me, they are still fond memories. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.