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Official Review by Chuck Utech, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
If you like aggressive, physical basketball, The Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) is for you. Here is a quick primer. The PBA played its first game in 1975 and is the first professional basketball league in Asia, and second oldest in the world, behind the NBA. The PBA features 10 teams currently. Rules are a mix of NBA and international. A season is comprised of three "conferences" called the Philippine Cup, Commissioner's Cup, and Governors' Cup. Winning all conferences in a given season is called a "Grand Slam." Each conference has particular roster requirements and ends in a play-off with a champion. The Philippine Cup rosters are comprised of players of Filipino descent. This Cup is widely thought of as the most prestigious of the three.
For the Commissioner's Cup, the ninth and tenth place teams from the previous conference are allowed one import no taller than 6' 11''. The remaining teams have a 6' 9" restriction. In Governors' Cup play, the rule is 6 '5" for all teams.
The San Mig Super Coffee Mixers began play in 1988 as the Purefoods Hotdogs. Twelve championships and 12 name changes later, they are arguably the second most popular team in the PBA behind Barangay Ginebra (which owns San Mig and the San Miguel Beermen also). The Mixers are coached by Tim Cone, who is the all-time leader in championships among coaches. The Mixers have won the last three conferences and are seeking a Grand Slam.
Unlike basketball in the United States, there are no home arenas. There are two main facilities that host PBA games, the Smart Araneta Coliseum (site of the Thrilla in Manilla) and The Mall of Asia Arena (MOA). In times where Smart Araneta and MOA are busy, PhilSports Arena and Cuneta Astrodome are used instead.
With a groundbreaking in 1991 and completion in 1993, the Cuneta Astrodome (named after past public official Enrique Cuneta) regularly hosted PBA games from 1993-1998 and ever since 2000. Although it is a substitute facility, it has a proud history and has held events such as WWE, political and evangelical gatherings, musical concerts, and has served as a venue for the Southeast Asia Games. It underwent a renovation in 2006. Cuneta is showing some wear and tear over the last 20 plus years, but it still is a solid venue for an event.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Traditional concession stands do not exist. Instead, vendors seek you out peddling hot dogs, popcorn, chips, bottles of soda, and bottled water. It is easy to know where the vendors are-- instead of a traditional bellowing of "Hot dogs! Pop Corn! Coca-Cola!" they simply make a noise with their mouths almost like a duck call. It's a very effective technique.
The cost is reasonable. A hot dog served with customary mayonnaise and ketchup is 50 PHP, a large tub of cheese popcorn is 75 PHP. A large bag of chips is 50 PHP as is a 16 ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. A 12 ounce bottle of water is 25 PHP. Currently the exchange rate is around 43 PHP to the USD.
Prices are fine, especially when factoring in the convenience of so many vendors eager to assist. The menu is limited, but the hot dog is very good. There are no beer sales inside. Walking in, signs are posted prohibiting bringing in outside beverage or food.
Two main gates allow access into the Astrodome. It essentially has three levels for seating: Patron, Box, and Gallery. Each gate is then divided to be level specific and there isn't easy access in between the levels. The Patron seats include VIP and lower box seats. Box seats were part of the 2006 renovation and are fairly comfortable. They are a little small, especially with the drink holders, but okay. When buying tickets there on the day of the game, the agent does not allow for choice of seat. They just ask what level and give the appropriate ticket for the level requested.
I recommend sitting in the box seats. The gallery seating does allow for the lowest price at 110 PHP, but the view from the first few rows of bleachers are obstructed somewhat by a metal fence that separates the box seats from the Gallery.
The Cuneta Astrodome does have a central, overhanging scoreboard along with projection screens up in the gallery that display the game action. The main scoreboard has a rather manual, antiquated system of displaying the numbers of the participants. It then uses a colored light to denote if they are in the game, and a different color to denote how many fouls they have.
Music during the game is a standard instrumental beat that is played at all venues in The Philippines. Popular music is played during breaks and intermissions. Because the PBA does not play more than a doubleheader in any night, the crew for all venues is mainly the same. Both teams are announced as "Your" team.
Inside Cuneta, the announcer is very well understood. He speaks English nearly throughout except when asking for everyone to rise for the National Anthem. Although fan support may be lopsided, the announcer does a great job of hyping big plays for both teams. "Henry Walker for THREEEEE!"
Sound is distributed well in the Cuneta Astrodome, which is good, because even during roars from the crowd, the announcer can make his call. During intermissions a team of three guys appear on the court and shoot t-shirts into the crowd with a slingshot. I appreciate that they shoot those high into the cheap seats. At halftime, one of those fellas sports a harness with backboard on hoop on top and they pass around a small ball to fans to shoot. Made baskets win a prize... a two day supply of Vitamin C. In addition, they have a game where two contestants are at mid court, attached to a bungee cord. The goal is to advance to their respective hoop, dragging the other along, and make a basket. That is very entertaining.
Located near Manila Bay, Cuneta Astrodome sits in a commercial district. It is about a mile south of the American Embassy, also located on Roxas Blvd. I don't recommend much travel around the area on foot, especially by yourself.
Visitors should be mindful as there are a plethora of panhandlers, mainly women and children, who are not shy to ask for handouts.
Although it is called the Cuneta Astrodome, it is not a dome. It is a rectangular three-story building that looks more like a warehouse than a venue that hosts world class events. When you arrive, you may have no idea that you are actually there as the name cannot be seen from Roxas Blvd.
On the outside of the dome, there is a post office, and a few restaurants. They feature cheeseburgers for 35 PHP (buy one get one free) as well as chicken and hot dogs. There are about a dozen street vendors immediately outside. They have a wide variety. Dimsum, chips, sweet corn and barbecue, are joined by local delicacies like quail eggs and balut. Balut is a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. Many locals grab a balut egg before entering the dome for the protein they need to get through the game.
I really do not know if I have enough superlatives to describe the PBA fans. They are supportive, smart, and quite vocal. The fan experience alone is well worth the price of admission. It is very enjoyable.
There are two main chants. "D-Fense!" and "Laban San Mig!" that the fans use as a go San Mig type of cheer. When a team makes a big shot, fans from that squad will hold up a jersey or handmade banner (ranging from poster board and magic marker to a fancy, stitched felt sign) of the player. Same with a great steal or block. Most of the "super" fans are behind the respective hoops. They are quite mindful to not keep the sign up too long and impede the view of the spectator behind them. Even from outside the area, you'll have no problem hearing the loud cheers ebbing and flowing with each play.
Cuneta Astrodome is easy to get to, whether by taxi, bus, or jeepney, but it is located on the western side of Metro Manila. A 45-60 minute taxi ride is approximately 300 PHP. There are bus and jeepney stops as well as a railway nearby. For visitors unfamiliar with the area or travel, I recommend a taxi.
There is essentially no local street parking.
Inside the arena is somewhat handicap accessible. There are plenty of guards and security as well as assistants to make sure getting to a seat is easy.
After the game, there is not a traditional taxi stand. Using a taxi app is recommended; I got the attention of a gentleman who saw I wanted a taxi. He flagged me one immediately and got me off and on my way before a throng of people closed in.
A PBA game at Cuneta is enjoyable. I sat in the middle price range of seats (410 PHP for a doubleheader) and the cost of a ticket, taxi to and from, a couple hot dogs and waters was just over 1000 PHP. The entertainment level is high for the cost. There are hotels as well as casinos fairly close by so one staying in that district could go to a game for a significantly lower price.
It is disappointing that there are no programs for PBA games. Also, there are no merchandise sales at the dome. The tickets are generic. The extra star goes to the friendly staff and security. The environment is supportive, family-friendly and fun.
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