Any given Sunday: PAFL brings gridiron hard knocks to Makati

MANILA, Philippines - It’s that time of the year again, when the fans of football (not the soccer variety) flock to stadiums or vege out in front of the TV for a Sunday full of NFL games.

On the other side of the world, and with significantly less fanfare, teams in the Philippine-American Football League will strap on their pads and helmets when its second season kicks off this Sunday, September 10, beginning at 9 am at the Circuit Makati Blue Pitch. 

The single round robin season will run each Sunday until November 19 with 5 teams - The Olongapo Warriors, Cavemen, Juggernauts, Wolves and Datu (a sixth team dropped out due to lack of commitment). The players come from the Philippines plus the US, various Southeast Asia countries, South Korea, Poland, Guam and others, according to a league press kit. Some of the players have semi-pro experience and have backgrounds in other sports including rugby, basketball and soccer, the press kit said.

Demosthenes Juanatas Jr, the league’s owner and founder, was born in Manila but was raised in Bakersfield, California from the age of two. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan says the league has found support among friends and family of the players, and sponsors like Summit Water and Cobra Energy Drink.

The league’s biggest struggle has been finding suitable venues to host a game that has a limited following and requires a lot of space.

“There are not a lot of open fields for our teams to practice on or even play on, so our venues are quite expensive. It is one of the limiting factors as to why our sport is having a hard time to grow, and I am sure other sports are affected by this as well,” says Juanatas Jr, who doubles as a CrossFit trainer off the field.

“So far, there is no official American Football Stadium suited and fitted for American Football games, which requires a field 120 yards in length and 53 yards in width. That is just the size of the playing field, so if you add in the parking lot and stands for the spectators and other amenities, you are talking about  a sizeable area of land, in a country that prioritizes high rise buildings for profit.”

American Football, as it’s known everywhere outside of America, has struggled to find a foothold outside of its country of origin, even as other US imports like basketball and baseball have become world games. The National Football League has worked aggressively to promote the sport in the United Kingdom in recent years but its qualifying “American” tag has limited it to a regional pastime. Yet even if the Super Bowl is billed as the world’s biggest annual sporting event, it hasn’t been shown live on terrestrial television in the Philippines since 2014.

The Philippines had a national team, the Philippine Aguilas, but the collapse of its parent league the American Tackle Football Federation in 2015 put its existence in limbo.

The sport is played with 11-a-side squads trying to advance up and down the field through a mix of passing and rushing plays, with each team getting 4 “downs” to advance the ball to set up a new set of downs or put themselves in position to score, which is achieved primarily on touchdowns (6 points plus an extra point kick or two-point conversion attempt) and field goals (3 points), and less commonly, a two-point safety (bringing an offensive player down in his own end zone).

Even with much working against its success, Juanatas Jr said "this year is set to be the biggest American Football season the Philippines has yet to see." He said cable channel Light Network will begin showing games in October.

Whether the league has better luck catching on than the now defunct ATFF remains to be seen, but the PAFL is throwing up a Hail Mary and keeping the chains moving in hopes of getting a fresh set of downs on the Philippine sports scene.

“I guess we have to prove to the Philippines that this sport is very profitable and good for the economy before the government puts up a real stadium suited for American Football,” says Juanatas Jr.

All game days run from 9 am to 4 pm with DJ Awel providing additional entertainment. Admission is P50 per head. –