Uneven playing field: The PBA is a league of haves and have-nots

The owners and head honchos of the PBA teams pose with commissioner Chito Salud. PBA/Nuki Sabio

The occasion was to mark Tim Cone’s departure from the Alaska Aces after 22 years, but with the sports media spotlight trained on him, team owner Fred Uytengsu took it as an opportunity to blast the lack of balance in the Philippine Basketball Association

“The situation right now is that the PBA is not a level playing field anymore,” said Uytengsu on Thursday, in the same news conference to announce that Cone and Alaska were parting ways.

Despite his squad not having the reputation as a deep-pocket team, the Alaska owner revealed that the Aces, to the shock of most people in attendance, had the highest payroll in the PBA last season. This was despite the fact that in recent years, Alaska has been forced to trade star players like Willie Miller and Joe Devance, reportedly due to salary demands.

Added Uytengsu: “Here’s something you’ve got to ask yourself: Why did Willie Miller leave when he’s already getting the maximum salary? Why does Joe Devance want to leave, when he’s earning P350,000 a month and coming off a championship? Isn’t our P350,000 as good as the other team’s P350,000? It’s the same P350,000.”

But the Alaska CEO was only getting started. “You guys know there are players who make P500,000 or a million a month,” he said, referring to the league-wide perception that players receive more than the maximum salary because of side deals. “We have players on our team who are worth that max. We’ve got to do something about that.”

For the alleged proliferation of the practice, Uytengsu laid the blame at the feet of PBA commissioner Chito Salud, who assumed the position in 2010.

“What disappoints me was that when a new commissioner was named, we were given hope that some of the stuff will be cleaned up,” said Uytengsu. “I ask you commissioner, what’s going on? Why don’t you have evidence? That’s your job. You need to uncover this because we’re not idiots. I will be blunt about it because it gets to my goat.”

“The commissioner will have to come up with a leadership position and he has to be above the rest of the board.”

15 max players

Curiously, according to the PBA media bureau, there are only 15 players in the league who officially receive the maximum salary: Kerby Raymundo, James Yap, Joe Devance, Ranidel de Ocampo, Kelly Williams, Asi Taulava, Reynel Hugnatan, Mark Caguioa, Danny Seigle, Sonny Thoss, Tony dela Cruz, LA Tenorio, JR Reyes, Gary David, Gabe Norwood.

Four of the 15 max players are currently under contract with Alaska — a whopping 27 percent, or more than one-fourth, in a ten-team league. Two other players on the list — Joe Devance and Reynel Hugnatan — received their max deals while playing for Alaska.

Conspicuously missing from the list released by the PBA are superstars such as 2011 Most Valuable Player Jimmy Alapag, MVP runner-up Arwind Santos, 2011 Philippine Cup best player Jay Washington, and two-time MVP Miller, among many others.

Salud’s reply

Uytengsu’s strong words, however, were met by a relatively meek reply from Salud on Monday, four days after the Alaska owner’s initial pronouncements.

“Should I find actionable cases of salary cap breach, I will not waste time sanctioning the guilty parties,” said Salud in a statement released through the PBA’s media bureau. “Violators be warned.”

“To be clear, what Mr. Uytengsu advocates — the upholding of the rules of the league — is also my advocacy,” added the commissioner. “I believe that the vast majority of our players and team officials abide by the rules, so it is unfair to tar them with sweeping statements.”

“Let’s call a spade, a spade. By its very nature, this is one issue where proof is hard to come by and inuendos easy to make. But it does not mean it does not happen.”

In the release, Salud said that he decides to look deeper into player movements “if he finds reason to.”

“I can bring in external parties, if necessary, to allow for deeper scrutiny,” he added, before vowing to work with team owners to “resolve once and for all accusations of salary cap violations.”

Hard to prove

Powerade team governor JB Baylon, who serves as vice-chairman of the league’s Board of Governors, said that while he could understand Uytengsu’s frustration, a more formal course should have been taken.

“You can’t blame them for blurting things to the media, but ideally, the formal way is the better course,” said Baylon. “In that case, the commissioner can probably raise the matter to the executive committee of the board.”

But officials of other teams acknowledge that there is indeed an imbalance between the league’s richer teams and those with shallower pockets.

“Honestly, agrabyado talaga kami,” said one high-ranking team executive who asked not to be named. “Yung malalakas, lalong lumalakas.”

Another top official of a team, meanwhile, said that while they have their suspicions, it’s hard to prove anything without solid evidence. “Mahirap naman kasi patunayan eh, wala namang ebidensya so paano natin malalaman yan,” he said.

Meanwhile, representatives from the San Miguel Corporation stable and the Manuel V. Pangilinan group of companies had markedly different replies when asked to comment on Uytengsu’s outburst.

SMC director of basketball operations Robert Non wrote in a text message: “I think the PBA commissioner is in the best position to comment on said remarks by Mr. Uytengsu. That’s the proper forum.” The conglomerate controls three PBA teams: Barangay Ginebra, Petron Blaze, and B-MEG.

Talk ‘N Text board governor Ricky Vargas, for his part, had a more candid reply: “Factually, it may be difficult to prove, but logically, there is reason to suspect, so I tend to agree with Fred’s suspicion.”

Apart from Talk ‘N Text, the Meralco Bolts also belong to the MVP group. InterAKTV is part of, the online news portal of TV5, which is chaired by Pangilinan.

Alaska team manager and board representative Joaqui Trillo pointed out that his team has raised the issue many times to the league, but has been met by lack of support.

“I challenged them to be transparent, asked them that we can raise this and decrease that,” said Trillo. “I’ve suggested things to maintain parity in the league and give everyone a chance to win a championship.”

Major violation

Under PBA rules, salary cap violations are among the most major transgressions that a team can commit. If proven guilty, the league could deny a team its share from the PBA’s television revenues, which amount to tens of millions of pesos.

Curiously, Salud’s father, the late PBA commissioner Rudy Salud, penned the provision allowing for the heavy penalties.

There has been at least one proven case of salary cap violation in the league. In 2001, Jayvee Gayoso came forward to reveal details of his under-the-table deal with Tanduay.

Ricky Palou, who was involved in the investigation of the Gayoso-Tanduay case, said that it was easier to prove the violation since a player came forward to provide documentary evidence.

An insider who was privy to the details of the Tanduay salary cap violation case said that the PBA provides a reward for any player who would testify for such matters. Gayoso, in fact, earned millions of pesos for providing his testimony against Tanduay.

According to Palou, the lack of a witness willing to speak up would hamper any efforts to investigate salary cap violations.

“It makes the investigation easier if mayroong mga magsasalita and we can use those statements as part of the evidence,” he said.

Still, according to Palou, the commissioner could take a more proactive approach to try to dig out violations.

“The commissioner should also be on top of the situation and he should be above the board,” said Palou.

Rags to riches

But even while no proof has surfaced that teams are signing players to under-the-table deals, the very best talents, curiously, find themselves in the lineups of the league’s richer teams. Just over the past three seasons, perennial MVP contenders Williams, Santos, and Devance were traded for pennies on the dollar to teams that are part of either the SMC or the MVP group of companies.

There too, is the case of the Air 21 Express, now Barako Bull, which has gotten a reputation for trading away its marquee young players, often in exchange for future draft picks.

A partial list of former Air 21 first round draft picks who have since been traded away include Yancy de Ocampo (1st overall, 2002), Ren-Ren Ritualo (8th, 2002), Marc Pingris (3rd, 2004), Ranidel de Ocampo (4th, 2004), Jay Washington (1st, 2005), Mac Cardona (5th, 2005), KG Canaleta (6th, 2005), Arwind Santos (2nd, 2006), JC Intal (4th, 2007), Doug Kramer (5th, 2007), Yousif Aljamal (8th, 2007), Mark Borboran (6th, 2008), Japeth Aguilar (1st, 2009), Nonoy Baclao (1st, 2010), Rabeh Al-Hussaini (2nd, 2010), and Rey Guevarra (3rd, 2010).

Except for Borboran, who was traded to Alaska, all the other players were dealt to teams that belong to either the SMC or the MVP umbrella.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Air 21 franchise has never won a championship in the PBA.

Big bonuses

But alleged side deals might not be the only reason players would want to play for a richer team. There’s a legal way for squads to give their players something beyond what is indicated in their contracts: bonuses.

According to Salud, bonuses are not counted against a team’s salary cap. Conceivably, any team can sign a P50,000-a-month deal with a player, and make up the difference in bonuses.

In his book Pacific Rims, author Rafe Bartholomew documented how whispers of the size of bonuses can travel from one locker room to another.

In the heat of the 2007 Fiesta Conference finals between the Alaska Aces and the Talk ‘N Text, who were then still known as the Phone Pals, Bartholomew wrote: “[Alaska] coaches had heard the players’ whispers that their Talk ‘N Text counterparts received game bonuses several times larger than the ones Alaska paid. Even when the Phone Pals lost, they supposedly took home more cash than the Aces.”

Nuclear option

While the PBA may have a hard time proving any salary cap violations, it is already suffering the effects of the perceived uneven playing field in at least one important aspect: the opinion of the fans. Throughout message boards all over the Internet, a common chorus is that the PBA is now just another battlefield between SMC and MVP teams.

For now, teams like Alaska stand in the middle of the pack, and with occasional success, prove that the PBA is more than just an SMC and MVP league.

But Uytengsu said that if the PBA does nothing to address the current situation, his team might not be in the league for long.

“If we see that the foundation of the PBA has crumbled beyond repair and that graft and corruption is prevailing, then we believe the league won’t be a viable medium of entertainment anymore and that’s the time for us to go,” he said.

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