MANILA, Philippines -- Choco Mucho star Kat Tolentino was admittedly shocked at the social media response to their matches in the Premier Volleyball League's (PVL) bubble in Ilocos Norte during the recent Open Conference.
While fans were not allowed to be physically present at the PCV Socio-Civic and Cultural Center in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte, they made plenty of noise online. PVL-related topics trended on social media during every match day, and the Flying Titans were particularly popular among volleyball fans.
"Actually, we were all kind of shocked that there were that many viewers," said Tolentino during a recent press conference. "I guess it's just a testament to how big the volleyball audience is and how much it's been growing the past few years."
During the most high-profile games of the season -- such as Choco Mucho's elimination round game against Creamline -- over 100,000 fans watched via the league's live streaming partner.
"It's definitely really nice to hear that and nice to see how, even though we're in the middle of the pandemic, people are still wanting to watch volleyball," said Tolentino, who helped the Flying Titans reach the Final 4 and won Best Opposite Spiker honors.
"The fact that so many people are willing to watch, and willing to stream, just goes to show how important volleyball is to them. So I'm thankful to all the fans and all the supporters who continue to support volleyball," she added.
Yet as grateful as Tolentino was to see the support of fans online, there's still nothing quite like hearing them cheer in person.
During her collegiate career with Ateneo de Manila University, Tolentino had played in front of large audiences in some of the biggest venue in the country, and it's an experience that she can't wait to have again.
"It's been so long since I played in like a stadium or like with a lot of people, and I kind of forget how I played, or that feeling," admitted Tolentino. "But I think of course any athlete would pick wanting to play with a lot of people watching, or a big audience."
"It kind of separates it from just feeling like a practice, or a tune-up game or a scrimmage," she noted.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only professional sports are allowed to take place. Pro leagues such as the PBA, the PVL, and the Philippines Football League (PFL) have been making use of "bubbles" to hold their tournaments, in an effort to curb a coronavirus outbreak.
Fans have not been allowed to physically attend sporting events since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Tolentino was pleased with the set-up in the PVL bubble, where the teams stayed at the Fort Ilocandia Resort and traveled some distance to the game venue.
"It was set up nicely," she said. "But the part of having people around you and having that loud stadium is also what makes being an athlete, a professional athlete, such a blessing."
"Because not many people can experience that. So for me, I think I would, of course, want to go back to playing in that stadium," she added.
There's no assurance that fans will be allowed to watch in the venue when the PVL returns in 2022. League president Ricky Palou has already indicated that they are likely to stick to the bubble set-up.
Tolentino, in the meantime, said she will continue to maintain her conditioning and fitness even though there will be no more volleyball tournaments for Choco Mucho for the rest of the year.
"Since we've been in this pandemic for so long, a lot of the athletes have adjusted, and learned how to do at-home workouts. I'm actually really used to it," she said. "Of course, with Choco Mucho, we're still gonna be doing Zoom trainings and staying conditioned, because I think that's one of the most important parts for all the athletes, to just stay conditioned."
"The skills are gonna always be there, and I think that's what I'm gonna be focusing on until the next conference," she added.