Making the PBA a better brand again

Recently, sister teams TNT Tropang Giga, finalists in the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup, and NLEX Road Warriors forged a trade with Blackwater Bossing as the third party, featuring Gilas Pilipinas player and up-and-coming star Calvin Oftana and reliable big man Raul Soyud of NLEX going to TNT. In return, NLEX secured the services of 2022 top pick Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser and two second round picks while the Dioceldo Sy-owned franchise acquired ace forward Troy Rosario and shooter Gab Banal. This deal was approved by the PBA Commissioner’s Office on Sept. 19.

That same day, sister teams San Miguel Beermen, the champions of the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup, and Barangay Ginebra Kings agreed to a trade with NorthPort Batang Pier as the third party, featuring Gilas player and up-and-coming star Jamie Malonzo of Northport and shooter Von Pessumal of SMB going to Ginebra. In return, SMB will get Northport’s 2024 and 2025 second round picks while the Batang Pier will secure the services of Arvin Tolentino, Jeff Chan, Kent Salado, Prince Caperal and Ginebra’s first round pick next season. This deal was approved by the Commissioner’s Office on Sept. 20. 

A closer look at the two transactions would reveal one similarity – the rich becoming richer. It’s not a coincidence that the biggest names in these deals – Oftana and Malonzo – are going to marquee teams while the cellar dwelling Batang Pier and Bossings will be left with players who are not even part of their former team’s starting unit. Well, perhaps Rosario, who unfortunately, underwhelmed in the Philippine Cup Finals. But there’s a caveat: Rosario will be on his seventh season next year, making him an unrestricted free agent once his contract expires. It won’t be surprising to see Rosario signing up with another team once his original TNT contract assumed by Blackwater is over. 

And this is exactly the reason why the PBA is a sinking ship. And the reason why they’re getting criticized, alongside the SBP, for their questionable moves.

The PBA’s popularity is waning not because international leagues are pirating our young players or the PBA’s established stars. It’s sinking because the brand is depreciating, the credibility is shot, and the leaders don’t hear what the fans are saying. 

The key to regaining success is to build a very good product, something the PBA had back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. It didn’t matter that during a spell back in the mid- to late 80’s, there were only six franchises playing in the league. Quite paradoxically, it was during this same period when the league experienced huge success in terms of advertising, TV ratings and full house venue capacity. They not only had a strong brand, but they also capitalized on making the brand reach the masses. The Sonny Jaworski-Mon Fernandez feud, the entry of the NCC players, the arrival of the new breed of PBA stars led by Alvin Patrimonio and Benjie Paras, the jockeying for supremacy between the veterans and the young turks, and the incredible wealth of talent from the import cast were just some of the side stories the PBA built on to endear the league with the masses. 

Calvin Oftana is off the the TNT Tropang Giga. (PBA Media Bureau)

The PBA doesn’t need to have 12 or 30 teams to bring the glamour back. But it’ll help if all these teams would have equal chances of winning the championship.

The PBA needs to make the games more exciting and more competitive, with each team having a solid core base of followers. TNT, a multi-titled, 25-year-old team, arguably has less fans than Converge, a team that’s not even one season old. If you allow only a couple of teams to dominate the league, even with supposed efforts to make the weaker teams stronger via the draft, credibility is questioned. Worse if they see the best players of the weaker teams eventually getting traded to the elite ones, further widening the parity gap.

The PBA did well in the ’70s because the governors were the team owners themselves. The likes of Floro, Silverio, Euyang, Elizalde, Coseteng and Concepcion were directly involved in the day-to-day functions of their teams. But they all shared the same vision – to see Asia’s first play for pay league become a success. As such, personal and corporate interests were set aside for the greater purpose – the league itself. 

Sure, Crispa and Toyota formed a duopoly, gobbling up 22 of the first 29 PBA titles. Other teams couldn’t match the passion and interest of the Floros and Silverios in forming a championship-laden team. But the PBA, under the able stewardship of Leo Prieto, made sure the others had equal chances of winning. Successful teams, particularly the Redmanizers and the Tamaraws, were only allowed to field one import at a time in a two-import conference format. The mid-tier teams were allowed to field both their imports, with one of those reinforcements having a height limit of 6’6, while the lower-tier teams were allowed to field both imports of unlimited height simultaneously. 

In the All-Filipino, weaker franchises were allowed to field in an import. Mariwasa had Big Billy Robinson while Carrier suited up Israel “Cisco” Oliver, in order to stay competitive.

As such, we saw Mariwasa being the first team outside Crispa and Toyota to crack the PBA Finals in the 1977 All Filipino and U/Tex being the first team to win a PBA title outside of Crispa and Toyota by fielding Byron “Snake Jones” and Glenn McDonald in the 1978 Open Conference against the Redmanizers. Then of course, Royal Tru Orange collaring the 1979 Open at the expense of the Tamaraws as they brought in Larry Pounds and NBA veteran Otto Moore. 

The PBA has struggled over the past couple of years trying to rekindle its past glory. But fans have become more discerning, even critical. They can spot a lopsided trade from afar. There’s a reason why half of the PBA teams roster do not even have a solid fan base. And why it’s almost paramount for the PBA to have Ginebra in the playoffs every conference. 

The league officials don’t have to look far back. As mentioned, when there were only six teams from 1987 to 1989, the PBA was the biggest show in town. In 1990, two soda companies, Pop Cola of the Concepcions and Pepsi of the Lorenzos, both joined the PBA, a testament to the success of the league as a primary marketing showcase. Why was it successful? 

From 1990 to 1992, seven of the eight PBA franchises won at least one title. Fans came to watch the games without any inkling who will win the game on hand. Games were being televised live on free television whereas before in the mid-‘80s the first game was aired on a delayed telecast. It didn’t matter if Ginebra was playing in the first or second game or not playing at all – the ULTRA was packed. There was unpredictability – Shell couldn’t stave off Purefoods’ interior defense, but would win its next game against a crack Presto team. That same Presto team would then beat Purefoods. 

There was genuine parity. While there were sister teams in San Miguel and Ginebra, they didn’t act like one and seemed to hate each other, especially during the Jaworski vs. Guidaben period, which later morphed into the more celebrated Jaworski-Fernandez feud. Shell and Purefoods were also sister teams under the Ayala group but the Paras vs. Patrimonio/Codiñera rivalry was riveting, paving the wayforo more than a decade of individual rivalry that started in the 1989 MVP race. Presto may have looked to be a tired, beat up, team of grizzled, has been veterans, but when the chips were down yet the stakes were high, they got their acts together and ended up winning the 1990 All Filipino crown.

As the PBA nears its 50th season, one wonders if they can finally possess the formula that will bring them to greater heights. The NBA has kept itself relevant and popular by keeping up with the changing times. The PBA hasn’t done that – they can’t even put up a decent website with a complete list of statistics of all their past and present players. 

But what matters most is the brand. And a strong brand requires parity that can excite fans every time. A brand where all 12 teams have almost equal chances of winning. A brand where the league would give concessions to weaker teams to allow them to stay competitive. A brand that would listen to its consumers – its fans – and not the whims and caprices of the powers-that-be.


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