By Tito Talao
You won’t miss them if you look closely at the people behind the bench or the presidential row during Philippine Basketball Association games at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, Mall of Asia Arena or some other venue in the metropolis.
They are — many of them anyway — a ubiquitous presence at special ringside, sitting with family members, friends or office colleagues.
Their faces get flashed on the jumbotron at intervals, and team managers, coaches, players, referees, even the commissioner, glance occasionally in their direction.
To the uninitiated, they’re like everybody else. To those who know them, theirs is the hand that holds sway over everybody’s favorite Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) team.
These men are no ordinary basketball fans.
Though they claim kinship with their ballclubs, scream themselves hoarse at every blown call, roar with each basket and moan with each miss — even those who don’t watch the games live — they go through the rollercoaster of emotions triggered by dramatic victories or deflating defeats not only to savor the thrill but also for something else more tangible and less ethereal.
Basically, team owners in the PBA sit through two hours of nerve-fraying action or sleepy one-sided contests, in packed arenas or near-empty venues, to enjoy the sport and to find out whether they’ll come away before the night is over with a little piece of ROI (Return on Investment) in their pockets.
Even those who prefer to watch the games in front of their LCDs — in the office or at home away from the temptation of going ballistic over officiating and making a spectacle of themselves — are likely pumping their fists while doing a similar math as with their less hermetic peers.
The questions travel the same path in both cases.
Is the advertising vehicle they’ve chosen moving forward? Or has it stalled?
Team owners from way back — the Cosetengs, Silverios, Gokongweis, Cojuangcos, Elizaldes, Floros, among others — when nine ballclubs banded to form the PBA 40 years ago, to the present — the Pangilinans, Uytengsus, Ques and Yus, Sys, Romeros, Alvarezes and Angs — allocate for advertising purposes huge sums of money to have their products promoted.
And for decades, Asia’s first professional league delivered, keeping the cash register ringing through the epic Crispa-Toyota rivalry, the roaring Robert Jaworski-Ginebra San Miguel years, San Miguel Beer and Alaska Grand Slams, Purefoods and Tanduay eras, rise of the tempestuous Yeng Guiao-Red Bull partnership, and recently the Manila Clasico spectacle.
Fans came in droves, every day was a field day for the media, players took on bigger-than-life monikers, from the Big J, Fortune Cookie and El Presidente to Triggerman, Skywalker and Aerial Voyager, and the corporate bosses wore smiles on their faces.
For what seemed like an eternity, the PBA was the place to be when big business wants something brought to the consciousness and sold.
What better way, after all, to advertise cars, food, beverages, milk, utility services, energy drinks, banks, fuel, T-shirts, fragrance, real estate, even shipping docks, than to have their brand names spread out in newspapers and broadcast on television and radio practically seven days a week?
Then can the slow fade of the golden years of Philippine basketball, retirement of the homegrown superstars, lack of connection between the new breed of players and local-based fans, economic crunch, advent of the Internet, social media, digital livestream technology, entertainment competition, snarling traffic, spiraling prices, high cost of living, emergence of regional basketball leagues and some other component.
Slowly the spillover crowds in Big City arenas started dwindling, except during semifinal playoffs and the championship series.
The PBA still packed smaller provincial venues but fledgling leagues have begun offering stiff competition. And live action had suddenly become seemingly less appealing, its drawing power loosening its grip on the ticket-buyer.
Comparison with the NBA, which airs live on cable and free channel, was suggested as a major factor, and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao’s Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League was seen as a growing, more vibrant alternative.
PBA commissioner Willie Marcial and his marketing people lost no time digging for answers, formulating solutions to counter the apparent downtrend and making sure the product — the game itself — remains viable and the advertisers — the ballclubs — find no need to trade smiles for frowns.
As the PBA plot and scheme, though, a hard question emerges.
From where they sit — at ringside, in the office or at home — are PBA team owners still willing to put their money on the viability of the 44-year-old institution?
Businesman Dioceldo Sy, owner of the popular Ever Bilena Cosmetics and Blackwater franchise, isn’t looking elsewhere five years after the Elite were accepted as one of two expansion teams.
“Basketball is like religion in this country,” he says. “It’s sad and boring when the PBA is on off season although basketball games will always be there in the UAAP, NCAA, MPBL and so many other minor leagues and barangay tournaments.”
Declining crowds in the venues, Sy maintains, is not the result of the PBA’s waning popularity.
“Blame it on the horrendous traffic and our water problems,” he says. “Look at their houses and live stream still commands a respectable crowd watching games. For this reason, I believe it’s still one of the leading entertainments available. Being part of the league is an honor and privilege, like being a member of a Big Boys Club.
More than being an effective marketing platform, the exposure, brand recall, even brand affinity, the PBA, according to Ramon S. Ang, president and chief operating officer of San Miguel Corporation, allows SMC to promote something special.
“At this point, at least for us, being in the PBA is less about marketing and more about continuing to provide entertainment for our countrymen,” says Ang. “Basketball is a big part of Filipino culture. For many decades now, generations of fans have followed the league, their favorite teams and players. It’s a source of joy. Nakakapag-pasaya ng tao!”
He adds: “Through the PBA, we hope to bring happiness, excitement and inspiration — with a dose of healthy competition — to millions of basketball fans.”
NorthPort team owner Rep. Mikee Romero (1-Pacman Party-list) stands by the PBA’s stability and relevance.
“The PBA has been around for more than 40 years and this institution has proven itself to be one of the best marketing tools in the country,” Romero says. “With the current leadership that we have now, we believe the PBA is in good hands in the years to come.”
His endorsement notwithstanding, Romero wants to see a couple of things done.
“I hope the league will continue to find ways to bring the fans back in the game. If we have to cut ticket prices, so be it,” he says. “Also, I would like to see more competent referees man the games because officiating holds the key to the success of the league.”
Rain or Shine team owners Terry Que and Raymond Yu, speaking through longtime legal counsel and league governor Atty. Mert Mondragon, lay out some advantages of maintaining a team in the PBA.