The campaign is a throwback to the US military’s famous ‘We want you’ recruitment pitch. Only, the life-size cutout photo is not of Uncle Sam but of a statuesque volleyball player clad in tight-fitting jersey and shorts and with a ball in hand, calling people’s attention to a shot at a college varsity career.
“Free! College Education,” the announcement screams out in big white letters against a red backdrop.
While rival schools mostly scour high school campuses and far-flung provinces in search of talent for its varsity sports teams, National University’s novel recruitment program begins at the entrances of more than 60 supermarkets owned by the Sy family, which also happens to be the owner of the school located in Sampaloc, Manila.
NU’s recruitment materials are displayed prominently in most SM malls and supermarkets nationwide. It calls out to women “at least 5’10 in height, a high school graduate and from 16 to 20 years old" to join the school’s varsity program, with the lure of free college education and other perks.
Interested applicants need only to “inquire with the store manager,” the poster read.
According to NU sports officials, the unique talent search was a brainchild of SM Supermarkets head Herbert Sy, one of the scions of the empire of taipan Henry Sy, who broached the idea of using the wide network of SM stores to help revive the school’s long-dormant varsity program.
“It was (Herbert’s) way of contributing to the NU cause,” said the university’s women’s basketball coach Patrick Aquino. The SM Group of Companies acquired controlling ownership of NU in 2008.
And if varsity prospects failed to notice the photo cutout that greets shoppers at the entrances of SM stores, leave it to the mall’s large brigade of sales ladies, cashiers and managers to take over the recruitment process.
“The recruitment actually extends well into the aisles of the supermarket or at the counters. If an SM employee spots you to be tall and at about 16 to 20 years old, they will approach you and inform you about the athletic scholarship on offer at NU and refer you to the store manager,” he said.
After consulting with the store manager, the prospective student-athlete gets a referral to Aquino or women's volleyball coach Francis Vicente who will then assess the applicants’ skills.
Judging from the boost the school’s sports program has enjoyed so far, a lot of potential athletes from among SM’s wide clientele of shoppers are clearly buying into the idea.
Aquino told Spin.ph that trying to beat top schools for prized prospects is a tall order. But thanks to the supermarket recruitment scheme, which has been going on for over a year, the Bulldogs’ basketball and volleyball programs have been blessed with a surplus of tall players to choose from.
“Our recruitment efforts were vastly improved because of the supermarket exposure. We now have a wider network,” Aquino said as he noted that, for this coming season alone, he had entertained “a good number of applicants referred by store managers.”
And from that list of “supermarket applicants," Aquino said he has trimmed down the list to five who will join the regular roster of the Lady Bulldogs in the coming UAAP season.
“So many came and they’re all tall. But we came to pick only five,” he said.
Among those who survived the cut, Aquino said, was a 6-foot-3 Fil-Australian named Gladys Ross, who was a referral from SM Clark in Angeles City.
“That’s why there are times when I couldn’t help but refer to them based on the branches of SM stores that made the referrals. Like she’s from SM San Fernando or SM San Lazaro. That’s how extensive it has been,” said Aquino with a chuckle.
Aquino also volunteered that the women’s volleyball team of Vicente has actually attracted more applicants, given that the sport has more female enthusiasts.
“They have a lot of tall players now because of the new recruitment scheme,” he said. “I believe there were a lot more walk-in applicants.”
He singled out a third-year high school player, Jaja Santiago, who stands 6-foot-2.
NU’s innovative recruitment model has, believe it or not, even attracted the interest of former and current ramp/ commercial models as well as former beauty contestants. Aquino said that was not a surprise, considering the height limit pegged by the announcement was at 5-10.
He cited the case of former Binibining Pilipinas first runner-up Kaye Moll, who walked in during a tryout but failed to make the grade.
Then there’s 5-foot-9 Krissia Aldave, a recent Miss Earth contestant, who is listed as a regular in the Lady Bulldogs’ lineup.
According to Aquino, a former University of the Philippines Maroon, prospects who get into the NU scholarship program are also given free board and lodging. “But more importantly, after they graduate, they have the option to go straight to work for any company under the SM Group,” he said.
While NU’s men’s basketball team has become competitive enough to hope for its first title since 1954 after beating out other schools for reigning league MVP Bobby Ray Parks, Aquino believes their own recruitment scheme, unorthodox yet very practical, would soon bear fruit on the court.
“We hope to get into the Final Four with the help of recruitment schemes like this. We have been improving these last two years and, who knows? We might be contending for the championship any time soon,” said Aquino.
With the backing of SM malls and an army of sales people/recruiters roaming the most frequented places in this part of the world, that may be more than just wishful thinking on Aquino’s part.