With rival Asian leagues circling, is the five-year college player a thing of the past in the Philippines?

After just two UAAP seasons, Carl Tamayo opted to forego his remaining eligibility and leave the UP Fighting Maroons for Japan's B.League, following the growing trend that has resulted in a decline of five-year college players in the Philippines. UAAP Media Bureau

When Kiefer Ravena was named UAAP Season 78 Most Valuable Player, not only was he the last local student-athlete to win the award, he was also the last homegrown fifth-year player. When his brother Thirdy Ravena won the third of three straight Finals MVP awards in Season 82, it was the same thing.

The past two UAAP seasons has seen just one fifth-year player -- La Salle Green Archers' Justine Baltazar -- be named to the season mythical five (UE Red Warriors' Luis Villegas was a one-and-done). Granted, the pandemic uprooted many plans, but what cannot be denied is that more and more top players are now forgoing their remaining college eligibility to turn pro in Japan or Korea.

So much has been written about PBA players and incoming rookies choosing to play in Japan or Korea. In reality, college programs are just as affected as -- or perhaps even more affected -- by this exodus of talent. Colleges used to be able to rely on a top recruit staying for the maximum five years, nowadays teams are penciling them in for a maximum of just three seasons.

"It has affected greatly the pipeline of players and recruits or the succession planning of these programs," said UP Fighting Maroons program director Bo Perasol, whose own program was hit hard by Carl Tamayo's decision to turn pro earlier this year after just two UAAP seasons. "I can speak for UP's program that we do look at talent replacements two to three years ahead. When someone leaves early, most especially the ones who are supposed to carry the burden of leadership, scoring, rebounding, etc., it dramatically changes the complexion of the team."

San Beda Red Lions program director Jude Roque agreed: "It has certainly affected college recruitment as most of the top prospects are now looking to get the opportunity to play overseas than play college basketball. Obviously, the financial benefits way outweigh the college education."

The Fighting Maroons were the first college team to lose players with remaining eligibility to Asian pro leagues after brothers Javi and Juan Gomez de Liaño signed with Japanese teams in 2021. San Beda was the second when Red Lions center Kemark Cariño followed suit a few weeks later. Then a month after that, Dwight Ramos decided to skip playing for the Ateneo Blue Eagles altogether and signed to play in Japan.

But the seeds for this basketball exodus were sown three years earlier in 2018 during a meeting in Macau attended by representatives of teams competing in the Super 8 league -- the precursor to the East Asia Super League.

"At the time, I was present in a meeting with the Korean league and the Japanese B.League," player agent PJ Pilares, who represents both Cariño and Ramos, told ESPN. "There were already talks about the Asian player quota. Of course as far as talent level, we're definitely up there within the region. It was a matter of time, really.

"I always tell this to ball clubs locally and regionally that this came into place when the Japanese B.League started the Asian eligibility quota rule. When that happened, one of the guys that made the jump was Thirdy, and then they saw the amount of exposure he was getting and team managers started to look into it because it was really making a huge impact in a good way. So there was a lot of pressure from the league office to search out more talent within the Philippines specifically."

Pilares estimates that 95% of Asian eligibility players in Japan are from the Philippines, with the number expected to stay that way or even increase in the years to come.

"I always say this. As far as the game is concerned, basketball is borderless," he explained. "So when you're given an opportunity to perform outside your home country, that should be good. There are so many pros and cons that go with it. Like I've said in the past, it's not for everyone. It's not just about talent. It's also how to stay relevant even if you're outside the Philippines."

Recalling the moment when he realized that Ramos had struck pay dirt, Pilares added: "He made a huge impact during the FIBA Asia qualifiers. That was in 2021. Fortunately he was given so much exposure. The Gilas team beat Korea. Right after that moment we started to get calls from ball clubs in Japan. At the time they were the only league that allowed it."

Ramos' success in Japan opened the floodgates even further, so much so that the Korean Basketball League decided to start recruiting Filipino ballers. After UAAP Season 84 and NCAA Season 97, Ateneo's SJ Belangel, FEU Fighting Tamaraws' RJ Abarrientos and Letran Knights' Rhenz Abando all had remaining college eligibility when they received lucrative offers from KBL clubs. All three are now performing well for their respective Korean teams. And like their Japan B.League counterparts, their presence on the court resulted in increased interest from OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) based in Korea. It's clearly a win-win-win for the players, their teams and the pro leagues.

If the trend continues, Roque expect more players to follow Tamayo's path.

"Top college prospects are now looking to play overseas after just two years playing in the UAAP or NCAA," Roque stated. "The two years' stint in college should be enough to get noticed by these Asian clubs. And so, when recruiting top prospects for college, you can expect them to stay up to only two years. You'd be lucky if they play three years."

"In the recent Philippine college basketball experience, the top college prospects can only have one or two years of being scouted before they get an offer," Perasol concurred. "Dwight Ramos got an offer even before he (got to play) for Ateneo."

For these players, it's an offer they can't refuse.

"You can't really compete with these Asian clubs because the financial benefits they offer even surpass the maximum the PBA could offer," Roque said. " All you can do is try to convince them that education is more important than monetary benefits, that having a college education is more beneficial in the long run. However, in most cases, they are likely to still choose to grab the opportunity to earn that much at a very young age.

"You can't really blame them as these opportunities are only offered to the very best, and the opportunity may not come again. So as a college recruiter, we need to simply broaden our search and have more candidates in our list. After all, each Asian pro club can only recruit one prospect, and most of them are nearly filled up."

For any college program, recruitment is a delicate balancing act. In UP's case, Perasol said they are looking at strengthening their training program for their other recruits.

"It is a challenge to deal with these new alternative leagues as we also cannot over-recruit as a program. On the other hand, we cannot prevent our student-athletes to seek greener pastures to augment their earning capabilities and take care of their families. One plan that we are seriously considering is to have a parallel training program for those who are in our pipeline where the younger players will have more playing exposure and training to fast track their maturity."

Since neither the Japanese nor Korean league has an age limit, Pilares believes that eventually they will even start targeting players fresh out of high school. He cautions, though, against this, since this new path is not for everyone.

"It could go either way. It could either motivate the student-athlete or he or she could eventually have a bigger ego that will challenge his or her growth as an athlete," cautioned Pilares. "The transition from high school to college is a very huge leap. Especially when you try the professional ranks and you haven't really made your mark at the professional level, it becomes a challenge. As much as possible I wouldn't touch high school players unless he could become the next phenomenal player."

As enticing as the offers may be, each Asian league has its own eligibility rules for the Asian quota players that limits the number of Filipino players who can be recruited. The B.League requires its Asian players to be FIBA-eligible, while the KBL requires both the player's parents to have Filipino passports. Taiwan's P-League, where Jordan Heading recently played, recently scrapped its Asian quota player and adopted a singular World Import player slot.

The rules in Japan and Korea specifically affect Fil-foreign players who aren't eligible to play for Gilas Pilipinas or who have one parent who isn't a Filipino citizen. This, in turn, means that Fil-foreign athletes are now, more than ever, a prized commodity in the college recruitment wars.

"Fil-foreign players have always been targets of top college basketball programs, usually because of their size and skills," Roque said. "But as our top homegrown players have become main prospects of Asian pro leagues, the competition to recruit Fil-foreign players has become so much stiffer. And the bigger programs with the larger treasure chests usually win the lottery. It is so difficult for a lower college basketball program to recruit a top Fil-foreign prospect. College recruitment, in general, has become so expensive over the last few years."

While he wouldn't name names, Pilares expects a few more top college players to forego their eligibility in the coming months.

"The offseason is coming up in the next three months. So this coming window could be really huge. I expect a minimum of three players and a maximum of five players to jump. There are gonna be so many changes," he predicted.

The bottom line is, competition from other Asian pro leagues is here to stay. Pilares believes the powers that be in the Philippines should learn to deal with it sooner rather than later.

"There should be a proactive approach locally, not reactive on how to go about it," said Pilares. "Of course, the talent level won't really be affected because there's so much talent. If you get affected, then maybe it's time for you to take a larger look on how to move forward as a second-longest play-for-pay league in the world to establish and make sure that there's a solid foundation in the next 10 to 20 years.

"More than people making an issue about it, I think it should be celebrated. It's a bigger platform to be on. At the same time, there should be more focus on how all these players are managed. We need to be able to get to a level where it's not just handlers but really sports agents that understand the business of basketball and the game of basketball. If we're able to do that, the level of basketball and sports in the Philippines will go up a notch."