New Ownership and Fan Apathy

Photo from The Philly Phour

I’ve resisted writing about the new ownership group because, honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it. I do know a lot about current ownership, though, and the fans that occupy the seats. While current 76ers owner Ed Snider denied being a Flyers-first owner, fans and the media knew what the situation surrounding the ownership of the two teams entailed. The Flyers were Snider’s baby, the Sixers the stepchild. Now that Comcast is devoting billions to the Olympics, the company no longer needs the team.

While the relationship between Snider and the Sixers team wasn’t bad by any accounts, you could classify his interest in two ways: “financial” and “passing”. While taking an active role in the operations of the Flyers, Snider usually allowed the basketball management teams, whoever they were at the time, to make any and all decisions, rarely intervening in the operations of the team. Owners that are willing to pay but not wanting to intervene are few and far between in the NBA. While some intervening owners are good (see: Mark Cuban) others can be frighteningly terrible (see: Jim Dolan). Having owners willing to putting money on the line is important, as having a cheap owner could set a team back. The Sixers have not had cheap owners – they want to win and were willing to spend to win. You can blame ownership for bad hirings, but you cannot say they didn’t care or try to win.

However, while the owner’s have spent money and the team has improved, fans have not shown up. The Sixers ranked 25th in the NBA in home attendance this year despite having the 16th best record.

This year isn’t an isolated occurrence. Fan attendance has been in decline for a while. Here’s the attendance figures for the last 8 years:

Year Attendance Rank
2010-11 25th
2009-10 26th
2008-09 23rd
2007-08 23rd
2006-07 29th
2005-06 21st
2004-05 10th
2003-04 8th

In Allen Iverson’s hey-day, the Sixers were among the league leaders in attendance. Once Larry Brown left and the Sixers’ record started to go downhill, fans stopped showing up. This is before Iverson was traded and the rebuilding process had begun – through the Allen Iverson and Chris Webber era, even.

Why, then, did fans stop showing up? The team wasn’t great except for the Finals year in 2000-01, yet the fans had shown up before. What happened? Did the Iverson act get old? Did the NBA all of a sudden become less popular?

Well, Rich Hofmann of the Philly Daily News wondered aloud as well, as an improving team failed to get a significant jump in attendance:

It is a basketball city, and this is a fact that everyone acknowledges, yet when it comes to the Sixers, people fall in and out of love with the franchise with a head-spinning rapidity. Every one of the owners on that list had an attendance problem most of the time, and it is still true today. That has been the constant, the seats you’ll never sit in.

But it isn’t just that. The Sixers had a likable, young team in 2010-11, and they had a new coach who was widely admired, and they exceeded expectations and made the playoffs, and their television ratings took a significant jump upward – but the Flyers still drew 50 percent more viewers than the Sixers did on an average night on Comcast SportsNet. Fifty percent. Think about that.

It is what Joshua Harris is walking into – 7 decades of opening the doors and working like crazy in marketing and promotions and hoping someone shows up.

This just follows the thought process in Philadelphia sports: among the Big 4 sports league the order has almost always been Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, then Sixers in Philadelphia. Nevermind that the Sixers had, until 2008, been the most competitive for a title over a 25-year title drought. But while at times the Flyers and Philles had moved on up, the Sixers could never catch up to the three teams ahead of them.

The excuses are plenty: the Sixers have competition from college basketball teams, there’s so many other things to do in Philadelphia, they aren’t any good, the tickets are too expensive, etc.

On the competition with local Big 5 (6 if you choose to include Drexel), those teams don’t draw overly well, either. Most spectators at these games are students, as evidenced by the woefully underattended Temple basketball game that I attended during Winter Break. They also don’t occur often enough to really excuse people from attending pro basketball games. And almost anyone that watched the NCAA tourney can attest that the quality of the college game is nowhere near the pro game. As for other things, that excuse isn’t used for baseball, hockey, or football, and it shouldn’t be used here. The Sixers had a young, exciting team this year that looks to be improving, yet few are getting behind them. I’ll talk about prices and bad seats in a second, but suffice it to say attending 2-3 games can be affordable for even families.

The Sixers are just part of the overall NBA attendance problem, though. As Bill Simmons pointed out on Grantland yesterday, the NBA is at the height of its popularity but is losing money, which looks to inevitably lead to a lockout:

Unlike the NFL, they opened the books and showed everyone exactly how much: $300 million. Why are they losing money?

1. The economy tanked and fans don’t have the same disposable income.

2. The secondary ticket market lessened the need to buy season tickets; you can just cherry-pick 10 regular-season games online and skip the other 31.

3. We’re slowly learning that fans would rather stay home, watch sports on their crystal-clear HD widescreen and surf the Internet over hauling their asses to a stadium, then pay for (overpriced) parking, (overpriced) mediocre food and drinks, and (overpriced) mediocre tickets.

4. Every state-of-the-art arena built in the past 15 years was built to accommodate as many fans as possible, when actually we’re learning this decade that things might need to shift the other way: You need fewer seats, you need as many good seats as possible, and you need to figure out a way to engage fans who aren’t close enough to the court (like the Cowboys did with their obnoxiously brilliant video screen).

All of the above statements can apply to the Sixers. Philadelphia has been hit hard by the recession – maybe not as hard as other American cities, but hard – and people do have less money to spend. But that hasn’t stopped Philadelphians from attending games for the other 3 teams, who each have strong attendance figures, especially the Phillies. So I’m not sure that can be used as a legitimate excuse.

Point two is true as well. While Sixers fans regularly complain about the cost of tickets (and I’ve done this at times myself), you can get lower level tickets for a midseason game for $20-$30 each. The prices for Sixers games on StubHub are higher than, say, Nets games, but getting good seats is not an expensive proposition. Family-wise, the Sixers marketing team works hard to accommodate groups and families, offering special deals including food and drinks for incredibly cheap prices.

As for the third point, for me writing about the Sixers is much easier when I have live feedback from others and replays, which allow me to see things over again. For pricing, it’s easy to get good tickets for Sixers games. But parking is expensive if you decide to not take public transit, and the food isn’t too good*.

*Aramark, the company that provides food at the Wells Fargo Center, is actually based in Philadelphia and provides food at many other major stadiums. They also provide food for high schools in our area. Based on my experience with them, I believe that they must charge based on the quality of food. While food is ungodly expensive at games, at least it’s halfway decent**. For high schoolers, food needs to be cheap, so we got Aramark food for about half of what you would pay for it at games. The food was so vile, I believe the description for everything simply said “edible”. Thus, I chose to eat packed lunches instead. Thanks mom!

**Though I do think the “all you can eat” tickets should be changed to “all you can stand to eat” tickets. It’s catchy. And appropriate.

For the fourth point, the Wells Fargo Center has a lot of bad seats for basketball games. I imagine most arenas have this issue. Yet some fill them up.

All of this leads us to the new ownership group and what they could potentially do to inspire fans to come. Getting a superstar has been the most popular solution, but I don’t think that will work. The only solution is winning a title. It’s also the only excuse left, as the last title was won in 1983. And new ownership will only be meaningful if they give the team a chance to be a winner.

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Tags: 2011 Offseason Owners

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