MANILA, October 26, 2005 
(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Attendance figures are putting a big smile on Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) commissioner Noli Eala’s face lately and it looks the pro league’s fortunes are finally turning for the better in its 31st season.

Not only are the turnstiles whirring but TV ratings are on the up, too. The word from ABC-TV sources is ratings are consistently higher than last year and in some games, the numbers are more than double than what they were previously.

For instance, the viewership for the Barangay Ginebra-Sta. Lucia Realty game last Oct. 9 reached twin digits. And the expectation is the rating for tonight’s Ginebra-Talk ‘N’ Text duel will hit the roof what with Eric Menk’s return and his much-awaited battle against Asi Taulava.

PBA media bureau chief Willie Marcial said last Saturday’s Ginebra-Purefoods encounter in Cagayan de Oro pulled in a gross of about P1.4 Million. Attendance was 3,725 and filled the Xavier University gym to the brim. The highest-priced ticket went for P700 and the lowest was P350.

Willie said before the game started, alert ticket takers discovered fakes being passed off as genuine. The counterfeit tickets were professionally manufactured and only the intricate watermark on the paper made the difference. Luckily, just a few fake tickets were accepted before the ticket takers caught on to the scam. Scalpers were spotted near the gym where the game was played so business was brisk both in and out of the box office.

Last Sunday, over 10,000 fans jammed the Big Dome for a twinbill that was headlined by the game between San Miguel Beer and Red Bull. The lowest attendance so far at the Araneta Coliseum was 5,922 for the games last Friday when Talk ‘N’ Text beat Coca-Cola and Alaska edged Air21 in double overtime. But fans who stayed away ended up regretting it because they missed being treated to a pair of thrillers. The Phone Pals defeated the Tigers by a point and Coca-Cola would’ve forced an extension if only Alex Carcamo hit two free throws with no time left in regulation.

What got the PBA on the right track was the Purefoods-Red Bull game that drew 15,023 paying customers and opened the season last Oct. 2.

The PBA fever is also evident at the Ynares Gym in Antipolo and the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City where attendance has increased considerably. Last Oct. 12, a Wednesday, attendance at the Ynares was a respectable 7,539. No game has been scheduled at the PhilSports Arena which is largely inaccessible to most fans.

Overall, the estimate is the PBA’s average attendance this season is anywhere between 9,500 to 10,500. That’s not bad, considering last year’s average was close to 4,000.

So what was the key to the turnaround?

Surely, the "Gimme Five" promo had something to do with it. Pricing the general admission and upper box B seats at only P5 was a brilliant idea. For the price of admission, a fan gets to watch two exciting games and four teams plus enjoys the comforts of cool air-conditioning and participates in some PBA gimmicks, too. That kind of entertainment is a bargain for P5.

Filling up the upper deck triggered a bandwagon runaway. Now, everybody wants to watch the games and the PBA is back as the most-talked-about sporting topic in town. In the past, the empty upper seats were a dampener and fans avoided the stadium because that seemed to be the "in thing." Nobody wanted to buck the trend. But now that the upper portion is packed, the business class seats are suddenly in demand, too. It’s all about wanting to be a part of the action and not missing the boat. From the PBA’s viewpoint, it’s all about making a habit of watching PBA games.

Incidentally, all proceeds of the "Gimme Five’ promo go to charity. The promo ends on Oct. 30 and the PBA hopes the habit it will have created is enduring.

With more fans watching in the stands, the players are more inspired to give it their all. Notice that every game is fiercely fought. Of course, that says a lot about the league’s competitive parity. The concentration of talent brought about by a nine-team league has made the action a lot more furious.

Diving for the loose ball is not such a rarity anymore. Players are banging bodies and letting it all hang out. They’re energized by the big crowds and they’re also fighting for survival, realizing there is no security in a playing job.

No wonder games are, on the whole, tightly-contested. Three games so far have gone into overtime and one of them, into double overtime. Of the 21 contests played, four were decided by one or two points and that’s not counting the three extension cliffhangers. Only four were settled by margins of 10 or more.

Talk "N’ Text is the league’s only unbeaten team although the Phone Pals went through the wringer in repulsing Coca-Cola, 82-81, last Friday. San Miguel Beer is the only winless team but three of its four games were decided by two points.

Pre-season speculation that the reduced salary cap will bring in only mediocre imports has been debunked. Purefoods’ Marquin Chandler, Red Bull’s Quemont Greer, Alaska’s Tee McClary, Air21’s Shawn Daniels and Talk "N’ Text’s Damien Cantrell, for instance, are quality imports in any league.

Settling the Fil-Am issue is another reason why the PBA is optimistic of a bright future. The nagging Fil-Am issue is finally put to rest and fans can now forget all the confusing legal gobbledygook and just focus on what they really enjoy–PBA basketball at its finest.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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