PBA: Looking in the mirror

THE GAME OF MY LIFE By Bill Velasco

Then there was silence.

The Philippine Basketball Association needs to take a deep, hard look in the mirror as it takes critical steps towards its future. Times are changing, and the league has to take another step in its evolution. But this time, the changes being demanded may not be easy. And the association will have to tread the line between perception and reality. It will take time for the latter to overtake the former.

There are a lot of perceptions that the league has to chip away at to recover some of the lost confidence of the public. The most recent trade issue, for some, crossed a line between what is acceptable and what is not. There are some possible remedies that can be borrowed from other sports, but the audience may not be ready for promotion and relegation as is practiced in football, for example.

As of now, the PBA has to live with the consequences of whatever it decides to do about the tenure of commissioner Chito Narvasa. On one hand, some believe his tenure is already up, so the league can start a new chapter. Others see the value of him staying. Generally, when a CEO of a company polarizes its board, he vacates his position, though this doesn’t happen all the time. The PBA board must decide first how it feels about his entire stay as commissioner, taking the accomplishments with the controversies, and decide which carries more weight.

Concretely, there are still other matters to be addressed, and there is no clear solution that presents itself for any of them.

There was a time when the PBA needed teams, and it allowed competing brands and multiple teams from one mother conglomerate. This gave the league a stronger base, but gradually, fans started thinking that teams with the same ownership would conspire with one another. Of course, you can’t tell corporations to divest just to appease fans, any more than you can tell them not to acquire companies that are already in the PBA in the future.

Even the rules against sister teams trading between themselves has a loophole, which has been exploited time and time again. Perhaps a moratorium of two to three years would be more effective. It would also allow any potential reactions to simmer down. After a while, fans tend to move on to the next item on the sports pages. Keeping sister teams from ending up with each other’s players in the short term will keep suspicions in check, hopefully.

Of course, team owners also want their players playing for most of the year. After all, they are being paid a lot of money for what is essentially a few hours’ work. But the conferences are still too long if you consider the weakness of some teams. Perhaps a short fourth tournament in between, involving the top four to six teams and two to four strong (emphasis on strong) foreign teams could serve as a buffer. Prize money could be staked for the champion team. Playing foreign teams also rallies patriotic fans towards the “home” teams, uniting the fan bases of local squads, at least temporarily.

The weaker teams, left on the sidelines practicing, could aspire to be included in this special event. They could also play against invited, reinforced guest teams from the Visayas and Mindanao, teams which would carry their own fans to the PBA.

Variety would hold the fans’ interest. The league could go back to past formats that would split it into two brackets, and build up anticipation for more rare confrontations between certain teams. The league could also have teams draw lots for temporary “adopted” home cities or provinces, which would vary from year to year, like invitational tennis events.

But first, the league must internally heal the public fractures, and each side must give a little for everyone to benefit. It’s the only way things will work out, sooner or later.

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