Action on the hardwood has been great so far in the PBA, but, at least for the past couple of weeks, it seems this has been overshadowed by some maneuvers and discourse off the court.
To be specific, the controversy surrounding one of the league’s marketing personnel has spurred commentary from more than a few sectors. Initially, the league did what many believed was a steep but warranted consequence — to let that person go — but then the league seemed to do a 180 when, surprisingly, this person was rehired. That, in turn, sparked statements from a couple of team owners, in particular Alaska’s Fred Uytengsu and Blackwater’s Dioceldo Sy. The comments touched on the league’s integrity, degree of professionalism, and profitability, among others.
Naturally, the PBA brass had to give their own statement on the matter, which can basically be summed up as, “The PBA is fine. We’re good.”
But… is the PBA really fine? Is the PBA really good?
I want to say yes.
In Part 1, I wrote about an alternative framework for the PBA schedule that can potentially address issues with improving the attendance and expanding/strengthening the league’s reach.
In Part 2, I will look at how Asia’s first play-for-pay league can possibly benefit from exploring the Asian market, achieve more purposeful expansion, and improve its image in terms of transparency and perceived integrity.
Let’s begin with something close to my heart. I love Asian basketball. I love seeing Gilas play against the best of the continent. I loved watching the Filipinos beat Korea in the MOA Arena in 2013. I loved watching them take it to the world’s best in Spain in 2014. I loved covering them in the 2015 Jones Cup and watching them nearly topple the Chinese in the last FIBA Asia Championship. Because I write about Asian basketball a lot, I know that this continent is just rumbling with basketball fever.
I believe the PBA can tap into that well of excitement, help Asian hoops improve even more, and profit from it as well. The league took a baby step last year when they allowed Asian imports in addition to regular imports in the 2015 Governors’ Cup. I’m not sure if everyone thought that was an unqualified success, but I certainly think it was promising enough to be given another chance. Having Asian imports adds a unique flavor to PBA teams. I believe it kinda pushes our locals to play a little harder, and it sparks the league’s potential to expand its reach beyond the current market. Fans from Mongolia? Why not? Basketball die-hards from Taiwan? Check. If we get rid of the antiquated height limit and manage to land guys like Hamed Haddadi, Oh Se-Keun, or Sani Sakakini, wouldn’t that make the league more vibrant and more palatable?
And how about more games overseas? What if Ginebra gets another Korean import and plays a couple of outings in Seoul? What if Mahindra re-contracts Jet Chang, and they get to showcase their wares at the K-Arena in Kaohsiung? The full potential of the PBA in terms of reaching the Asian market has yet to be realized, I tell you. If the league plays its cards right, we could be entertaining sponsorship packages and multimedia deals with offshore partners in the space of a couple of years. The potential payout is too good to ignore.
Another initiative that has a potentially strong payout would be purposeful expansion. By purposeful, I mean that IF the league does choose to take in more teams, they will do so with the primary objective of improving parity. The last thing the league needs is another club to come in and “take sides” between the SMC and MVP groups (Let’s not kid ourselves people. We were all taught to draw inferences and read between the lines in basic education, right?). Get teams from big local company like the SM Group, the Ayalas, the Gokongweis, Jollibee Foods Corp., or Megaworld. Easier said than done, sure, but there has to be a constant movement to be better than the status quo.
I mean, look at the league and how it facilitates player transactions. The politicking has gotten so bad that teams need third-party “intermediaries” when dealing with “sister” clubs. The PBA is also the only league I know of where players cannot return to their “old teams” after being shipped out unless they’ve played two conferences elsewhere. All these rules have been put in place because fans have become wise to how the different teams operate. Fans are smart enough to smell fishy transactions. Fans are smart enough to know when they’re being hoodwinked. It has gotten to be so bad that rule changes won’t be enough. We need more “truly independent” teams like Alaska and Rain or Shine. We need bigger players to come in and shake up the established power structure, and only more purposeful expansion can make this possible. In doing so, the league will be able to significantly address the third and final issue I will tackle: the perception that the PBA can still drastically improve its levels of transparency and integrity.
All Pinoy basketball fans have loved the PBA at one point or another. Most have also hated it for one reason or another. I loved Purefoods when they had Kenny Redfield. I loved Shell when they had the Magsanoc-Paras combo. I loved Lamont Strothers for SMB. I love how we have amazing talents and upstanding gentlemen like Jimmy Alapag. But I also hated the Fil-Sham controversy. I hated how the PBA’s best weren’t perennially representing the Philippines in the Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC – the precursor to FIBA Asia) in the 1990s and early 2000s. I hated how the league played a part in our FIBA suspension. I feel bad about how there are still whisperings of dissent when it comes to fully supporting the SBP and the Gilas Pilipinas program. I felt terribly uneasy seeing a league official go on the floor and use his pointer finger in a rather unbecoming fashion. There’s a bitter taste in my mouth whenever I remember the league’s banning of one particular writer (and then one particular import, too) and then I see them rehiring someone who was proven to have forged important, official, and formal documents.
I’m not saying these decisions are entirely wrong, but they have certainly caused rifts between the league and some of its partners and stakeholders. These decisions have surely damaged the league’s image and reputation for a good number of fans. These are examples of actions and situations of which the league has to be much more careful.
Issues like the ones I mentioned won’t necessarily drag the league down and eventually lead to it’s undoing, but issues like these definitely put a damper on the league’s growth. Perhaps if the league were handled with improved levels of transparency and integrity, it would have more than four interested teams knocking on its doors for expansion.
There really is no clear-cut solution to this kind of pickle. The most straightforward way to address it is to employ someone who has impeccable political will and has no known ties to any primary stakeholders/team owners. It’s pretty tough to find someone like that in this day and age (Even the UAAP has issues with this.), but, heck, how about getting someone from the outside? Maybe a former FIBA or NBA official who has next-to-no history with the league and any of its teams? Someone who can be absolutely, even brutally, objective when it comes to policies, rules, plans, and transactions? How about someone who isn’t even a basketball person? That’s what happened when former Japanese Football Association (JFA) head Saburo Kawabuchi was hired to fix the problems of the Japanese Basketball Association (JBA), which was suspended by FIBA in late 2014. The result? Kawabuchi put in place sweeping changes that led to the JBA’s being reinstated within a few months and the country’s national teams’ resurgence in both men’s and women’s competitions. Maybe it’s high time the PBA looks into implementing a similar framework to clean house.
The PBA remains a strong marketing platform for local brands, and its place in the firmament of Pinoy culture is still relatively secure. Still, the league cannot be caught with its pants down as the sporting landscape continues to change and the fans continue to mature. I get the feeling that a time will come when Pinoy hoop nuts will demand a whole lot more than what the current iteration of the PBA can offer, and unless the PBA takes on the bold route of change, something else may take over. – By Enzo Flojo
Follow this writer on Twitter: @hoopnut