[OPINION] Seeing the SMB-Kia trade through the eyes of a football fan
MANILA, Philippines – By now you have probably heard about how the San Miguel Beermen have traded several journeyman players to fellow PBA club Kia Picanto for the first pick in the draft. They have now used that pick to snare the prettiest debutante in the draft ball, Fil-German big man Christian Stanhardinger.
For many fans, the air around this deal is redolent of marine life. The curious explanations of Kia GM Joe Lipa going for an unconventional approach fail to convince. Why would Kia throw away a chance to be a contender for almost nothing, and in the process strengthen an opponent?
One can understand the fan's anger. The PBA is supposed to be a professional league that is competitive, fair, and meritocratic. A salary-capped competition where any club, with smart front-office moves can aspire to win titles. For some, this trade casts aspersions on all that.
But maybe San Miguel, Kia, and even the PBA are not the problem. Perhaps it's us, the Pinoy sports fans, who need to see this in a new light. Then somehow, it will all make sense. The answers might lie elsewhere, specifically the football structure in Europe.
In a typical European football league system there is no salary cap. Teams can pay whatever they like for players. That's why you have wealthy clubs like Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain, Real Madrid, and Manchester United, who win their domestic leagues so often. They have the financial muscle to buy the best players.
There is a hierarchy of clubs in most domestic European leagues that does not usually change much.
For example, in England's Premier League, moneyed teams like Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal are usually found near the top of the standings on any given week. Below them are the second tier clubs with less dough, like Everton, West Ham, and Southampton.
Below them are clubs like Bournemouth and Crystal Palace, teams with history but with even smaller war chests. These clubs are sometimes referred to as “elevator teams” because they shuttle up and down from the top tier Premier League to the second-tier Championship. (In Europe there is a promotion-relegation system between the many league levels. Typically the bottom 3 of a tier go down and are replaced by the top tier of the league below after every season.)
There is a set food chain, and players traverse it in both directions as their careers wax and wane.
Usually what happens is a big club spies a talent in a club below them in the pecking order and makes a swoop. They buy that player's contract and give the lesser club what is known as a “transfer fee.”
Transfer fees in the big leagues are often well into the millions of dollars. The world record is the 222 million euros that French side Paris Saint Germain coughed up to Barcelona for the services of Brazilian ace Neymar earlier this year. Most transfer fees are more modest, and some, especially in the lower leagues, are almost tokens. Read about the player who was bought for a freezer full of ice cream here.
The buying team is happy because they have a new toy in their lineup. The selling team is delighted too because they have the loot to buy new players in the echelons below. The player is likely all smiles as well because he will be making a bigger wage. Everyone is happy.
Fans accept this set-up. It's been very familiar to them for generations.
But that means teams of modest means can never win the league. Isn't that unfair? (Leicester City's triumph in the 2015-2016 EPL season is a major outlier.) Yes it is, unfair, but that's life. Besides, apart from league round-robin league competitions, there are also knockout “cup” tournaments where middling teams can, and often do, get lucky and win silverware.
It is a system where money cannot guarantee titles, but titles are almost impossible without money. As long as you don't have one dominant team that is richer than everyone else, (the case in Scotland, where affluent Glasgow Celtic have won the last 6 league titles), you still have a closely-fought, unpredictable, entertaining league.
Now contrast all of this with the NBA in North America. This league is an egalitarian utopia in comparison. There is a salary cap. You can spend above it but luxury taxes will rein you in.
In the NBA any club with shrewd management, good coaching, great scouting, and a bit of luck can have a shot at lifting the Larry O'Brien championship trophy.
Sure, the Golden State Warriors are now a superteam but this is only a recent development. Before that, the league was set up to make teams generally evenly matched over time.
The PBA aspires to be like the NBA, with its salary cap and rookie draft. It wants a truly level playing field. Problem is, the landscape is vastly different here than it is in the states.
The NBA has 30 teams, all with billionaire owners with presumably similar net worths. That simply isn't the case here.
Two corporate entities, the MVP group, (Meralco, NLEX, TNT), and the San Miguel Corporation, (Ginebra, Star/Purefoods, San Miguel Beermen), make up half of the 12-team field in the PBA. Their clubs were, unsurprisingly, the top 6 teams after the Governor's Cup elimination round.
The other clubs represent independent companies, all likely smaller in clout than the big two. There is an imbalance in both the wealth of the clubs and likely the influence they wield in the running of the league.
(Disclosure: I am the media officer of FC Meralco Manila, the football team of Meralco.)
This weird trade between SMB and Kia can thus make sense. To me it feels like one of the transfer agreements that you see in European football. It feels like a transaction of some sort. It may feel wrong, but maybe it shouldn't.
The PBA seems to want to shoehorn the NBA model into a milieu where it can't quite work. The Philippine pro basketball landscape has more in common with Europe than it does with America. There are big clubs and smaller clubs. There are well-defined rungs on the ladder. Kia just so happens to be looking up at SMB in this hierarchy.
Fans might want to shake their fists in anger at this trade. But they do so at something that's hard to fight. Something called “reality.”
Should the PBA somehow tweak their structure and competition to reflect the current state of Philippine sports business? Maybe. But that's up to the teams.
Should this trade lead us to abandon the PBA? Absolutely not. I caught Game 7 between Ginebra and Meralco the other day and it was a terrific spectacle. Meralco fought back valiantly against a great Ginebra team in front of 54,000 fans, but came up short. The PBA was, is, and will continue to be a fantastic sports league. A source of great entertainment and a superb proving ground for the Gilas Pilipinas program.
So support the PBA. Support the teams. And accept this trade, and perhaps others to come, as part and parcel of the imperfect, quirky, but still wonderful world of Philippine sports. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.