Sixers new owners have tough task in regaining fans

Joshua Harris, head of the new Sixers ownership group, has a challenge ahead in making fans care about Sixers.
Joshua Harris, head of the new Sixers ownership group, has a challenge ahead in making fans care about Sixers. (AKIRA SUWA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 19, 2011

ADAM ARON, the 76ers' new chief executive officer, had season tickets for the Eagles at Franklin Field in the '60s, "back when nobody was saying they were a good team." A graduate of Abington High School, Aron was at Connie Mack Stadium on its infamous final night in 1970, "when the fans ripped it apart, stick by stick and stone by stone."

And toilet by toilet.

Aron knows what he is getting into.

For 7 decades now, first the Warriors and then the Sixers - through changes in owners and players and coaches and venues; through the championship heights and through the fallow years as well - have shared a legacy that can be summed up in three words: Good Seats Available.

Now, a new ownership group will search for the answer key that unlocks the puzzle of a basketball town that won't buy basketball tickets. The Sixers remain the only pro team in town whose fortunes at the gate are so inextricably linked, year by year, to performance.

The Eagles have sold out for most of the last half-century. The Phillies, in Citizens Bank Park, have created a following like we have never seen. The Flyers haven't won in more than 35 years and, even at their worst times, have sold pretty much every ticket Ed Snider could print.

But the Sixers have never enjoyed the same kind of loyalty at the gate. And now Snider has sold the team to a group led by Joshua Harris, co-founder of Apollo Management L.P. And now it will be the job of people like Harris and Aron to reignite interest in a team whose high points have sadly been the exception.

"Everybody's got a theory," Aron said. "But when the Sixers played well, the arena was full. When the Sixers' game presentation was fresh and exciting and vibrant, Sixers tickets sold well. That's our challenge, and that's what we're going to tackle first.

"The old saying is that 'winning is everything,' but there's a little more to it than that. We need to put on a better show at the Wells Fargo Center, and we will.

"But is [a turnaround] going to happen instantly? No, it's going to take a little time."

Considering that they began their stewardship on a day when the NBA continued to lock out its players during a labor dispute, a day when they could not even mention the names of their players in public, Harris and Aron and the rest did the next best thing: they cut ticket prices on nearly 9,000 seats, some by as much as 50 percent.

"Slashing" was the word Aron used, more than once. It is absolutely the right way to go - and especially if the lockout lasts for any significant period of time. Harris, a billionaire, is obviously not in the habit of setting money on fire - but trying to get started on any kind of a turnaround in this environment is beyond difficult.

"Clearly, we need to do a better job of getting the town excited about the Sixers," Harris said. Later, he added this dose of reality:

"One of the reasons we didn't put any time frame on our goal is because we can't."

It should not be impossible, even if smart people before him have been unable to figure it out. We all have seen the other teams develop this lasting brand loyalty. Last year, the Sixers were young and exciting and made the playoffs. Their coach, Doug Collins, is widely liked and respected. If they can continue to progress, there should be something here to build upon.

Of course, Harold Katz probably said the same thing at some point when he owned the team in the '80s.

"We're not competing with the Eagles and the Phillies and the Flyers," Aron said. "We're competing with the Celtics and the Lakers and the Knicks and the Heat and the Mavericks. This is the fifth-largest city in the United States. It is perfectly capable of supporting four major sports teams. So we wish the Eagles nothing but success, the Phillies nothing but success, the Flyers nothing but success.

"We do hope to make this a four-sports-team town again," he said.

But heaven help them if the lockout is long, or if the team stumbles after the NBA returns. Nothing is worse than having a lousy team after a work stoppage. With all respect to Harris and Aron and the squadron of new owners introduced yesterday, Collins really is the key here.

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