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  • Chuck Utech

PhilSports Arena – Air21 Express

Photos by Chuck Utech, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 2.71

PhilSports Arena University of Life St Pasig, The Philippines

Year Opened: 1981 Capacity: 10,000


Rare Air

Editor’s Note: Since publishing this review, the team Air21 Express were sold and renamed the NLEX Road Warriors.

Welcome to basketball in the Philippines! The Philippine Basketball Association (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. 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.

FIBA (International Basketball Federation will crown a World Champion in August, and then current teams draft and prepare for the next three conferences.

The Air21 Express joined the PBA in 2011 and are led by 41 year old Asi Taulava, considered an all-time PBA great. He has had a very high profile career in the PBA dating back to 1999, and has been a member of several Philippine Nation squads. Taulava can easily be identified as he is one of the larger players in the league, and sports a blonde mohawk. The Express won their first play-off series in team history last conference in 2014, before being eliminated by the Super Coffee Mixers.

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 in their place.

Built in 1981, PhilSports (also known as The Ultra, and the PSC) regularly hosted PBA games from 1985-1992 and 1999-2007. Now it is relegated to a role as a substitute facility. The stadium is showing age, but as a venue needed to pinch hit from time to time, it does suffice. In 2014 it did host the deciding Game Four in the finals.

Food & Beverage 2

There are essentially no traditional concession stands inside PhilSports Arena. Instead, there are scores of vendors scouring the seats to sell hot dogs, popcorn, chips, bottles of soda and bottled water. The cost is reasonable. A hot dog with customary mayonnaise and ketchup is 50 PHP (about $1.15 in US dollars), 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.

Price is not an issue, especially with the convenience of so many vendors eager to assist fans. While the menu is limited, the hot dog is tasty. There are no beer sales inside. Walking in, signs are posted prohibiting bringing outside beverage or food into the building.

Atmosphere 3

Three main gates allow access into PhilSports. The arena essentially has three levels for seating: Patron, Box, and Gallery. Each gate is level specific and there isn’t easy access in between. The Patron seats include VIP and lower box seats. The courtside VIP seats are blue, plastic lawn chairs. The Box seats are a hard colored material that is akin to a seat used on a third grade schoolhouse desk. There are no drink holders and seats are fairly uncomfortable. The Gallery is first come, first served, bench seating. I would recommend that for a first time visitor or family. Seats in the Gallery are 125 PHP (about $2.87 US dollars).

Unlike more modern arenas, PhilSports Arena does not have a central, overhanging scoreboard. It does feature two small score indicators in opposite corners and projection screens that display the game action. Those are located in the Gallery behind each basket.

Music during the game is a standard instrumental beat. Popular music is played during breaks and intermissions. Both teams are announced as “Your” team. The announcer is very well understood. He speaks English nearly throughout except when asking for everyone to rise for the National Anthem. He also gives great explanations of referee calls (“Warning on coach Ryan Gregorio for resentment to a call”.) Another good explanation was given when a player was assessed a Flagrant Foul One. PBA rules state he must sit for three minutes of play.

Sound is very good in the PSC. During intermissions a team of three guys come out 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.

Neighborhood 1

Located in the heart of Metro Manila, PhilSports Arena sits in a fairly residential district. I would not recommend much travel around the area on foot, especially if you are by yourself. Across the street, there is a restaurant named Dinky’s that serves local barbecue. There is essentially no local street parking and no tailgating. Outside there is a vendor selling dim sum, but they were not set up to sell anything except bottles of water at the time I was there.

Fans 5

The fans are supportive, loud and knowledgeable. The fan experience is well worth the price of admission. They cheer their team, refrain from excessive abuse, and engage in friendly back and forth with the opposing squad. It is quite enjoyable.

A chant of “D-Fense” is very common. When a team makes a big shot, fans from that team will hold up a jersey or handmade banner (ranging from poster board and magic marker to a fancy, stitched felt sign) of the player. The same thing happens with a great steal or block.

Most of the “super” fans are behind the respective hoops. When buying tickets, fans are advised as to what side each team will be sitting on so they can plan accordingly. Officiating in the PBA can be sketchy. I appreciate how the fans let the coaches do the majority of the complaining. They focus on supporting their team. They are very loud and very proud all game long.

Access 2

PhilSports Arena is easy to get to, whether by taxi, bus, or jeepney and is more centrally located to allow a faster experience. A 20-30 minute taxi ride is approximately 200 PHP. There are bus and jeepney stops nearby. Jeepney is essentially a crowded public transportation system in The Philippines.

For visitors unfamiliar with the area or travel, I recommend a taxi.

Inside the arena is not handicapped accessible. There is a lack of ramps for anything outside the courtside.

Security is prevalent. One thing that is disconcerting, however, is that in the upper Gallery, there are only two main doors, located behind each hoop. The others are chained off. When I was there in a full house for the finals, leaving would have been difficult in a time of panic.

Return on Investment 5

A PBA game at PhilSports Arena is still enjoyable. I sat in the middle price range of seats (350 PHP for a doubleheader) and the cost of tickets, taxi to and from, a couple hot dogs and waters was well under 1000 PHP (about $23 US dollars). The entertainment level is high for the cost.

Extras 1

Unfortunately, there are no programs for PBA games. Also, there are no merchandise sales. The tickets are generic. The extra star goes to the friendly staff and security. It is a family friendly environment inside and the staff takes great pride in the game day presentation.

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