Selling Sixers fans on an impossible dream?

Bill Gullan
Bill Gullan
Posted: March 09, 2014

Bill Gullan is the president of Finch Brands, a marketing and branding firm in Old City, and he and his company took on the hardest job in Philadelphia sports last year. No, better still: They sought out the hardest job in Philadelphia sports last year.

How do you sell the unsellable? How do you make the unpalatable palatable?

How do you get people excited about the 2013-14 Sixers?

It would seem an impossible task, especially these days. Yet, in an interview this week, Gullan insisted that this was a labor of love and not a mission of mercy.

Hired by the Sixers in the offseason, Gullan and his staff conceived of the "Together We Build" campaign that envelops the organization's corporate and basketball cultures. Gullan's role in the Sixers' presumptive rebirth provides an insight into the side of professional sports that's rarely discussed in corner bars and radio studios.

Remember: A franchise isn't just what happens on the court or on the field. It's what happens in its offices, its meetings with sponsors, its community-service projects. After more than a decade of grasping for an identity, with a new ownership group trying to chart a new course, the Sixers needed to redefine themselves in every aspect.

Born in Mount Airy, a graduate of Penn Charter, Gullan is 40, and the sights of Randall Cunningham running free and Charles Barkley throwing down thunderclap dunks flavor every memory of his adolescence. He's also grown up into a 21st-century businessman who, even in casual conversation, uses interface as a verb, and his charge was to connect those seemingly incompatible worlds: the executive's and the everyman's.

"It's a message about where the Sixers are, and it's about their commitment to developing an elite team in this city that hopefully will be elite for many, many years," Gullan said. "That process may not have a defined end point as a day on a calendar, but we know that it's started. We know there's a commitment to it.

"Marketing is what you do, and branding is what you are," he said. "The business-operations team seeks to use something like this as a rallying cry internally to get everybody on the same page. The best brands and the best companies, what they communicate to the outside world is what they believe."

Even the Sixers would probably admit that, at the moment, there's a lot of noise drowning out that message. They're in the midst of a 15-game losing streak. Their record is 15-46, the second-worst in the NBA.

According to the gaming service Bovada, the odds that the Sixers won't win again - that they will end their season with 36 straight losses, which would be 10 more than the league record - are 3-1.

And perhaps the most twisted part of the entire situation is that the Sixers are doing the smart thing here: recognizing the need to start over, bottoming out on purpose, taking advantage of lottery and salary-cap systems that incentivize this kind of designed freefall.

Still, who wants to buy tickets for that tortuous, pothole-laden ride? How do you get Philadelphia - the most fatalistic of all fan bases, a city that has celebrated one championship among its four major franchises over the past 30 years - to look beyond losses for something better far in the distance?

Even Harold Hill would struggle to come up with a sales pitch for that.

Gullan embraced it, and when he sat down with Mark Gullett, the Sixers' vice president of marketing, and Scott O'Neil, the team's new CEO, he found their perspectives on what the franchise's new direction ought to be complemented his.

"There's no desire or ability to spin them," he said of Philadelphia's fans. "The bottom line, though, is that there is joy in the journey, and that makes the destination that much sweeter, and what we were trying to do was to be honest and invite Philadelphia sports fans to take the journey alongside the Sixers."

Most of them haven't RSVP'd yet. The Sixers' average home attendance is 13,694 - a drop of more than 3,000 per game from last season - and owner Josh Harris was conspicuous Saturday night when the team retired Allen Iverson's jersey, spending several minutes courtside, pressing flesh with the deepest-pocketed attendees.

Losses and empty seats are the obstacles that even a professional persuader such as Gullan has to overcome.

Together we build? Hold up. How about we get some assurance this reclamation project of yours is going to work? How about together we win a game first?

"What we've believed from the beginning is that Philadelphia likes a challenge and is used to a challenge and is used to conquering challenges, and that's the attitude the Sixers are taking," Gullan said. "So let's understand it and respect it and enjoy it to the degree that you can.

"Even if there are 15-game losing streaks."


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