It's Personal: For the Sixers, marketing hits a three-pointer

In a nearly packed Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday, fans watched intensely as the 76ers routed the Chicago Bulls.
In a nearly packed Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday, fans watched intensely as the 76ers routed the Chicago Bulls. (MARIA PANARITIS / Staff)
Posted: February 03, 2012

It was a foray, you might say, into value investing, when my friend Matt Jordan and I decided to sample season tickets this year for the 76ers.

At $197 a person, we snagged an eight-game package starring a team so deep, so young, so fearless, we hoped there'd be enough on-court fireworks to make up for the fact that our almost-corner seats were at a despairingly high altitude.

"Hey," Matt preemptively consoled in pitching the far-from-center-court idea back in December, "at least we'll have something to do during the dark, cold weeknights of winter."

Matt hadn't owned season tickets since the Allen Iverson-Pat Croce sprint to the finals in 2001 and the next year. I had been an a la carte buyer in the Spectrum years. We had been crazy for hoops as kids and figured, for the right price, why not?

At just under $25 a ticket for a season shortened by a labor lockout, the Sixers and their new owners had found our sweet spot. It was part of a decision they made to structurally cut prices on thousands of historically unsold seats in October, after buying the team from Ed Snider.

Matt and I have been pleased with the return on our investment.

You can thank an NBA team that plays with NCAA heart, and owners who grasp this basic tenet of retailing: If the product is good and the price is right, people will buy.

Sure, it's been fun watching the sometimes-ugly, always-surprising unfurling of a 16-6 record from a team that roused us from our seats Wednesday with a 98-82 trampling of the mighty Chicago Bulls (18-6).

But more intriguing is how we also - and by we, I should say mostly I, a retail-industry reporter with an eye for these things - have witnessed a marketing marvel in action.

Starting with our first game on Monday, Jan. 9, in a nearly empty arena against the Indiana Pacers, Matt and I have watched the Sixers roll out promotions centering largely on affordability for an anemic fan base that had become a punchline for Eagles fans.

On Wednesday, 18,325 bought tickets, shy of a 20,318 sellout. There were people in the seats to my right for the first time. Last season's per-game average: 14,400.

"We're on trend to sell more than 24 percent more [tickets] than last year," new Sixers chief executive Adam Aron told me in an interview Thursday morning, his voice hoarse after a game that wowed with an Andre Iguodala windmill slam dunk over a Bulls team favored to go far.

"Clearly," said Aron, a former airline and hotel-industry executive, "someone is responding to price."

Over the course of four games with my English-teacher pal from Holy Ghost Prep, even up in Section 210A it was clear the Sixers have more than an open-the-gates, they-will-come strategy.

They have brought back the old Sixers theme song  and show interesting halftime acts, including a contortionist who shot arrows with her feet Wednesday night while balanced upside down on her hands. (Odd, but impressive.)

But price is paramount when a product hasn't completely caught on. And the boldest move on this came in October, when the Sixers announced permanent price cuts on 9,000 seats: Some $101 tickets went to $59, $54 seats became $29, and $45 tickets fell to $20, Aron said.

He had analyzed past years and concluded prices were too high for demand. He persuaded initially reluctant owners that cutting prices on seats that were historically non-sellers would pay off, as would keeping prices firm or raising them on hotter ones.

It's no different from marking down an unwanted purple sweater but keeping the more popular blue one at full price - an analogy Aron invoked when I suggested his strategy was a pure retail play.

"The result is .. . our ticket sales are zooming," he said.

In December, Aron asked owners to approve more markdowns, after the NBA scheduled twice the normal number of early home games.

But some marketing magic happened on its own. In the fourth quarter Wednesday, the Sixers' theme song came on. I stood and danced, and Matt and I landed on the Jumbotron above the court.

Thursday morning, one of his students popped into class to say he had seen him. Word spread fast. It was cute.

Sometimes, a value buy is a stinker. But sometimes, it gets you in the door just long enough to remember that a gem - even a cast-off one - is still a gem. You just need a nudge to buy.


Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431, mpanaritis@phillynews.com, or @panaritism on Twitter.

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