Sixers are ripe for some new blood in ownership

Posted: June 08, 2011

It is time for a little change.

For 15 years, Philadelphia's two indoor major-league sports franchises have been owned by a media company. In a total of 30 seasons under the Comcast corporate banner, the Flyers and 76ers have served their primary purpose - providing plenty of live programming for the company's cable sports channel.

They have also failed to win a single championship. The Sixers' drought goes back to 1983, when they were owned by Harold Katz. The Flyers have not skated with the Stanley Cup since 1975, when they were owned by Ed Snider without the benefit of Comcast stationery.

So when ESPN reported Tuesday that Comcast-Spectacor was selling off the Sixers, it was hardly a shock. The company had flirted with the idea of selling the basketball team five years ago. It has always been viewed (not always fairly) as the unloved stepchild in this cold-blooded marriage.

Getting a new billionaire owner isn't necessarily a magic solution to a sports franchise's problems. Ask fans of the NFL team in Washington about that. We don't know whether Joshua Harris is the next Daniel Snyder or James Dolan or whether he'd be another Mark Cuban or Arthur Blank. We don't even know whether any of those examples would be the right sort to restore the Sixers to first-class citizenship.

Harris went to the Wharton School, then returned to his native New York to get rich purchasing what financial types like to call "distressed properties." There are plenty of jokes about the Sixers in there. One worry is that he'd see the team as merely another business to strip and flip, although there are NBA rules against downsizing the roster. Another worry is that the team would be just a toy, a vanity project for the 46-year-old Harris until he gets bored with it.

The best case, of course, is that he's a competitive guy with a mean streak who will do whatever it takes to win a title. It looks as if we'll find out.

What we do know for sure is that the current model - a media company controlling franchises because of the programming hours they provide - has not worked. At least not here. We give you, as illustration, Larry Brown.

There's no point rehashing all the Brown-related goofiness that has swirled around the Sixers. But the decision to let him walk out of his contract to go coach (and win a title) in Detroit without any sort of compensation stands as the most tangible example of the complacent corporate culture in the Arena With Many Names. It was more important to give Brown a CEO-style parachute than to do what was best for the basketball team.

From then on, it was hard to believe winning a title was the ultimate goal - especially when it became clear that upper management was still soliciting Brown's advice while he was working for competing teams.

For different reasons, Bob Clarke and Billy King also apparently earned bulletproof vests for a few years. Clarke was the hero of those long-ago Cup teams. King had Brown's approval and a mysterious hold on his employers, who were mostly hockey people trying to look as if they got basketball, too.

Snider's reputation for caring only about the Flyers is understandable, but it's overstated. The Sixers have been given the resources needed to win in the NBA. Those resources were invested in the wrong people way too often. Wanting to win is not the same as knowing how to win. For decades, the nice men who run the Phillies earnestly wanted to win, too. It took Pat Gillick to show them how.

A sale of the Sixers would set some fascinating narratives into motion.

First, can a deal be made that gives the new ownership enough revenue to compete in the NBA? It's hard to envision, what with the Sixers playing as tenants in Comcast-Spectacor's arena, getting the scraps of ancillary revenues, and being locked into a TV deal with Comcast's cable channel. Presumably, Harris didn't become a billionaire by making shortsighted deals.

Second, the Sixers and Flyers would be entered in an intense match race to win a championship. The Flyers seem closer. They were in the Stanley Cup Finals just a year ago, and their league makes it far easier to improve year-to-year. Nevertheless, they have managed to fall short 36 times in a row.

Can a committed, deep-pocketed individual who demands excellence turn the Sixers into a championship-caliber team? And if an independently owned Sixers win a title before the Comcast-backed Flyers, will Ed Snider's head explode? It is a real possibility.

We have no idea whether the men trying to buy the Sixers have what it takes to win. We have enough of an idea about the men trying to sell the team to hope the deal gets done.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his past columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan

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