What will it take for Sixers to win back fans?

These fans among the announced crowd of 11,294 for the Golden State game don't need to be sold on the Sixers' turnaround.
These fans among the announced crowd of 11,294 for the Golden State game don't need to be sold on the Sixers' turnaround.
Posted: March 08, 2011

TRUTH BE TOLD, the Sixers always have been a discretionary purchase.

Remember this franchise came to town in 1963, a year after Philadelphia's original NBA franchise - the Warriors - moved for greener pastures in San Francisco.

During the glory era of Julius Erving, when the Sixers won an NBA title and went to four NBA Finals, the attendance peaked at 15,775 (1982-83) in the 18,000-plus seat Spectrum.

The Sixers are not the Eagles, who will have 20,000 people on their waiting list for season tickets to Lincoln Financial Field no matter how they perform.

The Sixers aren't the Flyers, who have an insanely loyal core of fans who keep the Wells Fargo Center near capacity.

The Sixers aren't the Phillies, whose run of 123 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park is not expected to slow down amid their championship hopes.

The Sixers always have been the franchise that had to work a little harder, win a little more, have a magnetic personality to keep its share of Philadelphia's sports entertainment ticket pie.

And when the right circumstances do not all come together, Philadelphia lets the Sixers know by not showing up for games.

Welcome to the tempest.

After a dismal 3-13 start, the Sixers are 29-17 over their last 46 games.

They are 32-30, two games over .500 for the first time in almost 2 years.

The Sixers are 8-2 in their last 10 games.

By all accounts, since that bad start, the Sixers have transformed into an entertaining and winning basketball team that would typically get support from the locals.

It isn't happening. Not here. Not yet.

"We've still got to win them over," coach Doug Collins said. "We can't be a flash in the pan."

On Sunday, the announced attendance was 11,294 for the Sixers' 125-117, overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors.

You could say, "Oh, that's because it was the lowly Warriors." But last week only 13,509 were in the house for a game against the Dallas Mavericks - one of the top teams in the NBA - with the Sixers riding a four-game winning streak.

In 31 home games, the Sixers have had just two crowds of more than 20,000 - the season opener against the Miami Heat and a December game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Sixers rank 27th in home attendance at 13,952 fans per game. If that pace continues, it would be the lowest for a season since 11,935 in 1995-96.

What's worse is their home attendance percentage is by far the lowest in the league at 68.7 percent capacity.

The Indiana Pacers are next at 74.5 percent. The Sixers and the Memphis Grizzlies (78.8 percent) are the only teams with winning records that are below 80 percent capacity.

Half the teams in The Association perform in front of at least 91 percent capacity.

Given the market size of the Philadelphia region, it's amazing the Sixers can't outdraw the Charlotte Bobcats (83.1 percent), the LeBron-less Cleveland Cavaliers (98.0 percent) or Golden State (95.2 percent), which is going to miss the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 seasons.

So what's going on? Why won't people come to see the Sixers?

"I have this discussion every time we are here," said Steve Katz, who has had at least four full season tickets for the Sixers since 1983. "It's really a shame because this team is young, it's exciting and we are winning.

"But this city, until the Sixers get in the news for really doing something, people aren't going to show up."

It's a test of faith that the Sixers have yet to pass.

This half-season run of success following a 27-55 campaign has not yet been enough to convince a lot of Sixers fans that this franchise has moved beyond the mediocrity of most of the last decade.

Since reaching the NBA Finals in 2001, the Sixers have won just one series in five playoff appearances.

So now, even with Collins injecting a system of team basketball that has become a winning formula and is entertaining to watch, people aren't convinced enough yet to lay down their greenbacks.

"I'm not disappointed," Collins said when asked about his team not yet reconnecting with its fans. "When I was [a Sixers player], I played in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals [at the Spectrum in 1981] and there were 6,500 people at the game.

"Across the street, the Phillies had 40,000 for one of their first games. We won the game, went into the conference finals against Boston and tickets sold out in 5 minutes . . .

"The fans that come support us are great. I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said, 'Coach we love to watch your team play. Thank you.' That's all the respect we need."

Sure, but the bookkeepers would probably like something a more substantive. This is also a business.

One argument for the attendance woes is that the Sixers don't have a superstar player.

For various reasons, Andre Iguodala, whom the Sixers tried to sell as the face of the franchise after Allen Iverson was traded, never convinced the Philly public he was that level of player.

The Sixers' lack of "superstar appeal" was enhanced when big-ticket free-agent signee Elton Brand failed to produce at All-Star levels during his first two seasons and when rookie Evan Turner, the No.2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, did not hit the NBA running.

With Eastern Conference teams such as the Heat, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks out to emulate the success of the Celtics' superstar system, a lot of Sixers fans see this as a starless team that won't be able to compete with the elite any time soon.

Bryan Abrams has sat near the court for virtually every Sixers home game for 34 seasons. He has seen the highs and the lows.

Abrams doesn't buy the no-star argument.

"That's bull," Abrams said. "When [Iverson] was here, you had all these people complaining about him being a ball hog and that the team didn't play like a team.

"Now what you have is a young team that is having success because it plays terrific team basketball, the way the game is supposed to be played. You have seven or eight guys move the ball, passing it around. Yet you now have people screaming there is no superstar."

Another thing could be that the Sixers are the only NBA franchise that competes with six Division I basketball programs within a 30-mile radius.

A lot of basketball fans prefer the college game to the professional, and in Philadelphia there are plenty of options to fill a basketball jones at a considerably lower price.

"People are missing out on one of the most fun Sixers teams we've had," Abrams said. "It's easily the most fun team since the 2000-01 squad."

A lot of what happens between this team and its fans could depend on how it does in the playoffs.

Pulling an upset in the first round could change a lot of perceptions about the long-term potential of this team, which is one of the youngest in the NBA.

"I think if they can get off to a good start and win one of the first games on the road, you'll see some people here for Game 3," Abrams said. "My fear is if they don't, it could be an empty building."

As an organization, the Sixers notice what's going on, but they refuse to lay blame at the feet of the fans.

They understand how they got into this predicament and know it's up to them to create a new energy around the franchise.

"We actually do feel like people are starting to take notice, because our television ratings are up," said Lara Price, the Sixers' senior vice president of business operations. "They are paying attention and we're starting to pick up some in the building."

Sixers games are averaging a 1.5 rating (46,000 households) on Comcast SportsNet, a 25 percent increase over last year's 1.2 rating. "Sixers Postgame Live" is averaging a 0.7 rating, up 20 percent from last season.

"People are talking about us when I go out and around," Price continued. "Our season ticketholders are telling us people are asking about the Sixers.

"Coach Collins said we had to make the Sixers relevant again. These guys are playing really hard, and I think once people see it, they'll keep coming back."

Now, the Sixers have to figure out how to get more fans to take that next step in the door.

Everyone remembers the good years of the Iverson era, but the Sixers weren't a great team right away with the enigmatic one.

But then-team president Pat Croce and his righthand man Dave Coskey were marketing wizards.

While coach Larry Brown was building the team into a contender, Croce & Co. made Sixers games into events.

The Sixers Dance Team and Hip Hop were created early on by Croce. There was an in-house jazz band and creative halftime acts.

Coskey came up with innovative promotions - such as the limited-edition game-day Sixer Beanie Baby, Alien Iverson, the Iverson Rubber Duck and the Eric Snow Globe.

The building always went abuzz when the air-raid alarm sounded for the "Teddy Bear Parachute Drops."

Talk of the "Show" got people coming in the door.

The exciting play of Iverson made them come back.

Then, the Sixers becoming a contender pushed the average attendance to more than 19,000 for four consecutive seasons between 2000 and '04.

Unfortunately for the Sixers, their fan-friendliest era ended when Croce's attempt at a Comcast-Spectacor palace coup was quickly squashed by chairman Ed Snider.

Croce exiled himself to Elba - well, actually Hollywood and the Jersey Shore.

The Sixers lost a team president who commanded media attention for his franchise by doing things like climbing to the top of a water tower to hang a banner and enthusiastically hawking the team to anyone who would listen.

A Croce radio appearance was more effective than thousands of dollars in advertising.

"Pat Croce was a motivator," Katz said. "He was a guy who really went out and sold this franchise. He made Sixer games a must-attend event.

"They lost a lot when he left. There is nobody selling this team. You don't see anybody on the news or in the media talking about the Sixers."

After Croce, it was all about basketball again and the performance on the court started a steady decline.

Brown had a "Larry moment" after 2002-03 and skipped town, leaving the Sixers with a team in decline that only he could coach and no draft picks or salary-cap space to change anything.

When Iverson was traded in 2006 to the Denver Nuggets, that last vestige of a shining era for Sixers basketball went with him.

The franchise is still in recovery with its fan base.

The Sixers, however, are trying some things to entice fans back into the building for a look-see.

The Sixers heavily promote their "Big Value Deal," which is an attractive offer to someone looking to give the team a chance in a tough economy.

Price said they have gotten a good response to the plan that gives two tickets with $10 credit for food or drinks, plus parking, for $59.

Still, ultimately, it's going to come down to this team convincing Philadelphia the franchise is headed on an upward swing in working toward a championship.

"I used to go to about six or seven games during the Iverson era," said Michael Glatts, of Media, who was at his first game this season with his wife, Stephanie, and sons Jack (2) and Patrick (7 months). "Honestly, I'd been hearing people talking about the Sixers on sports talk and decided to come back and give them a chance.

"They're a young and exciting team. More than anything, the way my son is enjoying this, I can definitely see us coming back."

The Sixers can only hope they get more fans to give them a chance to convince them of the same thing. *

Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com.

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