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Gamecocks and golden eggs (Sabong Arena)

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Tambayan Sabong Talks
Genre Sabong Arena
Keywords Tambayan Sabong Talks
Article ID 00000412
The government, seeing how e-sabong soared during the pandemic now sees online cockfighting as the geese that lay the golden eggs. It wants to impose taxes on e-sabong to make the most of this age-old obsession of Filipinos. Aficionados have no qualms about taxation; it won’t stop them. Cockfighting is their diversion from everyday stressors. Likewise, ordinary folks who depend on the P50 billion sabong industry for their livelihood just want to continue earning a living. One sabong stakeholder believes that, for the poor, sabong really is more of a livelihood and pastime rather than an addictive vice. "Karamihan sa tumataya ngayon, mga mayayaman (Most of those who bet on sabong now are the rich),” says 32-year old Bryan Fuentes, a fighting cock doctor. While Jose Rizal described cockfighting as an addictive vice in his opus Noli Me Tangere, Fuentes believes this is no longer the case because sabong has evolved from the tupada (illegal cockfights) of the old days to a legitimate and professionalized industry that now attracts bets mostly from the affluent. Gambling tycoon Charlie “Atong” Ang, the country’s biggest cockpit operator, agrees. “Hindi na ito tulad ng dati. Ine-enjoy nalang siyang panoorin ng mga ordinaryong tao. (It’s not like before. Sabong is really more of a pastime),” Ang tells me in a recent interview. The 63-year-old gambling lord knows what he is talking about. He has been playing sabong since he was 12 and has seen how it has evolved from the tupadas. Growing up in Mandaluyong, Ang spent his childhood playing in the streets as young boys do — marbles, coin toss, spider battles and sabong. This was how he mastered games of chance and life in general, having learned from the streets or the school of hard knocks, he says. To strangers, Atong, tall and buffed, seems like a gangster or kingpin straight out of a neo-noir action movie. He moves around with a posse of men, travels by private chopper and, with his hoarse voice, sounds like Vito Corleone, the mafia boss in The Godfather. But he also seems like a dapper gentleman from the old school — has a firm handshake, looks you in the eye, gives a warm smile, stands up for the ladies and speaks politely to those around him. Today, Ang has 5,000 gamecocks in his breeding farms around the country. Sabong is his lifelong passion, he says. He was watching a cockfight on his phone before our interview started. It’s no surprise people now call him the Lord of the Ruweda or cockpit, in sabong parlance. Even his phone’s ringtone alert is the discordant crowing of a rooster. Ang vows to further expand and professionalize cockfighting, believing that it helps thousands of Filipinos. He has no qualms about gambling as long as it is legal. “I’m a gambling lord, but a legal one,” he says. But Ang, who rose to notoriety in 2001 when he became co-accused in former president Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial, says he just wants to continue doing legitimate business and nothing more. After all, he says, he has already learned his lessons during Estrada’s time when he was put in jail for two years, placed on house arrest in Las Vegas for five years, and on two-year probation in the country. “Nakulong na ako. Nine years ang nawala sa akin (I already know what it’s like to be imprisoned. I lost nine years of my life),” Ang says. Animal rights activists have been calling for a ban on sabong. However, only the respective local government units can decide on sabong under Republic Act No. 7160 of 1991. It is unlikely that lawmakers will pass a law banning it because they will lose the support of local executives whose territories earn from sabong, industry sources said. Instead, Congress is simply looking to tax e-sabong’s digital economy to raise revenues for the government. House Bill No. 8065, filed by Rep. Joey Salceda and approved by the House of Representatives last year, seeks to impose a five percent tax on gross gaming receipts from off site betting activities on duly licensed cockfights. The proposed measure would raise at least P1.2 billion in e-sabong taxes yearly. In 2019, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was able to collect only P13.7 million in taxes from cockpits, Salceda said. Operators like Ang can afford the new taxes. A single fight can generate up to P2 million in online bets; that’s P600 million for 300 fights a day. The amount, less payouts, is divided between the operator and agent; the rest goes to overhead costs. Ang has no qualms about taxation, promising to deliver at least P1 billion in tax revenues from e-sabong yearly. However, at the end of the day, authorities should make sure the funds collected from this new cash cow would, indeed, go to social services, health, and education because this would help address the reasons why, in the first place, some desperate Filipinos leave their fate to chance.

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