John Smallwood: Sixers' fans need reason to return

Posted: April 18, 2012

IT WAS ABOUT 30 minutes before tipoff of the Sixers' regular-season home finale Tuesday night.

Rich Pickens sat in Section 108 of the Wells Fargo Center, about 30 rows from the court, wearing a vintage Bobby Jones jersey.

He was virtually alone.

By the start of the Sixers' 102-97 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Pickens had plenty of other fans around. It was a welcome change for Pickens, a season ticketholder for 12 years.

It's been a renaissance year for the Sixers and their attempt to reconnect with their tepid fan base.

If he has accomplished nothing else, Sixers coach Doug Collins made good on his promise to make the franchise relevant again to Philadelphia. A surprising start from a blue-collar squad caught the attention of Sixers fans and convinced them to give the team a try.

Home attendance for the 2011-12 season was up 19 percent, the highest jump in the NBA.

In 20 games at Wells Fargo since Jan. 30 when they improved to 15-6, the Sixers have had just one crowd of fewer than 18,000.

But as a veteran Sixers patron in the sports facility that's been named after a half-dozen banks over the years, Pickens knows the cozy feeling in Section 108 can be fleeting.

With the Sixers having slipped badly in the second half of the season, he is convinced a lot of new folks he has met will be back again next season.

"I'll be back," said Pickens, who comes from Washington Township, N.J., to attend games with his wife. "But we love the game. We love the Sixers. I saw them win their first championship [1966-67] at the old Convention Hall.

"But a lot of the other fans that have been coming look are now looking at what has happened this season and think we have no hope of winning. The fans that they attracted this season came because the Sixers were winning. But they aren't going to keep winning, not with this team the way it is now."

The Sixers were lucky.

In all likelihood, a lot of the tickets that were part of their big crowds were purchased when the Sixers were battling for the Atlantic Division championship and not struggling just to hold on to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference as they now are.

That has changed.

With the loss to the Pacers, the Sixers have dropped 21 of their last 32 games, including their final four home games.

They are 31-30 and playing like they're headed for a seventh straight non-winning season - something unimaginable 2 short months ago.

Fans are again grumbling the way they have for most of the past decade. The Sixers again look like a middling team with no entertaining superstar to build around. They are a franchise that provides little incentive for those fans who took a leap of faith this season to do the same thing again next season.

"Not if this team stays the same way it is now," said Andrea Queen, of Bear, Del., and a season ticketholder since 2000. "I don't think they actually stopped trying, but there are a lot of things that are missing that need to be fixed.

"I think they missed a big opportunity with the fans. They had them coming. Now it's looking a little questionable for next year."

To be fair, Sixers CEO Adam Aron said they already have sold 5,300 season tickets 6 months before the start of next season, compared to 3,294 for this one.

But while it represents an improvement, 5,300 season tickets don't seem like that many for a 20,000-seat arena.

There are 6 months until tipoff for 2012-13, but the new Sixers ownership needs to understand that their fans aren't like Flyers fans who come out en masse for the Orange and Black regardless of how good they are.

Performance has always been the biggest determining factor in Sixers' attendance.

Sixers fans will always talk about the team, but most won't lay down their cash until they believe the team has a legitimate chance to compete for a title.

Even a fan like Steve Johnson, of Delaware, who said he comes to five or six games a season because he simply loves the Sixers, conceded the organization needs to "add one or two more pieces to the puzzle. We still have a lot to work on to be a championship-caliber team. I think I would be disappointed if we did not try to do something."

The Sixers' shrinking-violet performance since they entered April leading the Atlantic has fans understandably questioning the direction of the franchise once again.

Another note to management: The Flyers were coming off a 106-point season and a division title when they decided they needed a change of culture and traded Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

The Sixers don't have nearly as much risk in altering their fractured lineup. The chants for change grow louder with each enthusiasm draining loss.

"We have some OK talent, but we really don't have the talent to maintain a winning situation," Pickens said. "You hear it. A lot of people want certain players to go, and they are not going to keep coming back here if these players are the same ones back next season."


Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com.

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