The road to PBA expansion

Jane Bracher
As the PBA mulls the possibility of expansion, Rappler's Jane Bracher mulls the pros and cons

MORE THE MERRIER? The Kia Motors Corporation and Blackwater Sports have both sent letters of intent to join the PBA as expansion teams. But will they be welcome additions?

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) played its first game in 1975. They had 9 teams then. Now, 39 years later, the PBA has 10 teams—only one more than when they first started all those decades ago.

Like any organization that has stood the test of time, the PBA also experienced its ups and downs. These days, Asia’s oldest professional basketball league is going through a tremendous resurgence as it makes its way back into the public’s main stream of consciousness. As a result, the demand for expansion has never been greater.

Rising demand 

In 2012, 71 rookies applied for the annual PBA Rookie Draft, where teams can select a new breed of young players. Of the 71 applicants, 58 were eligible and 39 rookies were selected. 

For 2013, the number of rookie hopefuls rose to 85 as the draft reached a seventh round. Only 44 rookies were drafted. Moreover, even those with contracts found themselves on the reserve list since each team is allowed to play only 14 players at any given conference.

Jens Knuttel, a former FEU Tamaraw who took time in the PBA Developmental League or D-League after graduation, was one of the 44 rookies of 2013. The 5-foot-9 guard graduated in 2010 and was the last pick by Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. He has a contract but is not lined up.

He isn’t quite here or there yet in the PBA.

“I came from the D-League. Hindi pa rin ako nakalaro ng first game ko sa PBA,” he said. (I came from the D-League. I have not yet played my first game in the PBA.)

Seasoned veterans have also slowly slipped through the cracks to make way for new blood.

For these reasons, the league has long been urged by many to add more teams. But the influx of young talented cagers in 2013 turns the idea of expansion from a gentle suggestion to widespread clamor. 

According to long-time sports agent Danny Espiritu, the abundance of talent should be enough reason for the PBA to welcome more teams.

“Sana magdagdag sila ng teams kasi sayang ang mga players eh. Ang daming players na walang trabaho dahil sa kulang yung teams natin,” he said. (I hope they add teams because there are plenty of players. So many players are without jobs because we have no teams.)

The clamor is underscored by the league’s skyrocketing popularity over the past year. The historic feat achieved by national men’s basketball team Gilas Pilipinas—a team bannered by PBA professional players—in the 2013 FIBA Asia tourney drew even more attention to the PBA. 

Without question, this is the most opportune time to actively campaign for new teams—if only to continue cultivating Filipino basketball talent.

The players’ plight

Does the name Ken Bono still ring a bell? What about Reil Cervantes, still remember him?

Those names used to reverberate throughout an entire arena not long ago, with strangers screaming the syllables in unison as some included it in whispered prayers. Others threw it in between conversations of their school basketball teams.

But now those names can probably be found on a “Where Are They Now?” list.

Both Bono and Cervantes wanted to carry their college momentum as they headed for the pro league. But for one reason or another, neither was able to sustain it. 

Bono, 29, was a former Adamson Soaring Falcons star named UAAP Most Valuable Player in 2006. He was then drafted 6th overall by the Alaska Aces in 2007. The 6-foot-5 forward/center was expected to flourish in the pros. But it was the complete opposite.

“Unsteady,” Bono summarized his 7-year PBA journey. “Sometimes (I’m on the) lineup, sometimes reserve. So far now, (I’m a) reserve for almost a year already.”

In his 7 years, Bono admits he lost the confidence he once flaunted in the amateur ranks. His expectations were far from reality, too.

“Kasi nung time na yun (2007) I have a confidence na magagamit ako ng PBA noon eh,” he explained. “But no. Hindi naman natin hawak lahat.” (At that time I had confidence that I will be used in the PBA. But no. We don’t have control over everything.) 

Bono, who has played for 5 teams so far in the PBA, has been with the San Mig Super Coffee franchise for almost two years now. But his contract expired at the end of the recently concluded Philippine Cup, leaving him, as of this writing, in a state of limbo as he waits to be renewed or to be let go. 

“I don’t know kung ano mangyayari sa akin ngayon,” he said. “Pag wala (contract), hanap ako ng ibang team.” (I don’t know what will happen to me now. If there’s no contract, I’ll just look for another team.)

Either way, he must find a way to play and earn in order to support his 2-year old son.

The 27-year old Cervantes, on the other hand, achieved his dream of playing in the PBA when he was drafted 9th overall by the Barangay Ginebra Kings in 2011. The dream was cut short after his two-year contract expired and was never renewed.

When the former FEU standout was drafted, Cervantes recalled looking forward to a long career in the pros. But the 6-foot-4 forward/center is biding time in the D-League once again, working his way to a return to the PBA.

BACK TO PBA? 2011 9th overall draft pick Reil Cervantes, now a DLeague mainstay is hoping to make his way back to the PBA. Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images

“Hindi ako nabigyan ng opportunity. Pero trabaho pa rin para mabigyan ulit ng chance sa pro.” (I wasn’t given the opportunity. But I’ll still work hard to get another chance at the pros.) 

It’s players like Bono, Cervantes and Knuttel who will greatly benefit from at least a couple of new teams. They are the ones anxiously waiting in the wings for a break in their respective careers—perhaps with an all-new team. 

New franchises knocking

It’s not as if the PBA has been deaf to the appeals for expansion.

Current PBA Chairman Ramon Seguismundo has made it his priority to add new teams during his term. 

“One of our objectives, in accordance with our establishing a vibrant and dynamic basketball nation, is to create employment opportunities,” he explained.

“The PBA is at its height. We think of the players. We have such an abundance of supply of great players.”

PBA Commissioner Chito Salud, the league’s eighth commissioner, has also been very open to new team applications.

In fact, Salud says the PBA is eyeing to add at least one team in the next two years.

“Within the next 2 years, a team. And in the next 5 years, two teams,” Salud said.

But 5 years may have come early.

YES TO EXPANSION. PBA Chairman Ramon Seguismundo and PBA Commissioner Chito Salud are open to adding new teams to the league. File Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images

Asia’s first play-for-pay league has already received letters of intent from two potential new franchises: Blackwater Sports (Ever Bilena Cosmetics Inc.) and Kia Motors Corporation.

Seguismundo confirmed the PBA board will convene on Thursday, March 6 to discuss and evaluate the addition of the two prospective members.

Blackwater will be making its leap from the D-League, where it won a championship just last year. While Kia will be building a team from the ground up.

Seguismundo also said the MVP-owned NLEX Road Warriors, a 5-time champion in the D-League, is mulling jumping to the PBA. He mentioned another possible prospect that has not yet submitted a formal letter of intent to join the league, but is already making preliminary inquiries. 

All applicants will undergo what Seguismundo describes as a “holistic evaluation.”

Seguismundo elaborated: “We look at the financial capability, we look at the willingness of the prospective team owners. Do they really have a genuine interest in basketball, do they really want to help the country?”

The news of Kia and Blackwater possibly joining automatically puts a smile on the face of Cervantes.

“Advantage din sa akin yun,” he said. “Sana makasama ako sa bagong team, makaakyat ako.” (That’s an advantage for me. I hope I can join the new team and return to the PBA.)

The expansion also seems to come at a perfect time for Bono.

“Kung hindi ako mabigyan ng contract dito (SMC) baka mag-tryout ako (for the new teams),” Bono remarked. (If I won’t be given a contract I might try out.)

Knuttel echoes the same sentiment, saying that while he still has a one-year contract with Ginebra, at least he knows there are more opportunities he can explore.

“Mas maraming teams, mas maraming opportunity for players.” (More teams mean more opportunities for players.)

Since being Commissioner in 2010, Salud welcomed a new team in GlobalPort Batang Pier in 2012 as a replacement to the Poweraide Tigers. 

Salud believes the league is at the brink of expanding and exploring how far it can go.

“We have improved on our viewership. Record-breaking gate attendance and gate receipts,” he said. “I really believe that one or two teams would be easily, easily accommodated.”

Why only now?

While it is good that concrete steps are already being taken toward expanding, there is still the pressing question of why has it taken this long?

One major issue, Salud shares, is the rarity of legitimate takers. 

“Inquiries, preliminary inquiries there are many,” said Salud. “I have yet to see real, serious, legitimate intentions to join.”

Seguismundo, on the other hand, cites the general lack of public knowledge about it.

“Maybe we just didn’t tell the public that we were open,” he said. 

“I think there’s a sense of willingness on the part of the member teams right now to really be inclusive. Really broaden the participation and really raise the level of excitement.”

Another factor, and perhaps the most pressing one, is the undeniable fact that building a basketball franchise and running its operations requires a wealth of resources. 

But what, exactly, does it take to start and run a team? What are the considerations?

First of all, according to Salud, anyone who wishes to put together a team and join the league must pay the franchise fee of P100 million. And from there, factor in operation costs. 

“A new franchise is a hundred million. That’s the franchise fee and then of course on a yearly basis you’ll have your operating costs,” Salud explained. 

A hundred million is not the end of it. For a team to run smooth operations for an entire year, one may either double or triple that amount, depending on expenses.

According to GlobalPort team owner Mikee Romero, the cost of team operations annually varies from team to team. 

“Iba-iba yan eh (It varies), anywhere from a hundred to 200 million per team for a year. Nag-iiba iba yan (It changes),” he said.

There’s also the matter of personnel. “Manpower, players, and good coaches,” Salud said.

According to him, each team now has about 18 to 20 players in their rosters. But only 14 can be played while the rest are relegated to the reserve list.

This means about 40 to 60 players “may not be playing in any given tournament in the year,” and can be available for potential new teams.

Aside from those players, there is also plenty of talent in the previous draft pool to go with the abundance of ballers found in the D-League, which has 14 teams and about 13 players in each team.

Despite the high cost and huge effort of maintaining a PBA franchise, Romero says the returns are very much worth it. The public remembers the brand and players are walking advertisements. 

“Yung recall naman on the company and the brand, talagang you will get it,” he said. “You will get the media mileage on the brand.” (You will really get the recall on the company and the brand.)

Seguismundo reiterates this point: “The PBA is a great investment. Look at it as the equivalent to an advertising expenditure. There are a lot of tangible and intangible benefits.”

The intense publicity, more than anything, should be enough to lure in brands. Rain or Shine is one brand reaping high rewards from their PBA investment.

BRANDING. Gabe Norwood is one of Rain or Shine's more popular players. Photo by Nuki Sabio/PBA Images

“Rain or Shine, they’re the market leader in their industry,” Seguismundo said. 

“You can say that’s all because of basketball, their exposure.”

Sharing a team

Bankrolling and managing a team is obviously no easy feat. Sports agent Espiritu offers an idea he thinks can lower the cost for corporate entities. 

“Kung hindi kaya ng isang corporate entity na mag-maintain ng isang team, pwede naman sila mag-combine with another corporate entity with products na hindi competing,” he said. (If a corporate entity cannot maintain a team, it can combine with another corporate entity with non-competing products.)

Expounding further, Espiritu says that brands can share the team name, alternating every few conferences or seasons.

If this option is to prosper, two very willing parties must go through plenty of details especially when it comes to branding.

Exactly how much mileage this kind of setup can produce is still unknown, considering that teams will be changing names every so often. The public’s perception will also be a factor.

Though both Seguismundo and Salud are open to the idea. 

“Well, that has never been done before. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible,” Salud said. 

Seguismundo added: “Usually it’s one team owner. I think it’s better that way but if there’s people willing to band together I don’t see any reason why we can’t evaluate that.”

No threat to existing teams

Unbalanced exposure, Salud says, isn’t something teams should worry about.

According to him, “it’s just a matter of reconfiguring the format” and making sure that broadcast exposure is equally divided among all teams whether they qualify for the playoffs or not.

“Exposure-wise, that’s covered,” he assured. “I don’t think there will be any kind of delusion when it comes to exposure even if two teams were to come in today.”

Romero, for one, is looking forward to having a new team on board and is not at all concerned about sharing exposure.

“Very welcome. I hope that a new franchise will open soon.”

Kaye Cabal, a longtime PBA fan, also believes the benefits of a couple of new franchises far outweigh any disadvantages.

“Medyo matagal na rin yung 10-team setup. Ang daming rookies naga-apply every year and ang dami rin nadi-displace na veterans in the process,” Cabal, 22, shared her thoughts. “Siyempre hindi lang ito passion for the athletes, source of income din for their family.” 

(We’ve had the 10-team setup for a while already. Plenty of rookies apply every year and plenty of veterans are displaced in the process. Of course this isn’t just passion for the athletes, it’s also a source of income for their family.”

She added: “I think PBA is ready for at least two more teams. More exciting games for the fans. In the end, more pros than cons for all.”

This necessary growth for the PBA is 39 years in the making. But the long wait may finally be over. –

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