76ers: trying to stay relevant

New Sixers owner Joshua Harris and new CEO Adam Aron held a press conference Tuesday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Tuesday's press conference at The Palestra produced more 76ers' news than the previous three months combined. I know the diehard Sixers' fans would rather be discussing trade moves and roster upgrades, but we'll work with what we've got.

Fellow Inquirer reporter Marc Narducci camped out at a New York hotel yesterday -- 15-plus hours total! -- waiting for the end of the NBA's mediated bargaining session. The result? The mediator requested both sides refrain from commenting. Both the owners and the union turned right around and returned to the bargaining table this morning at 10. A few news outlets, Yahoo!Sports and CBS, reported that their sources inside the meeting said that little progress was being made and that the two sides are still far apart. These monitored sessions are crucial, because commissioner David Stern has already said that more regular season games could be cancelled this week if these bargaining sessions failed. If you want to know these updates instantly, you can follow on Twitter: Deep Sixer or Marc Narducci.

Leaving Tuesday's availability at The Palestra, a few things struck me about this ownership group. Much apathy exists around the Sixers (one must only read the comment section below to come to this realization), but there is still a section of dedicated fans that cares very deeply about how this new ownership group will run the team. The current lockout and labor dispute isn't doing the league or Sixers any favors, knocking away any loosely attached fans who might have enjoyed last season's improvement, but who aren't attached enough to wait out months of bargaining sessions.

But for those die-hard hoopers, all of this matters. And if I was one of them, I would be excited about Tuesday's announcements. 

This new ownership group (Joshua Harris as managing owner, Adam Aron as CEO) has a lot of ideas. Not all of them will be brilliant, not all of them will produce the intended results. Some of them might fail. But, really, who cares? The Sixers now have a group behind them whose mission is to grow the fan base and produce championships. You might think one effort or another falls short, but (to use a baseball analogy) you can be sure these guys won't go down looking. In the end, this might be the most important aspect of the new ownership group: they've identified failures, pinpointed where things have gone stale, noticed how the fan base feels alienated, and are doing something about it. Whether you agree with the method of change is, at this juncture, less important than the simple fact that tactics are being explored and executed.

For example, it's no secret that the Sixers in-game experience has been lacking for years. I'm a basketball purist, so ultimately ticket sales rest more on exciting basketball and on-court success (read: victories), but we'd be shortsighted not to recognize there's a chunk of the ticket-buying population that's tagging along for the experience. An NBA arena should produce both: good/great basketball and an exciting environment. In traveling to each arena during the 82-game schedule, we've experienced every other in-game experience, and it's been clear for the last three seasons that the one inside the Wells Fargo Center was years behind most other arenas. Some experiences are a product of pure money (The Dallas Mavericks and their ridiculous HD board), some creativity (the Cleveland Cavaliers play the quirkiest, most perfect movie clips at the precise right moments), and some are environments no other team could duplicate (the Los Angeles Lakers and their star-studded courtside seats). But the Sixers' in-game was stale and often seemed to clash with the current team's identity. This isn't 1999 or 2001, when the Sixers were basically Allen Iverson. The in-game experience should no longer reflect that culture. To hear the new ownership acknowledge that the in-game experience needed revamping might not matter much to those fans worrying about Evan Turner's jumper, but it's an important piece to becoming an attractive Friday-night family destination. (Selling more tickets means more revenue which often means more investment in players.) And, also important, it shows this new ownership has been paying attention. They might strike out once or twice, but it won't be with the bat on their shoulders. And isn't that what the Sixers' faithful have been complaining about for the previous decade?

Gone are the days when the product on the court existed without a swirl of social media surrounding it. Mark Cuban is on Twitter, he has thousands and thousands of followers, he blogs, and the whole thing produces a sense of ownership about the Mavericks. The product on the court matters most, yes, but it'll go down more smoothly if it doesn't feel force-fed to the fan base. This is a flowery way of saying: open up the communication lines. No, season ticket holders should not decide for whom and to whom the team trades its players (although this does sounds like some future reality show or PR stunt), but an ownership group in 2011 would be missing the point if they didn't engage thousands of fans. These are the people who attend the games. These are the people who seat in their seats, or grab a beer afterward, and probably come up with brilliant ways to improve the experience that an executive upstairs might never be able to come up with. I know the Houston Rockets take fan input very seriously, even mining their fans as if it was some massive, virtual brainstorming session. That's brilliant: free brainstorming power. Big-time companies pay millions for great ideas. 

For all Sixers fans who've wanted to speak directly to the men (and women) running their team, it seems the new ownership group is opening up that line of communication: www.newsixersowner.com. It might turn out to be like shouting into the wind, or it might become a very viable outlet for comments and suggestions.

So ... basketball purists ... the on-court product. What can you expect? Without delving into whatever changes might occur with the next collective bargaining agreement, there are a few comments worth making. First, as coach Doug Collins mentioned at Tuesday's availability, the new ownership has already shown that it's willing to invest in the small details that improve performance. It might not be signing Dwight Howard, but improvements to the practice facility actually are important. Upgrades to the training room, locker room, etc. may seem trivial, but they improve the conditions under which Collins and the team train each day. Two years ago, when Andre Miller first signed with the Portland Trail Blazers, I went to the Blazers' practice facility. The setup was far and away better than the Sixers' setup. These are small improvements, but think of it like recruiting in college. Players around the league talk with other players around the league. Players know the day-to-day life within each franchise and certain franchises gain the reputation for being first class all the way, for providing a convenient, accesible basketball lifestyle. It all seems like part of building a destination brand. And that's what the Sixers need to do.

As for the roster itself, the retention of Rod Thorn and Doug Collins seems like a stamp of approval for the direction the team was headed during the 2010-11 season. Those inside have conveyed to the new owners that an investment in success must be made. Winning in the NBA is not cheap. When asked if he might be willing to spend extra to win (as it was phrased, Harris was asked if he would pay the luxury tax assuming there is a luxury tax under the next CBA), Harris essentially said he would. He said they are here to win championships and they understand winning championships requires investment. No one can claim Comcast-Spectacor wasn't willing to sign players to contracts. Because they were. What fans could (and did) claim was that there wasn't a passionate, focused energy behind that money.

Although the ride toward change might be a bumpy one, it's one worth taking.


Each week, Kate will check in from the road and answer fan questions about the Sixers. Click here to ask Kate a question or e-mail her at kfagan@phillynews.com.