The Philippine Basketball Association is officially opening its 40th season this weekend, and a new team on the roster comes from the automotive industry. Kia Sorento, headlined by playing coach Manny Pacquiao (yes, the boxer), will attempt to follow in the tracks of Toyota in the ’70s, whose popular basketball team made the Japanese carmaker a household name in the country.
As a motoring journalist who is also a lifelong fan of basketball, I’m supposed to be thrilled by this. It means free tickets to the games, for one. As I type this, I just got an invite to attend the PBA debut of the Kia Sorento on Sunday at Philippine Arena. This development is supposed to make me watch local professional basketball again (I stopped paying attention when Samboy Lim retired). It’s supposed to make me believe that the future is bright not just for Philippine basketball but also for the Philippine car industry.
But no, all of this surprisingly has the opposite effect on me. I want to laugh, I want to puke, I want to shake my head. I want to do many things, and watching isn’t one of them.
When I first heard the news early this year that Columbian Autocar Corporation, the local distributor of Kia vehicles, was thinking of putting together a PBA team, I got excited. It seemed like a legit ambition and a sound marketing move. Kia, after all, had been an active supporter of sports around the world, particularly basketball and tennis. It even counted NBA player Blake Griffin and tennis star Rafael Nadal as product endorsers.
When the company announced a naming contest to determine the moniker its PBA team would go by, I was equally stoked. It was a brilliant PR strategy meant to engage the public—to let people know that they were part of the team.
And when I heard the rumor (which I never got to verify) that CAC was trying to get the services of the legendary Robert Jaworski to coach its team, I was convinced that Kia stood a very real chance of duplicating Toyota’s success (if not in actual championship trophies, at least in fame and sales).
Of course we all know what happened next.
The team proudly notified us that it was appointing Manny Pacquiao as head coach. Which would be the equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers hiring Floyd Mayweather to replace Phil Jackson just because the former played in the 2008 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game.
And as if this wasn’t comical enough, the Kia Sorento team then revealed that Pacquiao would actually play. As in step onto a PBA court in a real PBA game. As in function as a playing coach in the tradition of Jaworski in his Ginebra days.
But wait, said the team. Pac quiao had to go through the PBA Draft first, lest other teams protest and cry injustice. Where they got this impression, I have no idea. What self-respecting PBA team would seriously think of coveting a player with Pacquiao’s skills? I saw a snippet of Pacquiao’s preseason game and I have no doubt he will not beat me in a one-on-one game, never mind five-on-five. I’m 42 years old, by the way, with two bad knees and all the fat an overeating person normally accumulates in four decades.
Someone pointed out that getting Pacquiao to coach and play for the team was a master stroke by the Kia distributor. This would surely get everyone’s attention, the observer said. Well, that depends on the kind of attention you want to attract. Last I checked, a crap-eating screwball also commands attention at a freak show. There’s attention a well-respected businessman gets inside a boardroom, and there’s attention a nut job gets inside a circus.
Toyota’s PBA stint worked for its brand because its team kept winning championships. Popularity is only good if it’s associated with excellence and success. If you’re popular just because you’re a curiosity in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not kind of thing, you’re not exactly desirable—you’re just farcical.
And there I was believing that Kia’s days as a circus highlight were over. The ill repute from the infamous era of the Pride and the Besta had supposedly been supplanted by respect and adulation courtesy of Peter Schreyer’s tasteful styling and Kia’s overall improvement in quality.
Those days are threatening to come back in our market—a market so discriminating and so brand-conscious that a Korean make like Kia is still struggling in spite of its gorgeous and vastly upgraded vehicles (the brand sold a total of 5,950 units in the Philippines last year, down from 7,527 in 2012). The last thing Kia needs here is an image of defeat, of travesty, and of ridicule.
I hope I’m wrong, because if I’m right, this five-year experiment might damage Kia’s brand in a way no styling genius could reverse.