Straight Outta Elbi: The state of women’s basketball in the Philippines

“Weirded out yung guys when I arrive.”

This is how Tina Castillo described her experience during her first few times at the Titan Love Court. She usually received weird stares, especially from men who’ve never seen her before. She’s usually the last player to be picked during scrimmages when playing with those who don’t know her.

“Usually, they come around naman once they see me play,” Tina recalls. The initial rejections turn to curiosity and questions like “Saan ka natuto?” and “Saan ka naglalaro?” This kind of attention does not surprise her. After all, she says that it’s unusual to see women play at the Love Court.

The initial treatment she received at the Love Court was way different from what she experienced during her stay in Los Baños, where she played for UPLB’s basketball team during college. She was one of the star players that led the Maroons to several podium finishes at a regional league, as well as a few wins against Metro Manila-based teams in city tournaments.

But she wasn’t just a star in a basketball sense. She became a local celebrity within the UPLB basketball community. She had followers around the campus, men and women alike. Everywhere she played, she wowed the audience with her nifty crossovers, off-tempo eurosteps, and make-it-rain scoring. She even got the nickname ‘Tinaheart’, which came from one of her fans—a testament to her amazing play on the court. Her game captivated people’s hearts.

For Tina and the female ballers at UPLB, the university is a haven for women’s basketball. At the campus, basketball is widely accepted as a sport for all, regardless of gender. It’s normal to see the women ball out at the Copeland Gymnasium at night, whether it’s the varsity training or a regular pickup game.

Even students and employees take their part in keeping the community alive. PE sections of women’s basketball are always filled with women who want to learn the sport. Women’s basketball tournaments are also common in the university, whether among the student organizations, or among the colleges within the university.

Games are highly competitive. Teams and spectators celebrate every point, every rebound, every highlight of the match. Yes, the skill level in UPLB is still lower compared to Metro Manila-based teams. But one thing that’s unique in this place is the high level of interest for women’s basketball.

“Dito sa campus natin, kapag magaling yung team, pinapansin, ina-appreciate yung mga naaabot nila,” Coach Toni Salangsang recalled. She was the coach of the UPLB women’s basketball team from 2004 to 2007, and from 2011 to 2015. She coached Tina during the latter’s stint as a Lady Maroon. She also helped build a culture of basketball that’s open for all genders in the university.

From ‘larong lalaki’ to building UPLB’s basketball culture

There’s this perception that men are always greater in basketball than women. And when players like Tina and Coach Toni can play with the big boys, they are described as ‘larong lalaki’.

“Dati, I take that as a compliment. Larong lalaki ka, pwede kang makipaglaro sa amin. You’re good enough,” said Coach Toni. During her heyday, she was able to keep up with some of her male counterparts, thanks to her rigorous training as a member of the  UP Lady Maroons about two decades ago.

But as she continued to learn the sport and the social aspect that came with it, she realized the negative implication of such ‘hirit’. “Magaling ako kasi magaling ako, hindi dahil larong lalaki ako.”

Now that she teaches basketball to college students, she makes sure that these words won’t be tolerated during her classes. “Ngayon na itinuturo ko na yung sport, pagdating sa klase ko, bawal na bawal sabihin yun. Magaling siya dahil nakikinig siya, dahil alam niya yung ginagawa niya. Hindi dahil larong lalaki siya,” Coach Toni says.

Coach Toni and her co-professors at the Department of Human Kinetics were influential to building UPLB’s basketball culture that’s open for both sexes. “Sobrang nakakatuwa kasi mas natatanggap na yung women’s basketball, specifically by the UPLB community. Oo, hindi tayo [UPLB Lady Maroons] televised, pero ramdam na ramdam noong team na bida sila kapag maganda yung performance nila.”

For her and the female players in the UPLB community, basketball is more than just a sport. It’s a way to empower women. “Ngayon, ramdam na ramdam ko yung women empowerment through women’s basketball. That’s something that I’m really, really happy about,” Coach Toni happily exclaims.

On gender gap in basketball and elevating the sport

Coach Toni had a different story when she was at the UAAP. She played for the UP Lady Maroons from 1996 to 1998. Even back then, the disparity between the men’s and women’s basketball was evident. “Yung sa UAAP, siyempre pagdating sa crowd, mas marami sa men’s basketball. Mas pumupunta yung crowd doon [men’s basketball]. Usually ang nanonood sa amin, friends saka yung mga required. Sa men’s basketball, ang daming students pati alumni nandiyan.”

But it wasn’t just the difference in crowd which was noticeable. “Ang laki rin ng support ng school at alumni sa men’s basketball. Yung women’s basketball, treated as just an ordinary sport. Yung sa lalaki, televised every game, they’re always at better courts—never the same venue.”

Coach Toni admitted that the male ballers at the time played at a higher skill level compared to their female counterparts. Men’s division was filled with dunks, alley-oops, emphatic blocks, and power rebounds—plays which were not common in women’s basketball. This made the men’s division more entertaining to watch compared to women’s bracket.

However, the bigger problem at that time is something that still exists today: Sports being gendered. Basketball was for men, volleyball was for women. And so, a woman playing basketball was considered masculine, while female ballers faced ridicule and assumptions about their sexuality.

“During my time, if you play women’s basketball, automatically you’re thought of as lesbian. Judged ka, kumbaga,” says Coach Toni.

Coach Toni thinks that times have changed for women’s basketball. Female ballers are now relatively more visible compared to before. In addition, the skill level in women’s division has been improving continuously. “Kung anong nakikita mong galaw sa men’s basketball, ginagawa na ng mga babae. Flashy plays, side steps, long range shooting, power rebounds, makikita mo na yan sa women’s basketball.”

But the increase in visibility doesn’t equate to lesser stereotyping, nor does it guarantee that the exposure highlights what is most important for the athletes—their game.

Truth is, basketball is still widely considered in the country as a man’s game. Because of this, women are relegated to the side as their male counterparts are given most of the attention. UAAP and NCAA women’s basketball games are not shown on TV, while all the men’s division games are televised. At the professional level, PBA created a 3-on-3 league and a 5-on-5 women’s all-star event back in 2016 in an effort to bring the sport to the spotlight. However, the league elected to employ gendered marketing strategies for the women’s league. Players were billed in promotional materials as ‘basketball hotties’, and were discouraged from sporting ‘boy cut’ hair during games.

These problems do not exist in their own, isolated bubble. It’s part of a bigger societal problem which stems from sexism and gender roles that exist in the Philippines. In the patriarchal culture, women are expected to stay home, take care of the kids, and do tasks that are perceived as feminine. Moreover, some people place the burden on women to prevent harassment, and will be blamed if they end up being catcalled or harassed. At times, women are judged based on how they look rather than what they can bring to the table. These perceptions manifest on how women’s basketball is perceived by the audience, and marketed by the media.

For SLAM PH’s Ceej Tantengco, the way the country treats basketball is a reflection of the attitude towards women’s sport all over the world. “The gender gap in terms of publicity, sponsorships and salaries is real, and it persists even in countries where there is more support for women’s basketball such as in the USA,” she says.

For women’s basketball to flourish in the country, it needs all the exposure it can get. To do this, we can look at what the Women’s Philippine Basketball League tried to start. Back in 1998, the WPBL was an initiative to give women’s basketball a place to shine—not just on 3-on-3 format, but on full 5-on-5 games. The league lasted for two seasons before it first folded. It was revived in 2008, but was stopped after a season.

Despite the difficulties in establishing a professional women’s basketball league in the country, Coach Toni still believes that now is a high time to revive the televised 5-on-5 games, similar to what the WPBL did. The PBA could be at the forefront of this revolution.

Coach Toni thinks that established brands like Ginebra and San Miguel can help draw attention to women’s basketball. As such, placing a women’s basketball game in addition to the two men’s basketball games played at the bigger venues may be done to increase the coverage in the women’s division. “I know the focus would not be on the women’s league. But still, the PBA can bring the audience to the games, kahit gaano pa kaliit yan sa umpisa.”

But if the PBA will make another effort to bring women’s basketball to the mainstream, it must be the right kind of exposure—using gendered marketing won’t cut it. “Shrink it and pink it” in women’s sports is a thing of the past. Female athletes such as Serena Williams and Misty Copeland are being marketed based on what they bring on their respective fields and not on how they can appeal to male fans.

The league should follow suit, and recognize the fact that women can be great at basketball, too.  It’s time to veer away from selling players based on looks, and highlight female ballers’ skills on the court. Players like Ewon Arayi, Afril Bernardino and Cindy Resultay should be recognized as great basketball players simply because they are great, and not because they are ‘larong lalaki’.

Take WNBA’s ‘Watch Me Work’ campaign as an example. It highlighted the likes of Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore as great basketball players and athletes—a marketing strategy that’s commonly done for male ballers. As a result, WNBA effectively marketed its players without resorting to sexualization, or focusing on their femininity.

Coach Toni added that adding a prestige to women’s basketball competitions might convince the brands to form strong women’s teams. “Maybe the PBA can have two divisions: men’s and women’s. Then the teams can battle for a general championship. So, kung mababa yung standing ng men’s team, aasa sila sa women’s team para makabawi. Then, may prize yung mananalo, whether draft picks, shares in ticket sales, or kung ano mang maiisip ng PBA. Kapag may ganyan, gaganda ang competition sa women’s basketball. Gaganda ang exposure ng mga players.”

It might also be time to cover women’s basketball at the college level. Ceej thinks that more exposure can be given to female ballers without sacrificing the coverage of men’s basketball. “I know that men’s basketball is massive here in the Philippines…so it would be stupid to say, ‘hey, let’s cover less men’s basketball.’ But I also wish there are more opportunities to cover women’s basketball,” she says. Ceej also added that even if there’s currently less demand for media coverage of women’s sports, the agenda-setting theory of media suggests if you cover it and continuously signal that it’s important, the audience will follow.

At the end of the day, basketball is still basketball. Coach Toni thinks that in the Philippines, this sport will sell if it’s marketed right. And there’s no better marketing tool than bringing in high level of competition to the game.

Inspiring future generations of Filipina ballers

As a young girl, Tina herself spent her childhood not knowing anything about women’s basketball in the country. During her elementary years, she was forced to play another sport because there was no girls’ basketball team at her school. She thought that basketball was a sport played only by boys.

But with the rise of Perlas Pilipinas, the thought of girls playing hoops can slowly become accepted in the Philippines. The national team can play a key role in inspiring generations of women ballers to play harder and better. “Ngayon, I think Perlas is very much accepted. It’s great that they have their own name and identity. Noong panahon ko, I doubt any person outside the women’s basketball circle can name anyone from the national team. Ngayon, meron na. They can now inspire young girls,” Coach Toni proudly expressed.

But change can’t just come from one place. “Change must happen at all levels— from leagues, to media companies, to corporate sponsors, down to families and parents who encourage their daughters to try basketball,” says Ceej.

That said, educating the youth and exposing them to the idea of gender equality in basketball is a must. The youth should learn at an early age that basketball is a sport for all, that having young girls play basketball is as normal as having young boys do the same.

Tina thinks that the effort to change the culture has already gained momentum, thanks to grassroots leagues like the Manila-based Women’s Basketball League. “I see girls playing in WBL every year and the little ones never fail to entertain and wow us with their moves. Those girls are 8, 9 years old, and are pulling moves I learned only in college.”

The gender gap in women’s basketball won’t change overnight. It might take years, even decades, to build a basketball culture similar to what UPLB has. What matters now is that people continue to elevate the sport one step at a time. The hope is that sooner rather than later, these little steps will result to a bigger accomplishment—the acceptance of the society to this sport, and the change in perception to women in general.

Just like in Los Baños.

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Photos c/o PBA, FIBA, Nicole Oliver, Rousell Valdez, and UPLB Women’s Basketball Varsity Team

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