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Launch of women's league met with celebration, hope—and some guarded optimism

Launch of women's league met with celebration, hope—and some guarded optimism

The moment Afril Bernardino, Gilas Pilipinas mainstay and three-time UAAP most valuable player, heard that a women’s professional league was launched, the first thing that crossed her mind was understandable.

“I need to workout,” she thought. “I need to get back in shape.”

Bernardino is excited yes, “it’s just that I know what’s it like to expect so much,” she said.

That is why among the earliest thoughts of Rhose Montreal, the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) executive vice president, was something more grounded.

“Let’s do this right,” she told the Inquirer.

There is so much to get giddy over with the launch of the WNBL. But there is also much to worry about. The country’s female ballers deserve a playground they can call their own.

Brimming with unpolished talent and unbridled passion, the peak of a female basketball standout happens in college.

After that, “the only other choice is to make it to the national team,” said Clare Castro, who used to man the middle for Far Eastern U before backstopping the Gilas women’s squad. “There are just too many [potential] talents being wasted.”

Past failures

But several well-meaning organizations have tried to answer that challenge. They all failed eventually. And Montreal, who is no stranger to the basketball scene having served as marketing director for the Philippine Basketball Association for nine years, believes she has found a solution.

“I will not launch this league if [we] weren’t ready,” she told the Inquirer. “Yes, there were several attempts in the past. [But] I’m confident that [our team] can pull this off, [with the help of] the athletes. This is, after all, a partnership.”

And money will test that partnership. After all, financing has been the root of all past failures of women’s leagues.

“How would sponsors come in? What do they expect in return? Those are the questions that will be needing answers,” said women’s national team head coach Patrick Aquino.

“The prevailing mentality was ‘I’d rather be spending on the men’s team,’” he said. “That’s why … whenever there’s a women’s league that crops up, [I stress the] need to establish funding.”

Montreal has a few revenue streams in mind—TV and livestream sponsorships among them—and has worked out some sort of an ownership blueprint that mimics the Maharlika Pilipnas Basketball League. Teams will be privately owned and local government units will help shoulder expenses. She said the league has drawn up rules governing talent distribution and contracts.

“We want teams to distribute salaries based on experience and the [players’] ability to [perform] for [their] team,” Montreal said.

Players, teams protected

“This will be a three-way thing,” she said, explaining contracts. “[Each] team has a contract with the NBL, a team has a contract with its players, and then the players will have a contract with the [league].”

The league will furnish the Games and Amusements Board with a copy of the contracts.

“That way, we ensure the protection of the players and the teams,” Montreal added.

The WNBL hopes to field 10 teams when it takes flight in January next year. Montreal said player drafting is slated around October to give teams at least two months worth preparation time before plunging into competition.

Because of the pandemic, the league is looking to hold its landmark first season in a “bubble” environment in San Fernando, Pampanga province.

Wait and see

Even as Montreal handles the nitty-gritty to ensure the WNBL’s smooth sailing, the optimism surrounding the league’s launch is palpable—and guarded.

“I’m perhaps the happiest person right now,” said Julie Amos, a former athlete and Aquino’s deputy at National U in the UAAP and in the national squad.

“Finally, after making enough noise in the game, we have a pro league,” Amos added.

“We’ll still have to wait and see,” said Jack Animam, the former NU ace who has committed to playing overseas precisely because of the lack of opportunities in the country. “Hopefully, it could really fulfill its aim as another platform where more Filipinas can enjoy basketball.”

What’s important is the ground has been broken.

“A league helps young people … have something to look forward to,” Amos said.

But with the hope comes a lot of responsibility Montreal hopes to fulfill.

“The management is still on cloud nine,” she said. “But I’m working already.”

“We’re here now. Let’s do things right. Let’s all support the cause and the players,” Montreal added.

“This has been long overdue.”

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