Economy Scratches Pool in the Side

Pool, just like every other activity, is closely tied to the fortunes of the economy. Pool falls into the category of ‘discretionary spending' and when the economy falters it is discretionary spending that takes the hit first, takes it hardest, and suffers the longest. Individuals faced with the choice between buying a new cue or paying the mortgage have no choice to make at all. The mortgage gets the nod. The choice between groceries and a new case can only fall in one direction.

By the end of 2007 the economic forecasts were growing glum. Housing starts fell drastically as that market simply went away. While economists argued over when to declare the economy in recession most households were already struggling to keep up the bills. One of the first warning shots that came across the bow of pro pool was when the US Open requested that their winner, Shane Van Boening, take his prize money in six installments. He complied and received his final payment in April of 2008.

This was the harbinger of a tragic year for pool. Poolrooms began to close at an alarming rate as they were dealt the combination punch of a slowing economy and smoking bans. The tables from these closing rooms came out into an already dull market and rumors of big-time table companies seeking bankruptcy protection began to rumble as they struggled to compete with the number of used tables coming onto the market at the same time that consumer spending evaporated.

The 2008 World 8-Ball Championship in Fujairah was a truly successful major event of the year for the men. Its prizewinners had their money in hand when they left the arena. But those champions and fans who then looked forward to the World 9-Ball Championship would be shocked to learn that the event was canceled when no sponsors anywhere in the world could be found who were willing to fund the endeavor.

Matchroom Sport of London, the sports promotion company who has the contract to hold the WPC, was simply unable to find anyone to step up to the plate for the event. Early in the year it appeared that they had the required promoter to do the event. They even had interest expressed out of more than one area of the world with both Indonesia and the Philippines getting onto the short list. But none of the interested groups could actually put together the community of investment required for the event. The event never materialized as the world economy continued its downward spiral. This all led up to a chain of events in the Philippines that would do any mystery novelist proud.

The drama of Philippine pool in 2008 was one that captivated the billiard news for much of the year. But it began many years before and it is important to understand the history of events there in order to put the present into proper perspective.

The Philippines have long been a breeding-ground for great pool players. The game enjoys immense popularity there and those who display potential for greatness are often picked up and groomed by what are now called stable managers. These managers pay the players a salary, cover their travel expenses and manage their training regimens in return for a cut of their winnings in both private games and professional tournaments. The normal percentage is 40% for the managers, but this percentage can change considerably depending on the relationship between the manager and the player, the notoriety of the player, the amount of money involved, etc.

The first great manager that the world came to know was Aristeo “Putch” Puyat, a skilled Filipino businessman who owned, among other things, the AMF pool table distributorship for the Philippines. He also owned a chain of pool halls and was among the first to recognize the talents of Efren Reyes. He took Reyes under his arm when Reyes was still young and their relationship continues to this day.  But Puyat is not the only manager of pool players in the Philippines. Other famous managers include Perry Mariano (Bugsy Promotions) and Jonathan Sy (Negros Billiards Stable). These three managers, joined by cuemaker Edwin Reyes, formed the Billiard Managers and Players Association of the Philippines in early 2008.

This association, known by the acronym of BMPAP, was formed in part as a reaction to the efforts of Yen Makabenta and his sports promotions company, Raya Sports. Makabenta came to prominence in 2006 when he purchased the rights to the WPA World 9-Ball Championship from Matchroom Sport. Makabenta successfully ran the WPA World 9-Ball event for two years and then decided that the game of Ten Ball was where his interests truly lay. This was because, according to those close to Makabenta, that Ten Ball was the game of choice in the Philippines for big-money games. The addition of that single ball removed much of the luck factor from the short-rack rotation games that had previously been dominated by 9-Ball. Removal of luck is always favored by those who are betting large sums on the outcome of a competition between two skilled competitors.

So in the fall of 2008 Makabenta made the decision to forego his rights to the World 9-Ball Championship and hand those back to Matchroom while he concentrated on producing a World Ten Ball Championship instead. The task was formidable. When he made this decision Ten Ball was not even an officially recognized game. It had no formal rule set and could be played differently by different players. So he first petitioned the WPA (World Pool Association) for recognition of the game.

The WPA decided to recognize the game and developed a rule set so that players everywhere could be playing the same game. The WPA also granted Makabenta the privilege of holding the first World Championship for Ten Ball in the fall of 2008. And this is when the saga began that the pool world witnessed in great dismay for the rest of the year that continues today.

The source of the problem between Raya and the BMPAP is broad-based and is not due to a single cause. We can present several scenarios, all of which are said to be reasons. First, Mr. Puyat had said for many years that it would not be possible for the Philippines to hold a World Championship. He did not believe the infrastructure required for television was in place, among other factors. So when Makabenta brought the World Championships to Manila and held a successful tournament there it is said that Puyat suffered a ‘loss of face', something that is much more seriously taken in the Philippines than in many other cultures of the world.

Next, when Mr. Makabenta was holding the World 9-Ball tournaments he enlisted and received the aid of Perry Mariano and his associates. Apparently, and this story varies in its details depending upon the source, Mariano believed that his assistance would be rewarded in some fashion, either through a partnership with Raya or through some other financial arrangement. However, the expected benefits never materialized and when Mr. Makabenta decided to hold the World Ten Ball event the relationship between the two groups was forever torpedoed by the inability of Makabenta, Mariano and Puyat to form a working relationship in the event. A grudge was born.

Adding to this was the undercurrent of politics in Philippine pool at the same time that the Philippine economy was being heavily pressured by the impending collapse of the financial markets. The control of the game and the monies that go with it were at stake. Makabenta, while head of Raya Sports (the organization he founded that promotes sports, including pool) was also the Chairman of the BSCP (the Billiard and Snooker Congress of the Philippines). Both the BMPAP and the BSCP touted the reasons that they were the ‘official' governing body of pool in the Philippines. The BMPAP had the recognition of the Games and Amusements Board of the Philippines as well as the loyal support of presidential hopeful Senator Manny Villar. The BSCP had the recognition of the Philippine Olympic Committee and, with that, the recognition by the WPA (which governs pool under Olympic guidelines).

In late winter of 2008 the BMPAP announced that they would be holding the players under their control out of any BSCP events, including the World Ten Ball event. So players who many will argue are the best in the world including Reyes, Francisco Bustamante, Dennis Orcullo, Ronnie Alcano, and Alex Pagulayan all announced early in the year that they would not participate in the World Ten Ball event. To illustrate the depth of their commitment, this act was undertaken by these players at the risk of being declared “not in good standing' with their home federation, the BSCP, a ruling that could have prevented their playing in future WPA events. Privately, several players admitted that they feared this outcome but had no choice in the matter as their ‘debt of honor' (another Filipino fact of life) to their managers made them conform to the wishes of the managers.

Supporters of the BMPAP undertook a large PR campaign to discredit Makabenta and his event. This chapter played out in the pages of AZBilliards Forums and in publications around the world, often dominating the sports pages in Filipino newsapapers. The BMPAP planned to counter the WTBC and approached Matchroom Sport and then announced that they would hold the World 9-Ball Championship in the Philippines for 2008, a promise that went unfulfilled when Senator Villar unexpectedly pulled his financial backing of the event at the last moment. As a result, the WPA had no World 9-Ball event in 2008. To make this complicated situation even more complex, Matchroom Sport is said to believe that the production of the World Ten Ball event produced a lessening in value to the product of pool and reduced demand for their WPC programming. This, plus the worsening of the world economy, has made the task of finding sponsors for the World 9-Ball event ever more difficult and it is therefore feasible that Matchroom may be unable to produce the event again in 2009. While Matchroom is seeking sponsors and has said that their preference is to hold the event in 2009, no encouraging words have been forthcoming since the failure of the 2008 event and concerns surrounding the event are mounting. One of the options for Matchroom is to just hand the rights to the event back over to the WPA who would then have to begin anew the search for a well-heeled promoter to produce the event. Neither Matchroom Sport nor the WPA have suggested to date that the event is in peril but the evidence is growing that this is a possibility. There are options available for this event in other parts of the world with other promoters, but the dissolution of the relationship between Matchroom and this event would be a remarkable occurrence and not one that bodes well for the health of the sport.

As for developments in the Philippines, the BMPAP has had some trouble getting their announced events off of the ground. These troubles are also directly related to the economy and the vanishing of sponsorship dollars from the scene. As previously mentioned, they had to cancel the World 9-Ball event that they announced and have repeatedly delayed the start of their Professional Pool League, a vehicle they say will enable Philippine pool professionals to earn a good living. This series was originally announced via an article in the Philippine Star newspaper in the winter of 2008 and was scheduled to begin in June of that year. It was then delayed with a promise to begin in December of 2008. To date, no events have been held and no new starting date for these has been announced.

As the rumor war surrounding the WTBC in the summer of 2008 heated up it was alleged that the players in that event would not be paid, that Raya Sport did not have the promised prize money. While that turned out to be erroneous, the payment of players was much slower than had been expected. Two players, Chia-Ching Wu and Chin-Shun Yang, did not receive their prize monies until late January of 2009. Makabenta had assured everyone involved in his event that the player's money would be disbursed within two weeks of the end of the event as the promised sponsorship money came in. But then, just as the WTBC concluded, the world economy simply collapsed and the promised sponsorship monies slowed to a trickle. The total player payment date was moved out first to November 15th, and then to December 15th, and the final payments did not actually arrive until January.

This brings us to the morass that the Philippine pool scene now finds itself immersed within. BMPAP player and former World 9-Ball Champion Alex Pagulayan is suing Yen Makabenta for slander after being eliminated from the final leg of the Guinness tour for sharking. His opponent did not complain about any sharking move and the sponsors of the event later used Pagulayan as a spokesman. Still, the BSCP found him guilty of the charge and this precluded his presence in the final event.

The two organizations, the BMPAP and the BSCP, are still at odds. Neither side is willing to compromise with the other. The BMPAP position includes the demand that “Makabenta must go” while the BSCP can simply point to the fact that it is they who own the recognition of the IOC and the WPA. This situation may soon resolve itself somewhat as we are now being told that the BMPAP has been granted seats on the board of the BSCP by the Philippine Olympic Committee and that they now control the votes to swing control of that organization over to them. While the BSCP has denied this turn of events Yen Makabenta has said that he may step down from the Chairmanship of the BSCP later this spring, remain a Director of that organization, and concentrate on his work at Raya Sports.

Raya Sports still holds the contract for the WTBC and has said that they will go ahead with the event in 2009.  But the very large question that remains unanswered is how successful they may prove at attracting sponsorship in a world where advertising and promotion dollars are simply vanishing for second-tier sports.

It is not only the Philippines that is finding money a difficult commodity to harvest. On January 23 a person very close to the promoters of the World 8-Ball Championship in the UAE announced on the AZB forums that the sponsors for that event are balking and that the dates may have to be moved back to give the promoters more time to find new sponsorship. Others close to this event are ‘forced to admit' the possibility that the World 8-Ball Championship may be put off for a year while the economy recovers.

From the somewhat comfortable position that they held in late 2007, the management of the WPA must now feel as if their world has closed in on them like a vise. The promoters who had been so reliable for them then are now feeling the squeeze of the economy and are reluctant to make commitments.

So, is it possible that 2009 will have no World 8-Ball Championship, no World 9-Ball Championship and no World Ten Ball Championship? Those in charge say that is not likely, that plans have not been canceled and all efforts are underway. But it must be recognized that if the sponsors that make these events possible cannot afford the promotion costs involved then the events cannot go ahead as planned. There is also the possibility that prize funds for these events could be reduced and the events go ahead with lowered purses, but none of the promoters are eager to take this giant step backwards.

2009 and 2010 are setting up to be lean years for professional pool players. Even the WPBA, the stalwart of the ladies scene that has always been so successful at attracting sponsorship, has this year reduced the number of their major events from seven to five and is exploring their options for what the future holds. Just as the production costs for televising their events has gone up in 2009 the economy has descended into the abyss and left them considering how to handle the financial squeeze.

Pro pool is facing some tough times. How it weathers this financial storm is a problem that everyone involved with producing billiard events is considering. But when the rest of the economy falters, the discretionary areas crumble and pool is anything but an economic necessity to the world at large.