In the Philippines, locally known as sabong, cockfighting is deemed a national pastime, with thousands upon thousands of citizens participating in it every day. The height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the health restrictions that came with it forced cockfights to cease and cockpits to close down.
However, cockfighting enthusiasts were not deterred, so the pandemic gave rise to a new craze: online cockfighting. Also referred to as e-sabong or online sabong, players watch and bet on cockfighting via online platforms, making cockfights accessible and even more widespread as one only needed a mobile phone and an internet connection to participate.
While e-sabong became a billion-dollar industry and contributed enormously to the Philippine economy throughout the pandemic, it also came at an enormous cost to the country’s citizens.
Crime levels rose severely across numerous members of society who were looking for a means to pay off their rapidly accumulating e-sabong debts. There were robberies, abductions, and even suspected murders, all reported to have occurred due to an addiction to e-sabong.
During the closure of the Philippine borders at the height of the pandemic, the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) claimed to be losing PHP 5-6 billion (approximately USD 88.5-106 million) per month. To support the industry, the Philippine government then made online gambling available to the public. Many cockfighters naturally gravitated to e-sabong as it provided them with a means of gambling and a form of culturally important entertainment.
E-sabong was incredibly attractive to players as there was no need to travel to a fighting pit physically, it was available 24/7, easily accessible online, and had a low minimum bet threshold of PHP 100 (USD 1.78). By December 2021, it was estimated that there were over 5 million e-sabong players.
A study on e-sabong found that half of e-sabong players gambled between 3 to 5 hours per day. Due to the addictive nature of e-sabong and how widespread it became, it soon caused a number of social problems, with almost all of them motivated by money. Numerous individuals rapidly fell into debt; others sold all their possessions to fuel their addiction, while others turned to crime to pay off debts.
News reports were filled with robberies committed not just by plain citizens but also by indebted police corporals. There were also reports of parents selling their children.
There were also numerous accusations against match-fixing schemes done by fowl handlers. One of the biggest cases tied to e-sabong is the disappearance of 34 individuals who were reported to have been abducted around May 2021. As of September 2022, the 34 individuals have yet to be accounted for and are presumed dead.
Then-president Rodrigo Durterte defended e-sabong, initially stating in a public address that the government made PHP 640 million (USD 11.34 million) in monthly taxes from the sport and deemed it as absolutely vital for the country’s economy. He also claimed that the money was being used to fill in the economic gaps due to COVID-19, provide universal healthcare, improve infrastructure, and boost education.
Moreover, Duterte also claimed that PHP 100 million (USD 1.76 million) of e-sabong profits was being given to the Philippine General Hospital each month to support the hospital’s operations.
However, after a report by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) regarding the social effects of e-sabong, Duterte’s defense seemed to be unjustifiable. Duterter then officially banned e-sabong on May 2022, and all license operators were immediately ordered to stop taking bets and shut down their websites.
Banks and financial institutions were also ordered to stop processing payments related to the online sport. Bettors were given 30 days to remove all money from the e-sabong accounts.
DILG’s report caused the ban as it highlighted how e-sabong caused a rise in crimes such as robbery, abductions, widespread crippling debt, and other social issues. In an address, Duterte repeated that his initial goal of defending e-sabong had been to raise money for the country’s needs. Around June, Duterte formally apologized for his prolonged defense of e-sabong and admitted that he was “very late” in realizing the negative impacts of the sport.
While e-sabong has been prohibited, cockfights in real life are legal and have resumed due to the ease of restrictions. It is an industry that is worth approximately PHP 1 billion. As sabong is only allowed in licensed cockpits and on designated days, the opportunities to gamble and become addicted are much more limited than the 24/7 ease of access that e-sabong had.
Since the election of the Philippines’ new government, the return of e-sabong has yet to be seen. Previously, the spokesman of the newly-elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. hinted that the administration may abolish e-sabong for good.