So many empty seats? (c) Rappler

Some may say that basketball is a birthright of Filipinos, whether they play it or simply enjoy watching it. We may not excel in other major sports like football, baseball, volleyball or cricket, our love for the game would never be extinguished. Case in point is the massive support of overseas Filipinos wherever our national team, Gilas Pilipinas, plays. With that in mind, it is already a given that no one should mess up with our de-facto “national sport” (move over sipa, it’s sepak takraw in Malay).

Historical Background

Before there was the first professional basketball league in Asia (said to be the 2nd oldest league in the world after the National Basketball Association), the Philippines has already been playing the sport both domestically and internationally. In fact, we established the oldest collegiate league in the country patterned after the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the USA and “semi-professional” ball clubs have already been playing in the PBA’s forerunner, the Manila Inter-Commercial Athletic Association (MICAA). Our national team has placed 5th in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin (still the best finish for any Asian team, beat that China) and won the bronze medal in the 1954 FIBA World Basketball Championship (now World Cup) behind the USA and host country Brazil.

Our winning pedigree has always been there but with the establishment of the PBA in the 1975. After that promising debut in Berlin, our national team last played in the Olympics 36 years later in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany! After hosting the FIBA World Championship in 1978, we have never qualified to the tournament until in 2014 when we placed 2nd in the FIBA Asia Championship (now, FIBA Asia Cup). The PBA is still in nostalgia mode deluding themselves as the gold standard of basketball in Asia and stuck to the same old format, same old way of running things and the same old way of basketball patronage. We are now living in a globalized world and more “non-traditional basketball” playing countries are establishing their own professional leagues better and even almost at-par with our good-old PBA.

The PBA may have survived its biggest challenge from the ill-fated rival Metropolitan Basketball Association from 1998 to 2002 with the latter’s introduction of a regional home-away team format, new rules and even total entertainment extravaganza, the former had managed to pull the rug and poach all the MBA’s star players into its fold. The rival league eventually folded but the PBA was shaken to its core so that the massive Fil-Sham controversy have resulted in the expulsion of these fake Fil-foreigners so that trust in the PBA leadership has dropped to an all-time low. Succeeding commissioners who took over the league have failed to resurrect it to its old glory due to the rise of sister teams, farm teams, player hoardings, withholding of star players for national team duties and alleged rigged game results in ever-talked about #SagipKapamilya and #AlagangKapatid matchups of sister teams.

Can the PBA meet the challenge of the changing times and growing clamor for change by fans? Is it time for the PBA to reinvent itself? Here are the reasons why they should:

1. Go Regional
It is already 2017 g#dd#m!t and budget air travel is already the norm that the 1998 MBA never had. Why would you continue to play in a basketball saturated (UAAP, NCAA, D-League and other ligang labas games) and traffic-congested metropolis when there are lots of provincial cities and town that can host a PBA team on a regular basis? The Mall of Asia Arena, the Araneta Coliseum and even the Philippine Arena is as a good as it gets when it comes to hosting the highest level of basketball possible but there is an endless list of good basketball arenas scattered around the country that can properly host it as well!

The PBA has never touched the idea of going regional and even provided explanations as to why after all these years, they never considered it at all. They played countless “Out-of-Town” games but let’s face it, it doesn’t come close to a real home-away game where there is a real “home” team. To be honest, Brgy. Ginebra is the only team that plays as a “home” team all the time! Just like a circus coming in town, some cities get to have PBA games more often than other least-popular cities. When was the last time they played in Tagbilaran, Zamboanga City, Tacloban or Baguio?

All Star Game is supposed to be full of people wanting to watch their favorite stars (c) GMA Network
PBA out of town games are usually full (c)
In the old days before social media, PBA games were filled to the brim

Most PBA teams are owned by large corporations and I’m pretty sure they can manage to afford all that travelling throughout the country. Maybe it could be the fact that most players are based in Metro Manila and all that travelling may not be a good idea for them. Perhaps, the PBA is just too conservative not to make a change. Look, the NBA (after all those years as the world’s premier basketball league) has initiated a lot of changes from the addition of new rules to the drastic Nike rebranding to make it relevant to the younger generation and global audience.

Some may say that there are lots of money to be made in Metro Manila since it is the center of commercial and financial activity of the country where the PBA teams’ mother companies are based. I get that but business wise, outside of Metro Manila is where they can grow their reach to the untapped provincial market. A PBA team may reach out to prominent local businesses, the local government unit and the local population to form an effective support base to start a regional PBA franchise. In this way, a symbiotic relationship between these groups will help grow the business brand, promote local tourism and give jobs to people – a win-win situation. The Metro Manila-based United Football League has rebranded itself and transformed into a regional football league called the Philippines Football League and soon rival basketball leagues may grow like the Countrywide Basketball League and the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League.

Aren’t you tired of cheering a team with a funny name of a product like Rain or Shine Elasto Painters? I’m sure you will like it if you were cheering for your city with pride and regionalistic fervor that your hometown is better than their home town.

Let’s look at the bigger picture, if the PBA goes regional then it will make the league more competitive as old regional rivalries will be reborn (remember the melee, fracas, coin-throwing and walk-outs of the fight-marred 1998 Southern Conference Finals between the Negros Slashers and the Cebu Gems), more homegrown talent will be discovered and increased fan engagement will raise the league’s stature. Think about it, new professional basketball leagues in our region has already adopted a regional home-away format in some shape or form. The Chinese Basketball Association, Basketball Japan League, Korean Basketball League, Vietnam Basketball Association and the pan-regional ASEAN Basketball League are full-blown home-away. The Indonesian Basketball League has a modified home-away format broken into “series” hosted by a host team just like what the MBA did in the 1998 season. A series is a double-header match day where team A play against team B in team D’s arena in the first game and team C play against team D in its arena. The series cycle continues until all teams manage to host their series. With that in mind, the PBA can transition into a regional home-away format by following the MBA/IBL format in its first season. Once the format has become viable and pick up its pace then they may go to a straight home-away format.

Let's see how the other regional leagues play?

How will a regional PBA league looks like? Check out my previous article about this hypothetical scenario.

2. True “National” League
Let’s not kid ourselves, the only prestigious trophy in the PBA is the Philippine Cup (previously known as the All-Filipino Cup, which actually a misconception since it allows Fil-Foreigners into the mix) and the two other import-reinforced titles, the Commissioner’s Cup and the Governor’s Cup lacks the stature that the former has. There is no real single season champion in the PBA unless the San Miguel Beermen completes its title sweep (Grand Slam in PBA terminology) this season to be properly called it as such.

One of the reason why the PBA is unwilling to go for a single-season format is because they want to make as much money and market exposure as possible so they subdivided the season into three tournaments called “conferences.” Get rid of the PBA “conference” format since the Philippine Cup, Commissioner’s Cup and the Governor’s Cup have no connection to each other and the win-loss record resets back to zero after each conference. To be perfectly clear, conference is supposed to be a geographical division of a league.

Scheduling conflicts can be averted if they just synchronize it with FIBA’s tournament schedules to provide more time for Gilas Pilipinas to prepare.

If you come to think of it, no one really cares if your team won 73 games in the regular season or won the Western Conference title in the NBA if you haven’t lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. At the end of the day, a true national champion is more prestigious than winning three tournament in a single year. And oh, nothing can top the 22-game winning streak of the Manila Metrostars enroute to the 1999 MBA title!

3. Open Up
The PBA remains a closed league fueled by patronage politics and double-standard policies that has further eroded its prestige and stature in the eyes of its fans and outside observers alike. One of the issues is the classification of who can be a “local” and who can be an “import” in the PBA. Everyone goes to the draft to be selected by teams but a prospect must play in the PBA D-League, ABL and local collegiate leagues (preferably UAAP and NCAA) or got a Gilas call-up first before becoming an eligible draft candidate. It is difficult for an outsider (someone from the province or overseas who have not made a “name” in the eyes of PBA scouts) to be drafted in the PBA if they don’t go through that process.

I know racism is a heavy-handed word and I’m not accusing them in any way that they are but the thing is, there is a racial classification as to who can be a local, a Fil-foreigner and a foreign import in the PBA because there is a big distinction of these groups at the end of the day. Both local and Fil-foreigners can play all season long but I understand that there is an existing cap for Fil-foreigners for each team. To make it more complicated, the Fil-foreigner classification is further subdivided into: (1) homegrown Fil-foreigner like the case of Calvin Abueva (Sweeney), Jason Castro (William), Gaby Espinas and Ping Exciminiano so these guys are “exempted” from the Fil-Foreigner cap since they were born here; (2) foreign-born Filipinos like the case of Jimmy Alapag, Jayjay Helterbrand, Mark Caguioa and Alex Cabagnot are technically Fil-foreigners since they were born or grew up abroad but they are not covered in the Fil-foreigner cap since both their parents are Filipinos; and (3) foreign-born Fil-foreigners like the case of Gabe Norwood, Stanley Pringle, Joe Devance and Moala Tautuaa are covered by the cap. Meanwhile, foreigners/non-Filipinos can only play as imports in the Commissioner’s Cup and Governor’s Cup as long as they meet the height-restrictions. To explain it further, foreigners born in the Philippines (with both foreign parents) can only play in the PBA as import like the case of 1999 MBA MVP and current Alaska Aces coach Alex Compton. Our citizenship law follows jus sanguinis (by blood) and not jus soli (by place of birth). In the case of naturalized Filipinos like Marcus Douthit and Andray Blatche, they are not allowed to play in the PBA as locals and can only play as imports.

Whatever the reasons (double standard or not), it has created barriers to entry to would-be PBA players because protectionism hampers the growth of the PBA. Height restrictions of imports have made it difficult to get quality imports like the league used to have. No more Billy Ray “Black Superman” Bates who can dazzle the crowd or Tony “The Hurricane” Harris who can score 105 points!

Maybe the PBA is just protectionist enough for its own good to open up and even allow foreigners to play in the league on a regular basis. Some leagues like the Thailand Basketball League have even allowed guest teams to play in their league. The ABL allows team to have players of different nationalities with so-called heritage and world imports.

Abolishing the height restriction of imports will allow teams to get mobile Euro bigs and athletic, long-wingspot African imports to force our local big guys like Junmar Fajardo, Greg Slaughter and even Japeth Aguilar to adopt and change their game. Other players will be forced to change positions to be able to keep up with the opposition. In this way, it will create a basketball revolution wherein we can see a 6’9” point-forward in the future.

4. Rebalance Teams
Another contentious issue that is still hampering the growth of the non-SMC/MVP teams is the lack of league parity. We all know that KIA Picanto, Phoenix Fuel Masters and Blackwater Elite will never win a PBA title. Many teams have come and go without winning anything and that doesn’t go well with other teams who think that sister teams get unfavorable advantage over them. And of course, it is impossible to prove that there is what you called “luto” or “malakas sa itaas.”

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that both the SMC and MVP camps are in a Cold War of some sorts. Both teams have three teams each and they will do whatever it takes to win over the other to the point of hoarding the best possible players in the PBA for themselves leaving the crumbs to the other teams. Lopsided trades in exchange for star players and even possible top draft picks happened all the time. There is a growing imbalance that the weaker teams become even weaker with fringe players and journeymen in their roster. Even if they get a good import, it is all apparent that the talent gap is so wide that an “all-Filipino” San Miguel Beermen can beat any lower-tier team with relative ease.

Sometimes, there are blown-up games that end up close in the final score sheet and its baffling to see that a team blew up leads like it’s given away just to create more drama in the game. It has come to a point that when the camera zooms out late in the fourth quarter and the arena is near half-empty and lifeless as hell. Is this the image that PBA wants the world to see?

In order to discourage hoarding of players, the league should institute a salary cap or luxury tax so that weaker teams have a chance to compete.

Sure no team wants to lose but I don’t understand why some team make dumb decisions like player selection (drafting boxer Manny Pacquiao), imbalance trades and sister team giveaways.

5. Domestic Expansion
There are about 50 basketball players join the PBA Draft year after year yet a very small fraction of them gets drafted and few get to play. Some may not even last for two seasons and a new guy gets your roster spot. The reason, we have so much talent but there are so many teams to play for that is why some opt to play longer in college, some play in so-called “ligang labas” (underground basketball leagues), some are lucky enough to play as imports overseas, and sadly, some give up the sport for good for real office jobs.

I understand it would not be viable to add more teams if the PBA remains Manila-based because of the highly-saturated basketball market. This is one reason why the PBA must adopt a home-away format in order to spread out the teams to the countryside.

We also forgot the addition of the women's league like China, Japan, South Korea and even Thailand. Blackwater owner Dioceldo Sy, who sponsored the Ever Bilena team in the Women's Philippine Basketball League in the 90's, was said to be open to the idea of having a Women's Philippine Basketball Association. I haven't heard that plan ever since.

It is also important that we should have our own 3x3 basketball league and South Korea and Malaysia is already starting their own. Interestingly, Indonesia is the highest-ranked 3x3 team in the ASEAN.

6. Regional Growth
Despite its flaws and shortcomings, the PBA is still a prestigious league and some countries look up to the PBA as inspiration. Maybe it’s time for the PBA to expand its influence by playing more overseas games in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Maybe participate more in regional basketball tournaments to expand its market reach.

I would love to see San Miguel Beermen play in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup with the likes of CBA teams like Xinjiang Flying Tigers, KBL teams like the Seoul Samsung Thunders, and SBL teams like the Fubon Braves. Allow interleague exhibition games with ASEAN neighbors with the TBL, IBL, and VBA.

Most of the new leagues are open to adopt new ideas and perhaps the PBA should take that into consideration. The IBL has the most active social media presence of all new leagues in the region. The VBA has an active fan following in their games since Vietnam has a very young population. The TBL is contemplating of going home-away in the future and may probably allow Cambodia to field their own team with their Cam-Ams in the mix. Malaysia is resurrecting its professional league with the inclusion of a Filipino guest team Mindanao Aguilas.

What are other things that the PBA should take into consideration if it did reinvent itself?

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{picture#} JP Canonigo is a historian, professional blogger and copywriter, online content specialist, copywriter, video game junkie, sports fanatic and jack-of-all trades. {facebook#} {twitter#} {google#}
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