Confetti rained down on the fabled Araneta Coliseum not to celebrate a championship but to honor the Alaska Aces after it had just lost one final time in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).
Saturday, March 19, 2022, marked the end of an era in local hoops, when Alaska played its last game in Asia’s first pay-for-play league. It was an inglorious exit for a franchise that once reveled in a most glorious of runs in the 1990s—15 Finals appearances, 9 championships, a Grand Slam in 1996 and a near-Grand Slam in 1998. A forgettable end notwithstanding, the Aces might be leaving at the right time—just as the PBA is seemingly losing its luster, along with its status as the continent’s premier hoops league.
This decline, denied repeatedly by the PBA’s brass, was evident in the near-empty Araneta Coliseum, save for a few hundred or so Alaska fans who stayed around to witness the team’s final farewell—not exactly the most fitting send-off for a franchise that has been all class all the time through all these years. Fan turnout in the game prior would suggest otherwise; then again, Barangay Ginebra was playing in a win-or-go-home game, and the Gin Kings have historically packed good-sized crowds regardless of venue.
So, whether the PBA would care to admit it or not, the league is in trouble. At the very least, it is not what it used to be.
Level playing field
Long-time Alaska owner Wilfred Uytengsu has scored the need for the PBA to have "a level playing field" in order for it to remain healthy.
Consider that since 2010, only 6 teams—TNT, Magnolia, Barangay Ginebra, San Miguel, Alaska, and Rain or Shine—have won a championship in 29 conferences.
Only once in the last 12 years did two independent teams (meaning, not affiliated with either the SMC group or the MVP group) contest the Finals.
The last time an independent team won the title was in the 2015–2016 Commissioner’s Cup, when Rain or Shine won the title over, yes, Alaska.
The PBA, in other words, seems to have devolved into a four-team league under two monolith organizations—the SMC and MVP groups. It should be pointed out that businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan had expressed back in 2012 an openness to put a cap on the number of teams a group can own in the big league. The PBA instead chose the status quo, eventually paving the way for the MVP group to add NLEX to its portfolio.
That is not exactly a level playing field that makes for fascinating basketball, not when the same teams are the prohibitive favorites time and again. And more than a few fans have made it known that they disapprove of the present paradigm.
While I personally don’t feel threatened by SMB acquiring the services of CJ Perez, I can understand why there are those who are disgruntled & feel like it’s another lopsided trade in the PBA, & its already low integrity is being hit once again. It’s also an insult to one’s...— Princess Marie 🇵🇭🎀 KAKAMPINK 💖 (@PrincessSpark3) January 31, 2021
I wouldn’t count the championship/s SMB will win after this lopsided trade as “legit” championship/s.— Brent Ten-oreo (@DocCardo) January 29, 2021
Ayusin niyo, PBA!! Nasan na ung league balance na kinalakihan ko mula bata. https://t.co/EdmGVvaMEv
The PBA May as well rename itself as the SMC-MVP basketball tournament. None of the teams outside these two groups have a realistic chance of winning any championship in the league. They have languished at the bottom of the standings year in, year out. Time for reevaluation.— The Eagle Has Landed (@Robocris1752) February 16, 2022
All four of San Miguel, Ginebra, TNT, and Magnolia are two-deep at every position, with their starting fives filled with superstars or, at the very least, All-Stars.
Then again, what’s Ginebra, San Miguel, TNT, and Magnolia to do? The end-game in any league, ultimately, is to form a team capable of winning a championship year in and year out, and the Big Four, to their credit, have done just that.
And so far, there is little evidence that any one of Ginebra, San Miguel, TNT, and Magnolia resorted to anything underhanded to build their star-studded lineups. The onus, therefore, inevitably falls on the PBA to figure out how to rebalance the league’s axis of power and to maybe redistribute talent to somehow level the field.
This growing imbalance also stems largely from eyebrow-raising trades greenlighted by the PBA, which allowed the Big Four to get even better.
Uytengsu also raised the issue during his 2019 acceptance speech for the PBA Lifetime Achievement: “In more recent years, we’ve seen dubious trades that create an even more unlevel playing field, creating further disparity in the league. This, coupled with under-reported salary caps, only separated the teams further and further apart."
Multititled coach Yeng Guiao likewise voiced his displeasure on a March 2021 episode of the basketball show The Chasedown.
“Nung nakita ko ‘yung mga lineup na ‘yan, feeling ko pinaglalabanan na lang dito fifth place eh,” said Guiao. "Dati sinasabi natin ‘pag may isang malakas na team, o, second place na lang pinaglalabanan. Alam na natin sino magcha-champion. Pero ngayon, ang tingin ko, fifth place na lang ang pinaglalabanan.”
But parity is a slippery slope and is “a difficult concept to operationalize” noted Severino “Sev” Sarmenta in an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe. Sarmenta, the long-time voice of the PBA and one of the respected personalities in the local hoops scene, adds that even the NBA has had to deal with its own parity problems, “especially in trying to even out the field and strengthen the ‘lesser known’ markets.”
The ultimate responsibility to field a competitive team, Sarmenta points out, may rest on the teams by making do with available resources and tools — such as draft picks — provided by the league.
Live gates—described by former commissioner Chito Salud in 2015 as “the core business of the PBA”—also remains a big problem for a league that was once the unquestioned top draw in this hoops-crazy country.
The PBA board admitted as much in a press conference at the Conrad Hotel two years ago, when Commissioner Willie Marcial noted a 4% drop in live gate for the PBA’s 44th season. But the league’s higher-ups have been taking this downtrend in stride, with Marcial attributing the dwindling attendance to high ticket prices and traffic and Chairman Ricky Vargas proclaiming the PBA as being “healthy.”
“The PBA is healthy,” said Vargas, who pointed to the league’s growing digital reach as an indication of its staying power. “So we are growing. The PBA is growing. We are the only league that makes sense.”
Vargas’s pronouncement in 2020 was at best that of an executive protecting his product, but the PBA is no longer the singular league it once was—especially with other professional leagues in Asia upping their game.
An exodus of stars
Now, the league is also facing yet another challenge: Players opting to play in other Asian leagues.
Ateneo standout Thirdy Ravena began this trend, shunning the PBA Draft in 2019 to turn pro in the Japan B. League. Kobe Paras followed, himself eschewing the PBA for the greener pastures of the international game. Ravena and Paras, with their electrifying athleticism and high-flying ways, would have injected a jolt of excitement to the PBA; instead, they are wowing fans in Japan—all while earning considerably more. Ditto for Dwight Ramos, whose polished game and good looks would have brought immediate star power to Asia’s oldest professional hoops league.
Collegiate standouts aren’t the only ones leaving the local hoops scene. Even the PBA’s own stars are going to the B. League, starting with Ray Parks and then Kiefer Ravena. Roosevelt Adams, a hyper-athletic wing, is set to play in the B. League next season, too, after outright rejecting a contract extension from Terrafirma (Kia) and not even bothering to finish the still-ongoing Governor’s Cup for the team that drafted him. Matthew Wright is reportedly Japan-bound as well, with an offer that could be at least three times more than the PBA’s max salary of P420,000 monthly.
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The sweet-shooting Wright might not be the last—not with the perks being offered by Japanese teams that purportedly include first-class accommodation, access to best-in-class facilities, and four-wheel services. The PBA averted disaster when Ginebra big men Japeth Aguilar and Christian Standhardinger—reportedly high on several B. League teams’ wish lists—stayed put with the Gin Kings, as did Northporth’s irrepressible Robert Bolick.
But the B. League is not the only Asian league that might potentially poach players away from the PBA. There is also Taiwan’s T1 League, which already counts point guard extraordinaire Jason Brickman, sharpshooting two-guard Jordan Heading, and workhorse Caelan Tiongson as its Pinoy recruits. All three are all likely first-round picks should they declare for the PBA Draft.
Even Korea’s KBL looms in the shadows, having recently instituted the same "Asian Players' Quota" rule that would allow teams to sign Asian players not as imports but as locals starting this 2022–2023 season.
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Between a fan base slowly getting alienated by the SMC-MVP duopoly, declining live gates, and an unfolding exodus of new talent overseas, it seems that Uytengsu’s observations of the league being unwell is much closer to reality.
Things ultimately circle back to Alaska’s abrupt retirement, which according to Uytengsu was a decision “aligned with the global directive” of AMC’s parent company, FrieslandCampina, “to implement an organizational transformation that ensures long-term stability.” Leaving now, Uytengsu added, would allow Alaska to focus its resources on “providing affordable nutrition for Filipino families.”
But the move may also be a referendum on the PBA’s own long-term viability as well.
For the past several years, membership to Asia’s most storied pay-for-play league was good for business, a marketing strategy that leveraged the PBA’s undeniable popularity among Filipinos. But things have changed, especially given the ballooning costs of maintaining a team—upwards of P150–200 million annually according to Uytengsu himself— and the seemingly declining gravitas of the PBA (and, to a certain extent, the growing reach of the internet that makes it far easier to watch other leagues like the NBA).
Former PBA commissioner Noli Eala, in a tweet back in February, also hinted at the implications of Alaska's exit.
“One of the last remaining ‘independent’ teams leaving the league at a time when parity and public trust is at a low speaks volumes,” Eala tweeted.
At least one repercussion need not be imagined: That the PBA will lose a most loyal and passionate fan base, never mind the lock, stock, and barrel sale of the Alaska franchise to Dennis Uy’s Converge. That is a considerable fan base, and losing a big portion of it would be another blow to the PBA.
Just as notable is how the PBA will lose a respected voice—one that was unafraid to call out the league.
"Alaska and Mr. Uytengsu were voices that balanced out matters in the PBA by asking questions or raising points on difficult issues like the salary cap and parity in the league. They were not always successful in getting their points across but the franchise was heard,” Sarmenta said.
At the very least, though, the PBA won’t get the chance to fumble any dispersal draft after Converge bought the orphaned Aces into its fold, relaunching it as Converge FiberXers.
That the PBA is confronting a host of problems just when the league, along with other businesses, is just starting to pick up the pieces from the fallout of the pandemic further complicates its outlook. After two years, full capacity at venues only resumed last March 1 after Metro Manila was placed under Alert Level 1.
The silver lining in all this is that the final buzzer isn’t beckoning.
“The PBA is still loved and appreciated even if its crowd numbers are not going to approximate the Crispa-Toyota days or the Ultra glory years,” said Sarmenta.
"People who were talking about the ‘demise’ of the league because of the exodus of young stars to Japan or the bubble format that had no fans may have dismissed the league too early. The fans are back and they're also very active on social media.”
And, indeed, the league has touted its supposedly growing social media presence, with more fans purportedly watching PBA games on Facebook and YouTube. This development, the PBA claims, is offsetting the impact of dwindling live gates and is the way forward given the encompassing reach of digital portals where fans can catch the action.
All things considered, it is plausible that the PBA has just hit a very rough patch so to speak, and that it will, according to Sarmenta, survive once more—like it did during the rise of the regional league MBA in the late 1990s and the Fil-Sham controversy of the early 2000s.
The league's inherent resilience may also be seen from its number of TV viewers. Data from Kantar show that viewership of PBA bounced back last year to 58,000 individuals across all income channels after a decline in 2020. During the first quarter of this year alone, the numbers further picked up to 65,000 individuals, a 10-year high based on Kantar’s data.
That the PBA can mount a comeback in terms of widespread mainstream appeal is of course not impossible. It can still, as Sarmenta put it, soar to new heights. But it will have to do so in the face of a quickly evolving landscape with a growing overseas competition, and without one of the league's historic pillars that was Alaska.