What does prospective buyer see in Sixers?

Joshua Harris leads a group said to be near a 76ers deal.
Joshua Harris leads a group said to be near a 76ers deal. (Bloomberg)
Posted: June 12, 2011

This is an ego buy. It has to be. There's no other explanation.

A billionaire named Joshua Harris is reportedly leading a group that's close to purchasing your Philadelphia 76ers. He's 46, hails from New York, and went to the Wharton Business School. That's about all anyone knows about Harris at the moment - that and the fact he made his money by gobbling up distressed properties, which is all too perfect for these purposes.

After a horrible and oft-cited slow start, the Sixers put together a decent enough 2010-11 season and made the playoffs. Doug Collins coached 'em up as only Doug Collins can, and his young charges showed promise and hustle. Of course, promise and hustle have limited shelf lives, and the Sixers curdled and then expired in the first round of the postseason.

That's what Harris is reportedly acquiring. Which raises a simple question: Um . . . why?

A complicated economic study was done recently that explained what it means to be in Harris' tax bracket. See if you can follow this. Here's what billionaires can buy: a lot. (It's a difficult theory to understand; give yourself time to absorb it.)

Harris has the means to jet off to Paris or Milan or maybe the moon and buy whatever he fancies, and yet it's almost as though he stumbled upon Ed Snider's yard sale and decided to do some shopping there instead. If Harris went looking for a shiny new bike, Snider is instead selling him a rusty Huffy with shaky brakes. Even if Snider unloads it for a quarter instead of 50 cents, it's not a great deal when the bike - relative to those ridden by others in the same neighborhood - needs a lot of work before it has any chance of winning a race.

There have been unrelenting rumors about the Sixers dealing Andre Iguodala - possibly to Golden State for Monta Ellis or to the Clippers for Chris Kaman - which is a nice and long-overdue idea. But no matter whom they get in return, it probably doesn't get them all that close to claiming a title or even contending in the Eastern Conference. Not when the Sixers still have to get past the Heat, Celtics, and Bulls, all of whom have better and/or deeper talent.

"We know what our needs are," Snider said after the season. "First, we'd like to get a big man in the middle. That's obviously the most difficult thing to do. They don't just grow them anymore."

No big man. No superstar(s). No championship. That's basically how it goes in the NBA.

The fans here know it. While there was renewed interest in the team this season, the Sixers still come in well behind the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers in terms of attention. Out of 30 NBA teams, the Sixers were 25th in attendance last season. The season before they were 26th, and the season before that they were 23d. You get the idea.

The TV numbers aren't any better. The Flyers averaged a 2.4 rating (73,000 households) on Comcast SportsNet last season, while the Sixers averaged a 1.6 rating (49,000 households). That's a lot more eyeballs focused on hockey on a given night than on hoops.

Meanwhile, Harris is reportedly obtaining a team that doesn't own the building it plays in. That belongs to Comcast-Spectacor. The franchise also doesn't have its own TV network and instead appears on a station also owned by Comcast. So what exactly is Harris getting beyond a good (not great) team with mediocre attendance and suffering television ratings? What kind of revenue, if any, can he expect beyond the gate? Is he getting a cut of concessions or parking? If not, and if he asks nicely, perhaps Snider will comp Harris a few beers at Philly Live once it's open.

Then there's the not-so-small matter of the pending league lockout. Harris could be buying a new business right around the time the NBA decides to shut off the power for a while and close up shop.

Despite all that, Harris, presumably, remains interested in going forward with the deal. That's remarkable and maybe inadvisable, even though it isn't all that unusual. (Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets, after all.) Harris might be a shrewd businessman, and he might turn the Sixers into a profitable and/or successful franchise. But, for the moment, he appears to be another rich guy with the disposal funds to subsidize an acquisition for no other reason than his own vanity. He wants what he wants when he wants it. Boys do love their toys.

Ed Snider probably recognized that impulse in Harris from a good distance. If Snider was a used-car salesman, he wouldn't need to ask Harris what he'd have to do to put the billionaire in a pre-owned auto today. He'd simply have to grab the keys and open the door and watch Harris climb into the driver's seat. Sometime later, Harris would realize he should have kicked the tires first - which is when he'll notice that his new ride doesn't have any, and that it's suspended on cinder blocks.


Gonzo: What does billionaire see in Sixers? D2.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813, gonzalez@phillynews.com, or @gonzophilly on Twitter. Read his past columns at philly.com/gonzo

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