IT'S hard to see if Ramon S. Ang was complaining or bragging when he divulged that San Miguel Corp., the mammoth company he is majority owner of, spends one billion pesos a year to keep three teams going in the Philippine Basketball Association.
Asked in an interview a few days ago, one of few times he has sat down with a reporter, the 71-year-old Ang said the cost of maintaining three teams was so high that several times in the past, especially during the pandemic, he seriously thought of disbanding the three: Magnolia, Barangay Ginebra, and the flagship San Miguel Beer.
But each time he did — said a man so well-known that three letters, RSA, are enough to identify him — he was persuaded by his own underlings to scuttle the plan, telling him this could get people turning against his company. It was bad for SMC’s image, in short. Though I have a hard time imagining his subordinates contradicting him to his face, Ang said he followed their advice.
The underlings argued that the PBA provides fun and diversion in a country where, according to SMC analysts, basketball is the a people’s only real entertainment.
"Ang mga kababayan natin, yan lang daw ang libangan nila. Kapag tinigil ko yan, baka magalit sila. Ayaw ko namang magalit sila," RSA said in his interview with TV journalist Anthony Taberna.
It is true that San Miguel has more than once publicly contemplated giving up its PBA membership, but my memory tells me that it wasn’t about high costs; it was about perceived slights from the PBA commissioner and certain board members. It may be recalled that SMC once said it was “reevaluating” its membership in Asia’s oldest professional basketball league when the PBA imposed a lifetime ban on then Petron import Renaldo Balkman for unsportsmanlike conduct.
My memory also tells me that Ang was not a helpless victim here.
Tales abound about why certain commissioners were kicked out, kicked upstairs, or simply made to disappear from the PBA. Allegedly, this was because they defied SMC.
It's no secret in this basketball-mad country that the PBA and its board have also reportedly bent backwards to accommodate San Miguel when they needed to. Within the PBA, the influence and power of San Miguel Corporation is legend. It’s the tail that wags the dog.
Unarguably, without Barangay Ginebra and without its hysterical and passionate fans, the PBA might as well close down. Without SMC and its teams, the league will probably collapse.
Not to belittle other PBA teams, but it safe to say that San Miguel is the oxygen that enables PBA to breathe. The PBA needs San Miguel. However, It must also be said that San Miguel, the only team standing among the league’s founding teams in 1975 and the team with the most championships at 25, needs the PBA.
With PBA games airing three to four times a week, the premier pro-ball league provides unlimited and penetrating exposure for its members to all corners of the country. This exposure is equivalent to billions of pesos in free advertising. Winning a title gives a team added value. It’s a win-win for everyone.
That is why, in my opinion, San Miguel may keep resurrecting its threat whenever it is pissed, but it will never leave the PBA. The premier league serves the mammoth company’s interests big time! So big time that SMC owns — not one costly team, not two costly teams, but three costly teams in the PBA. This is matched, by the way, by that other behemoth in the PBA, Manny V. Pangilinan, whose conglomerate has three: TNT, NLEX, and Meralco.
To me, this set-up is an aberration, but what can the PBA do? It’s RSA and MVP they’re contending with. But look: two companies own three teams each in a 12-team league. Not only that, these six teams nearly have a monopoly of the country’s best players. Which is not surprising given the nearly unlimited resources of RSA and MVP. Our players — calculating their survival, their fortunes, their future — gravitate towards these rich and powerful owners, and so the better teams keep getting the better players while the also-rans keep getting the also-rans.
The cellar-dwellers appear not to mind. Why? Well, it could be because they also get the equivalent of their PBA investment in the free advertising in radio, TV, newspapers, and social media. Moreover, owning a PBA team, no matter how close to the cellar, boosts its owners social status. Really, how many wealthy guys can say they own a PBA team?
It becomes mutual: teams need the PBA; the PBA needs the teams. And the millions that RSA has said need to be entertained? Is the PBA truly their chief source of entertainment? Their go-to fuel for excitement? The answer to their basketball addiction?
RSA could be right. Local movies are rarely good, beaches are far and expensive, the cultural scene is anemic, parks are few and dirty and undeveloped. There really seem to be very few affordable alternatives for entertainment and relaxation.
Then there’s the PBA. It’s always there for us. For those with few things to do, there are always the SMC teams and the MVP teams fighting for the pennant. Never mind that sometimes the SMC teams are running each other aground for the title when it’s not the MVP teams counting each other out. The other teams? They’re there to serve as food for the lions, just the way it is in every circus.
That’s entertainment, PBA style.