A Dream Come True

If ever there was a convergence of dreams then the World Pool Championships to be held in Manila for the first time was truly the catalyst.

When the chairman of the Billiards and Snooker Congress of the Philippines Yen Makabenta first stayed up like millions of other Filipinos until the wee hours of the morning to watch Efren "Bata" Reyes win the World Pool Championship Finals in Cardiff in 1999, he thought "this event has to be brought to our country."

Since then Makabenta admits he's been "scheming to do it. When he became chairman of the BSCP it provided the incentive. Makabenta said to himself "its about time." Now, as he stands on the threshold of having succeeded in bringing the most prestigious event in the history of pool to the Philippines, Yen says "I'm really excited. It's a dream."

Matchroom Sports owner, the striking promotional whiz who has taken a number of sports such as poker and darts from their almost static surroundings and turned them into exciting, dazzling television spectacles, Barry Hearn, told Viva Sports/Manila Standard Today that to be at last staging the World Pool Championships in the Philippines is "a bit of a dream come true."

Hearn commends Makabenta of Prism Communications for his "faith and commitment" and credits him for "being instrumental in all this happening." But the workhorse with a vision and indeed a belief that it could be done was Ted Lerner, an American journalist and a multi-faceted TV personality who has made Angeles City his home and has always had a feel for sports and perhaps more importantly, the business of sports.

It was Lerner , with the support of Viva Sports and Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, who brought in Ring Magazine's respected Editor-in-Chief Nigel Collins to Manila to personally present Filipino ring idol Manny Pacquiao with the fabulous Ring championship belt at a glitzy ceremony in Malacanang with no less than President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a longtime avid fan and supporter of Pacquiao, in attendance.

Lerner was for years fascinated with the idea of bringing the WPC to the hometown of Reyes which happened to be Lerner's hometown for some years now – Angeles City.

Lerner admits he wasn't even a fan of pool when he came to the Philippines. Then, quite naturally for someone with a love for sports, Lerner turned into a fan who became enamored with Reyes and other outstanding pool players. He worked the sport as a venue announcer, branched into doing television commentary and wrote about the happenings in pool for regional newspapers and magazines. Lerner had a flair for telling a story – and selling it.

Lerner was in Taipei for the 2004 World Pool Championships which we too attended with the acknowledged "Godfather" of Philippine pool, Aristeo "Putch" Puyat and got to know Hearn and one of his key executives at Matchroom Sport, the likeable Luke Riches. Lerner had a way with getting people to listen. And he followed this up with a visit to Kaohsiung for the 2005 World Pool Championships.

Lerner was clearly driven by the desire to bring the WPC to Reyes' hometown in honor of "The Magician" when he was turning 50. He posed the question, "how could we not have the tournament at least one time when Efren is still active and at the top of his game? It would be a shame if he retired or something happened to Efren and we never had the WPC in his backyard."

Lerner first broached the idea to Hearn in Taipei two years ago. He recalls that as soon as the consummate promoter heard about it "he snapped. He got it right away." Hearn's thoughts wandered. "I can see it right now" he mused, "bringing it back to where it all began." The significance was that when Reyes won the World Pool Championships in 1999 it was the first year that Matchroom Sport promoted and staged the event.

Lerner had some misgivings about Angeles City and told Hearn it was not Taipei or Kaohsiung or Cardiff. "Its not a totally wholesome place" he candidly admitted. Ted went on, "its got a little color to it. A bit of a honky-tonk, wild west town." Hearn's response was instant. "That's what the sport of pool needs. It needs color."

It was clear that Lerner sensed the promotional genius in Hearn who, to him, "was in some way like boxing promoter Don King" although Hearn didn't dress anywhere near the outrageous fashion in which King did. Hearn was able to capture the moment and the possibilities right away.

Hearn had always wanted to stage the WPC in Manila because he knew it was sure to be much more colorful and full of the passion of life compared to Taipei. But there was a far more compelling reason as Hearn pointed out. "Since the late 90's we have had the master cuemen of the Philippines contesting our pool events and over a period of time we have come to appreciate their myriad skills and flair. Of course the great Efren Reyes won the World Pool Championship the first time it came under our promotional umbrella in Cardiff, Wales in 1999. Since then we had Francisco "Django" Bustamante's emotional near miss in 2002 and the subsequent emergence of a new generation of stars like ‘Marvelous' Marlon Manalo and Dennis Orcollo"

Bringing the WPC to Manila will give every Filipino a chance to compete in the qualifying event and as Hearn mentioned there are new emerging talents such as Jeffrey De Luna and Roland Garcia who have already made their way to the starting line-up as it were.

Hearn feels the same way as Makabenta and Lerner about the value of bringing this spectacular world event to the Philippines because, as Hearn points out, the Philippines for many "is the spiritual home of the modern game." His hope is that the event will "herald a nine-day party across the country," adding that he didn't know whether "a contingency plan was in place in case a Filipino wins it." If a local does win Hearn suggests "hang on to your hats," knowing full well the Filipinos propensity and style in staging unbelievable celebrations.

Beyond the winning and the losing is the amount of work that needs to be done to make sure the staging runs like clockwork, the TV coverage reaches new heights and the marketing effort enables the ones who took the risks to, at the very least, break even.

Lerner spent almost two years just knocking on doors which at some point looked to him like "an impossible journey." He spoke to a number of people from officials at the Clark Development Corporation as well as Pagcor. They were all interested in the presentation but, as Lerner lamented, "couldn't pull the trigger" to get it done.

Of course a lot of money was involved and the people who listened really failed to understand the concept. To Lerner "they couldn't conceive of it in terms of the different production values that it brought and how it would enhance the image of the Philippines."

In many respects the WPC is like the famous "Thrilla in Manila" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on October 1, 1975. President Marcos had wanted a vehicle to show the world that the Philippines under martial rule was peaceful, the economy was doing well and there was no manifest opposition to his leadership.

Makabenta apparently got word about Lerner's efforts talking to so many potential sponsors including the Department of Tourism and Philippine Airlines. Lerner recalls that "finally we stumbled upon Yen who was looking to do something like changing the game a little bit more, organize it, stage bigger tournaments and offer more opportunities for the players."

Makabenta contacted the Asian Professional Billiards Union since there had been no word on where the 2006 WPC was to be held. Makabenta's inquiry was forwarded to Riches at Matchroom Sport. He handled the nitty-gritty affairs of the WPC. Riches advised Lerner to "go to these guys." He did. "I got in touch with them, went down and did the whole process" recalls Lerner.

He made the power-point presentation. The big money involved was obviously "intimidating" because it was never done before. Besides, telling them that "we were going to show commercials in China and India for instance made them wonder who was all this going to be sold to since only a few Philippine companies sell abroad." It was a back-and-forth exercise. Lerner also found out that Prism was not particularly interested in the international marketing package. "It's the local TV that they wanted" said Ted.

In the end Makabenta's group got the whole package of TV rights which translates into 60 hours of "live" television coverage simulcast over the government network NBN which has a strong nationwide reach and IBC 13 which is a sequestered channel with less significant reach.

Aside from TV, Prism and its Raya Sports arm got the rights to sell tickets as well as the souvenir program. In short, the whole deal. Makabenta was pleased. "Its going very well so far" he said just about a week ago. Its clear that the last ten to twelve days are critical but the major plus is that the three groups – Raya Sport, Matchroom Sport and ESPN are working well together to help pull it off.

Physical preparations for the event which will be held at the world-class Philippine International Convention Center as well as the scheduling etc have gone "without a hitch" says Makabenta, even as he concedes that on the marketing side "we are still at it because we are a little short of our target."

Nobody wants to talk figures but with a strengthened peso, it appears to be around P70 to P75 million for the whole package which is payable in dollars. Clearly, an undertaking of this magnitude and with the ultimate beneficiary being the country, it could never have been done without substantial government support, specifically agencies such as the Department of Tourism which is a natural for this kind of event and the corresponding international exposure.

Makabenta disclosed that "one big segment is coming from what we call sports tourism, with the DOT, Philippine Airlines as the official airline combining with Philippine Plaza which will formally become Sofitel this November, being the official hotel. There are also seven other hotels in the Manila Bay area as partners, providing special rates to players and guests. The various travel agencies are also pitching in.

Makabenta is appreciative of the government's support knowing full well that an event of the magnitude of the World Pool Championships couldn't survive on private sector support alone since, as he claimed, "their budgets for sports are never very sizeable." Besides, there are substantial amounts that have long been set aside for the Grand Finale rubber match between Manny Pacquiao and Erik "El Terrible" Morales which takes place on November 18 in Las Vegas. There is also the on-going PBA Conference where the fans are back in droves and the TV ratings have improved. There was also the recent San Miguel Asian 9-Ball Tour.

There is an encouraging trend which Makabenta noticed in pushing sponsorship packages. He reveals that "we are getting some action from other kinds of products, not very big but encouraging. These advertisers range from budgets of P1 million to P3 million here and there." They are effectively the smaller and medium size sponsors who wish to break into the market that has long been dominated by the traditional beer, hard liquor, cigarettes and similar products. Makabenta is confident that "these little guys can sustain support for sports." While the WPC is very big, its clear that these sponsors can support smaller tournaments. As Yen notes, "you don't necessarily always have to have San Miguel or PLDT."

The vision of Makabenta, the desire of Hearn and the dogged efforts of Lerner have paid off. In fact Ted confides that "there were a lot of times I thought I was wasting my life but I kept telling people this has to happen." Lerner told Hearn in Kaohsiung last year "I kept coming up with dead ends all the time and everybody was skeptical. When you say Taiwan they get excited. When you says it's the Philippines they go ‘yeah. Right. Sure thing. They believe that everybody is talking but are never going to come up with the money." Sad but true, this sometimes unfair perception that every single Filipino, not just the government, must work diligently to correct.

ESPN has the TV rights in Asia. The sponsorship of DOT gave it the right to refer to the tournament as the Philippine World Pool Championships. A large number of ads on the international telecasts will sell the Philippines through what TV producers refer to as "beauty shots" which are really breathtaking sights of the country. NBN and IBC will pick up and re-transmit the ESPN coverage which is always excellent. Makabenta's interest in acquiring the local rights was to reach what Lerner categorizes as "the lower end of the market where pool is popular."

Truth to tell in the beginning there was skepticism. But when you consider that the giant Philippine broadcast network ABS-CBN splurged $4 million on the Mano-A-Mano showdown between Pacquiao and Oscar Larios there was obvious confidence in being able to recover the outlay through creative marketing efforts not to mention the fact that ABS-CBN needed the ratings to recover lost ground against No.1 network GMA. Lerner disputes what people tell him about there being only so much advertising money to go around because of Manny's fight. "That's nonsense" he insists, adding "there's a big pie there. Its making people see the big picture, that it can be done."

To Yen, Barry and Ted, a dream is turning into reality. Their collective hope is that the event will be a resounding success, that millions of Filipinos will thrill at the prospect of seeing such a spectacular event as the World Pool Championships. For, after all, this is the home of pool and this is the home of the greatest pool player of all-time – Hall of Famer Efren "Bata" Reyes. Surely, the man voted the Philippines Sports Idol by a two-to-one margin over the great Manny Pacquiao on the Pacland website deserves to see the WPC come to his home.