The ABS-CBN Shutdown and Its Implications to Philippine Sports

FILE — Thirdy Ravena celebrates after the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles swept the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers, 2–0, at the UAAP Season 82 Men’s Basketball Finals on Nov. 20 at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City. Photo by The Daily Guardian.

Shortly after the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles won its third straight UAAP Men’s Basketball championship by sweeping the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in their best-of-three finals, star forward Thirdy Ravena emotionally stood at the scorers’ table and raised his hands as if he is finally waving goodbye to the Ateneo community. Ravena, who finished his college basketball career with a third consecutive Finals MVP trophy, has all the rights in the world to feel that way. After all, the Blue Eagles just completed probably one of the most overachieving seasons in Philippine sports history after recording a perfect 16–0 win-loss record in Season 82.

Moments like this that are captured through the sparkling lenses of cameras make sports as closer as ever to fans; and, in a way, not seeing these kinds of moments for a very long time is somewhat depressing.

The coronavirus pandemic has left most sports tournaments in a standstill worldwide. COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the coronavirus, have forced big leagues like the NBA, ATP and WTA tennis tours, European football events and even the Olympics to either postpone or cancel their seasons. Locally, in the Philippines, the PBA shut down its Philippine Cup after only one game. College sports are not an exception as the UAAP, for instance, had opted to cancel the remainder of the season to ensure safety among the student-athletes and officials.

While the sports world is already evidently suffering from the threats of COVID-19, earlier this month, Philippine sports took another hit after the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) issued a cease-and-desist order to ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media network, following issues to its franchise renewal application. Although the ABS-CBN shutdown is widely regarded as an issue of politics and attack to press freedom, it has also left Philippine sports in shambles.

Ever since 2000, the ABS-CBN has already been broadcasting various sports tournaments in the Philippines through its UHF Channel, Studio 23. But, the media giant’s focus on sports broadcast really only started in 2014 when it later on re-branded Studio 23 as S+A (Sports and Action). The launch, which was attended by prominent Filipino athletes including Donnie Nietes, Jeron Teng and the Philippine Azkals, signaled the network’s gigantic move towards delivering sports content on Philippine television, with S+A having 70% of its programs relating to sports. Back then, ABS-CBN Integrated Sports head Dino Laurena is very vocal about how the network is committed to bring live sports to Filipino audiences:

“The channel will prioritize sports. At any point in time, there will be live sports events.”

S+A has become a true sports hub for various local and international leagues, including the UAAP, NCAA, Azkals’ matches and the NBA. Numerous iconic games such as the Ateneo-La Salle college basketball and volleyball rivalries over the years, the historic NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in 2016, and even Philippines’ 2–1 win over Tajikistan to propel them in the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, were witnessed by Filipino fans through the sports channel.

Not only that S+A has become a leader in broadcasting sports events, but it also managed to produce well-known sports programs and documentaries like The Score, Upfront, and Sports U among others, making it as one of the leading sports channels in the country. Fairly enough, its rival TV5 — which is now more popularly known as ONE Sports Philippines after axing the ESPN5 brand recently— also hosts various sports events like the PBA, US NCAA and the NFL. But, the latter’s oft changed management keeps on tarnishing its reputation as the biggest sports media channel in the Philippines.

FILE — The Score host and veteran sports journalist Mico Halili. Photo by Philstar.com.

In 2014, even before S+A’s re-branding, Studio 23 already dominated sports channel ratings both in free and cable television. Games like the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, as well as the UAAP men’s basketball and women’s volleyball finals during the past year was a testament to how S+A relates more on Filipinos’ sports interests: basketball and college sports. It’s broadcast rights acquisition to airing bouts and events by mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion ONE Championship only made S+A’s dominance in sports television programming even more evident. A data released by Nielsen in 2017 showed that ONE Championship demonstrated tremendous viewership growth from 2014 to that year, led by increases in annual TV broadcast per country and peak TV ratings share numbers. While this data suggests television viewership for ONE Championship, it can still be inferred that the rise in TV ratings by the MMA stable is correlated to the TV ratings of the sports channel where it is aired.

S+A’s commitment to broadcasting sports events to Filipino consumers were also widely shown during these trying times. Even as the majority of sports events were put on hold due to the pandemic, S+A never failed to meet consumers’ demands by re-airing classic UAAP and NCAA games, bouts from the ONE Championship 2019 calendar and other Motorsports competitions. With the network being shut down, though, S+A’s efforts in “delivering entertainment and positivity” during this time was put to an abrupt end when the network was forced to close on May 5.

S+A currently holds the rights to broadcast majority of the country’s local leagues and tournaments. These include the UAAP, NCAA, Philippine Super Liga, Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League and several Filipino boxing bouts. Apart from these, the sports channel also currently airs its own sports documentaries and programs while it shows other international competitions such as ONE Championship, as previously mentioned.

But, the ABS-CBN closure had a lot of opportunities left hanging, especially for S+A. As the shutdown posts indefinite and unknown timetable as to when the television network will return on-air, looming uncertainties on the leagues which it airs also present a plethora of concerns.

FILE — Thirdy Ravena (right) dribbles against Rhenz Abado (left) in their best-of-three UAAP Season 82 Men’s Basketball finals series. Photo by ABS-CBN Sports.

The ABS-CBN shutdown may leave leagues without a television partner. In particular, the UAAP’s current contract with the ABS-CBN is set to expire on May 31. Given that the biggest collegiate league is one of the largest clients by the network, through S+A, the uncertainties surrounding the media giant is enough reason for Atty. Rebo Saguisag and co. to postpone any impending contract extension negations between them and ABS-CBN. According to a recent report published by Cedelf Tupas of INQUIRER.net, “the UAAP and ABS-CBN failed to come to terms to a contract extension before the television giant was shut down by the government”. UAAP and ABS-CBN signed a five-year contract in 2014, and although they have already met five or six times to talk about the contract extension, a reliable source cited by the report said that “the uncertainty on the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise had played a part on why the talks have stalled.” Although other leagues like the NCAA — which has an existing contract with the ABS-CBN up to 2025 — as well as the PSL and MPBL do not necessarily have contract issues with the network, the latter’s closure should prove challenging for them, especially for their exposure.

While the ABS-CBN closure posits negative implications to Philippine sports, some positive notes can still be inferred from the television giant’s closure as well. Today, more than ever, where sports fans become mobile and people become more digital consumers, the network’s shutdown offers an opportunity for ABS-CBN Sports to its sports content online. S+A, in particular, has already geared up to continue serving Filipino sports fans in its digital and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. ABS-CBN’s digital sports streaming started on May 8 over its social media platforms, as well as on iWant, while also continuing to air its programs via its sports cable channel on LIGA. Fortunately, the shift towards a more digital way to produce sports content is not an unknown territory for ABS-CBN. With over one million followers in Facebook and Twitter, as well as a little over 200,000 followers on Instagram, its sports subsidiary is one of the most popular and go-to sports channels online.

As it stands today, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said that the House of Representatives will officially decide on the fate of the franchise renewal application of the network by August as it has already dropped its move to grant ABS-CBN a provisional franchise that was supposed to allow them to operate at least until October this year. Given the looming uncertainties over this issue, and the ever-growing politics behind this, it might be true that for the time being — or probably for good — Filipino sports consumers will have to embrace the way sports content will be made available, not only by ABS-CBN, but also by other sports media channels.

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Kristoffer Ed Bellen

Kristoffer Ed Bellen

Formerly a sports journalist for various digital sports media outlets and now serving as an analyst manager for a media monitoring and analytics startup.