A referee sheltered the chickens as they kicked each other, slamming into the air and biting the vulnerable neck. Less than a minute later, the match ended and the owner was declared the winner. The victor’s rooster lay on the loser’s corpse.
Cockfighting, is back and has become an online craze in the Philippines. After a “bloody” sport and slowly receding, the centuries-old game is now back into a huge industry across the Southeast Asian nation, raking in millions of dollars in bets every year, day and attracting a new generation of gamblers.
Fights inside the Pitmasters residence in the town of Lipa, Batangas.
The boom in betting in the Philippines, the only country in the world that accepts online betting on chicken games, has shaken traditional casino players. Games generate more monthly revenue than gambling giant Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd. and Genting Hong Kong Ltd.
While this is taboo in most Western countries, cockfighting is frowned upon in the Philippines, where matches can draw as many spectators as American baseball or rugby matches. Capitalizing on the popularity of gambling, Resorts World Manila, owned by tycoon Andrew Tan, has opened a betting zone right in its casino. Two other resort developers are also considering similar plans.
At the heart of the industry is Charlie “Atong” Ang, freestyle gymnast and “head” of Pitmasters Live, the entrepreneur’s highest-earning online cockfighting betting brand.
Team Ang broadcasts matches around the clock, averaging around 350 matches a day, and works closely with chicken farmers across the country. A digital payment platform and hundreds of dealers connect to participate in Pitmasters webcasts, place bets and share wins.
With a minimum bet of less than $2, online cockfighting is “affordable” and easy to do, and generations of players can easily switch from playing video games to betting on cockfighting.
However, the industry’s rapid growth is also a tale of shattered lives and addictions, endless battles with regulators and the backlash from international animal rights protection groups.
A cockfighting fan collects his winnings.
A senior church official from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines called online cockfighting “one of the most destructive things the government has ever permitted”. Lawmakers are investigating the disappearance of more than two dozen gamblers, prompting some to propose delegitimizing the sport until cases are resolved.
Cockfighting has a long history in the Philippines, predating the story of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who landed on the island nation’s shores more than 500 years ago.
Although illegal in much of the world, “sabong”, as the colloquial language for the game, has a large Filipino audience. Every year, crowds gather to watch the World Slasher Cup, a series of matches held over several days at an arena in the capital, Manila. The event is set up like a modern sports tournament, complete with a giant inflatable rooster and an “Eye of the Tiger”-style soundtrack.
A rooster is weighed before competition; Chicken sign; A camera operator focuses on the fight; Wounds treated after the game.
In recent years, this game has gradually become popular. Government regulations have reduced fights between spectators watching live at the venue. Usually matches with live spectators are held on Sundays and National Holidays. Cockfighting arenas have increased costs for bettors.
As the Covid-19 pandemic shut down businesses, cockfighting rink owners saw an opportunity: Why not digitize the game?
Claire Alviar, an analyst with Philstocks Financial Inc. in the Philippines, said: “Online cockfighting would not thrive today without the catalyst of the Covid 19 pandemic and the popularity of mobile games.”
Following the popularity of sports betting was the rise of Pitmasters, who almost had a monopoly on the business model. The group generates more than 700 billion pesos ($13.4 billion) in annual revenue from betting games, according to data from Ang. That’s more than double the estimated total domestic casino gaming revenue in 2019, according to Philippine Am Entertainment & Gaming Corp.
“We are the leader in sabong. We are the NBA of this sport,” said Ang, likening his brand to the National Basketball Association.
The expected return is a staggering number. The platform earns an average of 2 billion pesos – 3 billion pesos per day, according to Ang. Of that amount, 95% is given to bettors as winnings and the remaining 5% goes to Pitmasters and low-level dealers as commissions. Another 135 million pesos are paid out as monthly taxes to the state-run gaming regulator. The agency has used the money in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ang, 63, said the group’s monthly revenue was 1.5 billion pesos, a hefty sum, while Bloomberry Resorts Corp., which operates one of the country’s largest casinos, had amassed about a profit of around 10 billion pesos in 2019.
A private farm in Batangas raises and trains imported game chickens before they enter the competition.
Employees who work at Pitmasters immediately get an offer.
Within weeks of starting at Pitmasters in August 2020, a company employee said he was earning at least 3 million pesos/month, or nearly $60,000 – more than enough to buy a new car and house. After the tech giant Globe Telecom Inc. started supporting the staking process and connecting games to its platform, cutting the need for middlemen, whose salary was reduced to $2,300.
“Inviting sabong users online is easy,” said the representative who uses the pseudonym Edwin Cruz. “The outbreak of the pandemic is a great time when many Filipinos are gamblers, staying at home and bored.”
Traders are sensitive to bets
Ang has spent almost his entire life in business. As a teenager, he often visited cockfighting venues and casinos. Under former president Joseph Estrada, he worked as a consultant to the government’s gaming regulator. Ang is already serving a prison sentence for being caught gambling in Las Vegas and being involved in corruption charges.
After serving his sentence in prison, Ang tries to rebuild his life. In 2019, he put together a business plan, inspired by horse racing betting and the success of online casinos. He studied the laws governing cockfighting and persuaded the Manila government to allow him to set up cockfighting betting camps on the outskirts of the city.
When the Covid-19 pandemic caused governments to blockade countries around the world, Ang immediately took advantage of the opportunity. He started streaming matches with government support. GCash Globe Telecom and later Paymaya PLDT Inc. join to process payments.
Ang said: “There is still a lot of room in the market, my 900 cockfighting farms cover only 20% of the Philippines.”
(According to Bloomberg)
By Business and Marketing