MANILA, Philippines -- After two conferences of playing in mostly empty gyms with fans only seen via LED screens, the PBA is set to welcome back fans on Wednesday.
The PBA has received the go-signal from the local government of Quezon City to have spectators in the stands when they return to the Araneta Coliseum on December 15. They will be treated to a double-header featuring TerraFirma vs. Magnolia, and NLEX vs. TNT Tropang GIGA.
Strict protocols are in place: only fully-vaccinated individuals are allowed to watch in-person, and they must present a vaccination card along with a valid government ID. As the games are being held in the Big Dome, fans must also have a Kyusi pass.
Spectators are required to wear face masks, and food is not allowed in the stands. Moreover, the Big Dome won't be filled to capacity: at most, there will be 4,000 people inside the venue, already counting the personnel of the PBA teams, PBA staff, and members of the broadcast crew and media.
Despite the restrictions, PBA players are thrilled to be playing in front of fans again, with San Miguel guard CJ Perez noting that they give the teams an "extra energy" that they haven't had in the past two conferences.
"Siyempre 'pag may fans, extra energy 'yun para sa players," said Perez, whom fans will see as a member of the Beermen for the first time on Saturday against Blackwater.
"Siyempre sobrang na-miss namin 'yung maglaro ng may fans talaga, so maraming-maraming salamat po sa inyo at sa PBA," he added.
"All of the PBA teams are so happy on this development," said San Miguel head coach Leo Austria. "Thank you sa effort ng PBA, because we know they're always trying to get a venue that will be having a lot of fans."
The last time that the PBA had fans in the stands was on March 8, 2020, the opening of its 45th season which was also held at the Araneta Coliseum. Only one game was played that night -- a showdown between Magnolia and San Miguel Beer.
Three days later, the Philippine Cup was suspended indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It started again in October, in a bubble held in Clark, Pampanga.
Barangay Ginebra coach Tim Cone, whose team's fans are among the most passionate in the league, predicted that the quality of basketball in the PBA will rise once fans are back in the stands, having observed the same phenomenon in leagues in the United States.
"It's been a long time, and to a man, we're all excited about having fans in the stands," said Cone, whose team won the All-Filipino Cup in 2020 with fans only seen through the LED screens at the Angeles University Foundation Gym in Pampanga.
"I remember watching the NBA, 'yung Major League Baseball and football, when they first started coming back in the United States. The stadiums were half full or whatever, but still, you could see the whole level of play go up to another level from the time in the bubble," he said.
"I think you'll see that. I think the level of play will go up. Doesn't matter how many fans are in there, it's gonna go up because that's what we play for, you know?"
Ginebra had won its first game of the PBA Governors' Cup on Sunday, coming from behind the break the hearts of Alaska, 80-77. Ahead of the game, Cone told his team that they have to "take care of the game ourselves," but when they next play, they can count on the support of the Barangay.
The Ginebra fans will be treated not just to the local stars, but also to returning import Justin Brownlee who is back for another tour of duty with the Gin Kings.
"I don't think anybody plays better for the fans than this guy right here," said Cone, referring to Brownlee. "I mean, when he has fans back, he is unbelievable."
"Obviously, for Ginebra, we're the most excited, but I tell you, everyone to a person in the PBA is excited about this."
Ginebra fans will get a chance to see their team on Friday against the NorthPort Batang Pier.