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Seeing the bubbles

Philippine professional sports returned to action inside bubbles. PBA Images (file photo)
By Ivan Saldajeno

THE year 2020 has been a year full of challenges in the world of sports.

No thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many games were called off, even postponing the Tokyo Olympics to next year.

But in an effort to salvage the season, the NBA decided to redefine the word "bubble" as a term pertaining to a place of seclusion among teams.

To cut the long story short, the NBA bubble was too much of a huge success that it became the pattern of the other sports bubbles that popped out.

The Philippines is no exception to it as four club leagues opted to hold bubbles in various places with relatively low COVID-19 cases just to salvage their seasons.

However, each bubble had varying stories like the duration, the setup, and, most importantly, how the leagues handled COVID-19.

So I decided to assess them based on how they went.

But instead of ranking them from first to fourth (again, the varying situations would make it hard to decide which is the best especially that the NBL bubble only lasted a week), I placed them in tiers as inspired by a live internet show that rocked the online reality game community.

Here's how I observed them.

1. NBL

Playing as the hosts, the Delta ruled the NBL Finals. NBL (file photo)
Since I already mentioned the NBL earlier, why not start with it?

The NBL was already at the home stretch of its third season when COVID-19 struck.

Eventually, after getting the nod from the Games and Amusements Board, the league resumed inside a bubble that took place in San Fernando City, Pampanga.

However, the bubble only lasted for the championship series between Pampanga and La Union.

One similarity between the NBL and the NBA bubbles is that the respective host cities, San Fernando and Orlando, respectively, each have a team representing either of them.

While the Magic would get knocked out in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the Delta were in the finals, and that added motivation to them.

In the end, Pampanga made good use of the homecourt edge to clinch the NBL title, although La Union would take one game in their best-of-five series.

The thing here is that the bubble was short and the home team won it all, but in the end, no one was tested positive for COVID-19.

Verdict: High Tier (Although it was short, it was a success.)

2. PFL

United City retained the PFL title inside a bubble. PFL (file photo)
The PFL was the only non-basketball league that pushed through this year through its own bubble.

However, due to the lack of hotels in Carmona, which is more of an industrial town than a commercial one, the PFL decided to contact Seda Hotel in Sta. Rosa City to become its official bubble residence.

Note that Seda, which is inside the Nuvali complex, is 18 kilometers away from the PFF National Training Centre and is outside Cavite.

The fact that Carmona and Sta. Rosa—and Cavite and Laguna in general—have different approaches to their fight against COVID-19 made the PFF bubble an interesting one especially when news surfaced that eight people, five players from two clubs and three close contacts, were tested positive for the virus upon entering it.

A source told Dugout Philippines that the Sta. Rosa city government was heavily concerned about the preseason COVID-19 limbo, but an assurance eventually led to the season pushing through.

In the end, United City, formerly known as Ceres Negros, successfully defended the PFL title after taking care of business after just Matchday 4.

However, Kaya Iloilo denied United City of a season sweep with the latter's first loss since Aug. 8, 2018 in Bacolod.

The season was seemed unfinished after the supposed final match of the season, a showdown between Mendiola and Stallion Laguna, was called off due to stormy weather.

However, during the Professional Sports Summit by GAB on Dec. 5, PFL commissioner Coco Torre explained that both clubs agreed to call it a goalless draw, which means Stallion Laguna, a former top division champ and was even considered a preseason contender, crashed to the bottom of the league table.

No other bubble delegate was tested positive for COVID-19 in the end.

Verdict: Mid to High Tier (The PFL season nearly went in peril even before it started with the suspected cases but it bounced back mightily. The November rain just stalled the ending.)

3. PBA

How about a selfie to tell everyone that you ruled the PBA bubble? PBA Images (file photo)
Looking to finish the postponed season before Christmas, the PBA decided to push through with a compressed schedule for its bubble that saw Quest Hotel in Mabalacat as the billeting area and the Angeles University Foundation Sports and Cultural Center 11 kilometers away as the battleground.

That meant games were played daily, and with teams just returning after seven months of layoff, many observed that at least some of the PBA stars were not in their tip-top shape.

The challenge came late in October when two people, a referee and a Blackwater player, were tested positive for COVID-19.

This caused an alarm and some puzzled minds as everyone entered the bubble free from COVID-19.

While the suspected cases turned out to be false positives, it did not stop the league from postponing games.

After the surprise Halloween break, the teams returned to action in four-game playdates and morning tip-offs.

Eventually, Ginebra captured its first Philippine Cup title since 2007 after beating TNT in the finals..

The bubble remained COVID-19 free.

Verdict: Mid to High Tier (While the PBA bubble was relatively COVID-19 free and got a high grade from Bases Conversion Development Authority president Vince Dizon, whose agency manages Clark, the metropolitan area of the bubble, I believe the cramped early November schedule was a thing of concern.)

4. Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas 3x3

Manila Chooks TM just became PHP1 million richer by just taking a bubble championship. Chooks-to-Go (file photo)
Chooks-to-Go Pilipinas 3x3 probably had the closest setup to that of the NBA.

Everyone was just inside the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba for the duration of the bubble.

Because of that, everyone remained COVID-19 free.

And because they had ample time to train, the action was intense to the point that off-court drama even took place.

Manila Chooks TM, then representing Zamboanga City, won it all, pocketing PHP1 million in the process.

Verdict: High Tier (The Chooks bubble was nearly flawless.)

Bonus: Professional boxing also resumed action inside bubbles, and four fight cards in, no one contracted COVID-19.

What's next?

More bubbles are coming early next year.

First up, patterning everything after the PBA bubble, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas will host the third window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers in a bubble in Metro Angeles from Feb. 18-22.

Prior to that, Gilas Pilipinas Men will convene inside a training bubble at Inspire next month.

On the other hand, athletics will try its luck at a bubble as the Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association will set up a bubble sometime also in February ahead of the first national open for 2021, the qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics.

Also planning to hold bubbles are the PSL for its beach volleyball event, BVR (once it finally gets the GAB sanction), and even the NCAA once amateur sports events will be allowed to resume.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of Dugout Philippines.

Follow him on Twitter: @IvanSaldajeno

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