New Sixers owners have big plans for team

Posted: October 19, 2011

SINCE IT WAS announced in the middle of the summer that an investment group headed by billionaire Joshua Harris was going to purchase the 76ers from Comcast-Spectacor and chairman Ed Snider, the same question has been on the lips of most every sports fan in Philadelphia: Why?

The punch line: Because he can.

The real answer: Because he sees an opportunity, one similar to those he embraced with other businesses that he has turned around as he built his fortune, valued at nearly $1.5 billion by Forbes. But also one that is different, because of the scrutiny that comes with owning a team in Philadelphia.

"Three times in my career before, I was involved in significant turnarounds of financially distressed companies," Harris said during a news conference yesterday to officially announce the sale. "In each case, for a successful turnaround, the management focused 100 percent on two things: their customers, which in this case is our fans; and they focused on making their product excellent. And here we will put a lot of attention to putting a great product on the court and delivering a great fan experience."

Harris and new chief executive officer Adam Aron used their introductory news conference to announce slashed prices on tickets; a plan for open communication with fans through a new website; and a new marketing campaign, with promises of more announcements to come.

"At the Sixers, we will set out to be world class and cutting edge in everything we do," Aron promised.

Harris, who will be the Sixers' managing owner, leads a group of 15 investors who purchased the team for $280 million. The sale does not include the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers will become a tenant, or Comcast SportsNet, which will continue to broadcast the games. Forbes had valued the franchise at $330 million, 17th in the NBA.

Four of the owners are native Philadelphians, including actor Will Smith, and six are Penn graduates, including Harris and David Blitzer, of the private equity firm Blackstone, who will be co-managing owner.

The owners opted to have the news conference on the court at the Palestra, with the Sixers' championship banners hanging behind the dais, instead of at the Wells Fargo Center, to show their Penn roots.

"By making the 76ers a standalone business, the ownership and coaches and management have 100 percent of our time focused on that asset and not on a broader package of assets," said Harris, the co-founder of Apollo Global Management, a private equity firm. "When we have done that in the past, with other businesses, that singular focus and bringing everyone together breathes new life into a lot of situations."

Despite increasing their win total from 27 to 41 and returning to the NBA playoffs, the Sixers finished 14th in average home attendance at 14,751 and continued to lose money.

The new owners were unable to address any issues about players because of the ongoing NBA lockout, although did announce that they had let go general manager Ed Stefanski and laid the brunt of the day-to-day basketball operations on president Rod Thorn and head coach Doug Collins.

Aron said the management is "moving 100 miles an hour on all fronts and we will be ready with something fabulous" when the lockout ends.

"You can be assured that we are interested owners and focused," Harris said. "Behind the scenes, there will be lots of debate about what we do with players, but at the end of the day, Rod is the captain of the ship. We were lucky enough to buy the third most winning franchise, a storied franchise at a time when we think we were able to get an appropriate deal . . .

"The team has been less connected with its fans and as a result wasn't generating revenue and selling tickets as we think it can do. It wasn't realizing its potential. There are lots of things we can do by improving the financial situation of the team, connecting with fans, making it a great experience and we have to win. We have a team and executives very capable of doing that."

Harris, 46, said he will continue to live in New York, although "you can expect to see my smiling face at many of the games" and said he will be part of the Philadelphia community.

Aron, 57, an Abington High product, already has relocated to South Philly and joked that he is used to answering phone calls from Harris and his partners from their past business ties.

"I've been a Sixers fan all my life, although admittedly, like the rest of Philadelphians, in some years more than others," said Aron, who also is an investor in the team. "But my task, and our task now, is quite clear: to rekindle that spark, to remake that connection between all Philadelphia sports fans and their NBA team. Josh and I and all of our partners have an enormous bedrock of tradition and heritage from which to build."

Just about everything that they do in a basketball sense will and should revolve around Collins.

"I think when you've been around as long as I have, [change] is sort of the nature of the business," he said. "When I played for the 76ers, I think we had three ownership changes in 8 years . . .

"Every feeling that I've gotten from this ownership is that they feel like I'm important to what they're doing. They've made my family and I feel that way and I'm excited. Of course, I'm going to miss my friends [Stefanski and Snider], but it's like being traded or cut. When you've been a part of a team, the change is going to be a part of that."

Change is something the new group stressed yesterday, along with its commitment to Sixers fans.

In some ways, it echoed what Collins said when he was hired before last season. He talked of making the Sixers "relevant" again on the city's sports scene.

"We wish the Eagles nothing but success, the Phillies nothing but success, the Flyers nothing but success," Aron said. "We do hope to make this a four-sports team town."

It is impossible to be as successful in business as Harris has been without enjoying competition and recognizing the value of hard work. He wrestled at Penn as a student there in the early 1980s. He ran the New York Marathon in 2010.

Harris said he will "be a great fan. I'm going to be excited when we win and upset when we lose," although he said he and his colleagues will be "rational" in the way they run the team.

"It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be a straight line," he said. "I'm sure there's going to be volatility, I'm sure we'll have losing streaks, but I think, in the long run, this is a great franchise and we have a great coaching staff and a great management team and we have a great city.

"I think all the pieces are in place to make it work, but it's going to be a lot of work. One of the reasons that we didn't put a time frame on our goal is because we can't. It probably will take time. Being successful at anything is a function of a lot of little things usually, not a couple of easy steps. There's no easy fixes here."


For more Sixers coverage, read the Daily News' Sixers blog, Sixerville, at www.philly.com/Sixerville.

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