Would-be Sixers owner needs to take long-term approach

Among the ownership of the city's four major sports teams, the Phillies group is by far the longest-tenured. (Staff file photos)
Among the ownership of the city's four major sports teams, the Phillies group is by far the longest-tenured. (Staff file photos)
Posted: June 12, 2011

Not that long ago, in the bad old days between the 1993 World Series and the 2004 opening of Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies, at least to the outside eye, were as aimless as a robot vacuum that bumps into a wall and simply turns to try a new direction.

During that span, as the team finished no better than third in the division in eight of 10 years, it wasn't considered a mark of admirable stability that ownership never seemed to clear its throat and ask what the heck was going on. In fact, people wondered if there was a detectable competitive pulse among the ownership group, or if the clink of silverware in the Union League drowned out the complaints of the fan base.

Well, seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, and that sort of talk isn't as prevalent now. The Phillies have finished no worse than second in the seven seasons since, have won the division and made the postseason four straight times, and are probably going to continue that streak this season. Stability doesn't look as bad these days.

"Our group has allowed the management team to make the decisions and be [the face] out front. That's the nature of the partnership, and during the passage of time our group has gone through the highs and the lows and they've got perspective on dealing with that aspect of it," said team president and CEO Dave Montgomery, who succeeded Bill Giles as the general partner for the group 14 years ago. "This is an unusual business, and people involved in sports sometimes listen to the opinions of outsiders. Different people deal with that differently. Fortunately, our group is sometimes so stable that people question it."

Among the ownership of Philadelphia's four major professional sports teams, the Phillies group has been the most stable. (And the third-longest tenured in all of major-league baseball.) Giles assembled the partnership to buy the team from the Carpenter family in 1981. Jeff Lurie purchased the Eagles from Norman Braman in 1994. Comcast acquired controlling interest in the Flyers and Sixers in 1996.

The subject of ownership stability became topical last week when it was reported the Sixers are about to change hands again, with a partnership headed by New York investor Joshua Harris set to buy the two-thirds interest in the team held by Comcast and the one-third interest held by Ed Snider and Spectacor. The reported price is somewhere in the vicinity of $400 million, which should help provide some operating capital for Comcast after it fleeced itself by wildly overbidding to secure Olympics broadcast rights.

Harris is an unknown now. There isn't much publicity attached to buying a building, painting it, and selling it for a profit of more than the cost of the paint. That will change, though, and we'll find out what kind of owner he will be. (It could take a while, though, if the impending labor spat proves serious enough to jeopardize next season. Nice timing, Josh!)

He could be a Mark Cuban/George Steinbrenner type of owner, or he could be more like the owners who have watched the Phillies patiently through thick, thin, and medium.

"There are times when there has been more need for their involvement," Montgomery said. "Obviously, when we wanted to make the investment in the new ballpark, that was one of them. But as far as whether we are winning games, or are trading certain players - sometimes depending on the highs and lows, I'll be the one to reach out to them and maintain the relationship and the dialogue. But as far as, 'Why did Ed Wade do this?' or 'Why isn't Charlie playing so-and-so?' We don't get that from them."

The Sixers could probably use some attention and renewed enthusiasm at the ownership level, despite the strides made last season under new president Rod Thorn and coach Doug Collins. Getting to the next level in the NBA will require an unwavering focus that might not have always been present from above while the team was operating as just another charm on the jangly Comcast bracelet.

Even on a more local level, there was never the sense as they struggled recently under Snider and ascendant power Peter Luukko that the Sixers were as much of a priority as were the Flyers. If not entirely second fiddle, they were never the first seat in the orchestra, either.

That should change under Harris. Just as the Phillies ownership group - primarily members of the Buck family, the Middleton family, and the Betz family - concerned itself just with the Phillies, the Harris group won't have to worry, from a sports standpoint, about much more than the 76ers.

With any luck, some day Joshua Harris will feel as good about that organization as the Phillies feel about themselves right now.

"It's a wonderful time in the cycle, but the group understands that this, too, is only part of a cycle," Montgomery said. "And the way we operate now should be the same today as when the cycle was working against us in the late 1990s."

It's all about perspective, about having the stability to endure consistent losing sometimes in order to build consistent winning. For the Sixers, who haven't won back-to-back division titles in 33 years, they've got the enduring part down pat. Maybe Harris will be the one who finally gets the building part right, too.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at

philly.com/postpatterns

 

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