Sixers stumbling out of gate hurts gate

   Empty seats have been a chronic problem for the Sixers even before Allen Iverson left town. Now, even off last season’s playoff run and the offseason signing of Elton Brand, those low numbers are creeping back into the picture.

   Through four games, the Sixers are averaging 12,601 in attendance, ranking them 28th out of 30 NBA teams. That they started by losing five of their first seven hasn’t helped. Neither did that shadow the size of Yao Ming cast by the Phillies and their world championship.

   “Definitely, there was so much attention and so much money spent on the Phillies,” Jeremi Conaway, of Wanamaker’s Tickets in Center City, said earlier today. “People weren’t thinking about basketball at all. There’s only so much money to go around, and a majority of that definitely was going to the Phillies. At the same time, the Sixers’ attendance would be much better if they were playing better basketball.”

    Attendance peaked in 2001-02, when the Sixers drew an average of 20,560, then steadily decreased thereafter. While last season’s final number of 13,870 was the lowest since 1995-96, the final season at the Wachovia Spectrum, it actually languished below 12,000 well into December before better opponents and a run to the playoffs drew much bigger crowds.

    This season’s opener conflicted with Game 5 of the World Series, and the second game occurred a few hours after the parade, on Halloween night. Their third home game was scheduled on Monday, the day before the election. Several members of the Daily News sports consumer panel thought the timing of everything ganged up on the team.

    “I think the momentum from the signing and the good play of late last year were diminished by the Phillies run,” wrote Brian Ward, of Blue Bell, Pa. “And now that the Eagles are into the season, it’s tough for them to get that back. Their slow start isn’t helping either. But I think they just need some time to get used to a low post presence and will be ok. Hopefully by the time that happens, it’s not too late to get the momentum back.”

      Heather Greenburg of Marlton, N.J., said the Phillies definitely have been a factor.  “I am still on a high and quite frankly a bit worn out from lack of sleep and celebrating,” she wrote. “It may take me a while to get into sort of rah rah state of mind for our other three majors. When do pitchers and catchers report?”

      The economy? Andre Braxton, of Cherry Hill, says the Sixers’ audience figures to be the one most affected. “Everyone got caught up in the Phillies, and then the Sixers started slow,” he wrote. “Besides, the economy is hitting this area hard. The truth is that Sixers games are not as essential to the paying attendees as the Eagles and Flyers are. The Sixers, more than the other 3 teams in the area, get the people's luxury dollar.  People don't have that luxury dollar right now.”

       The Sixers, as a policy, don’t release numbers on ticket sales. So it was rare when they said back in July that they had added about 1,000 new full-season tickets to the fold, most of them in the three weeks after the signing of Elton Brand. What also followed that was a full-scale media blitz that included full-page newspaper ads and billboards.

      “[Our philosophy when we got Elton] is that we had that opportunity,” Sixers senior VP of business operations Lara Price said. “We’re all in first place until we play that first game, so all the hope is there. So you have to take advantage of that. When you make a significant move like that, you have to be ready to move on it. Was it more than we’ve done on the past? Yes, because we knew the marketplace was going to be hot and it would pique people’s interest. So we definitely took advantage of it. We probably would have done that anyway, but had we not gotten that acquisition, we probably would have pushed more once we got Andre [Iguodala] signed, too, just because people wanted that to happen.”

       Price didn’t want to say she was disappointed at what the payoff has been so far, only that she knows her staff has to work harder. “We’re still doing a lot of those individual ticket offers, trying to get different people in the building,” she said. “That’s our challenge, that’s our job, to find a way to reach those consumers.”

       She also said they are working with current and potential sponsors on promotions that will create more interest. “We will get out of it,” she said. “But it’s just a matter of being very creative and taking advantage of all the different opportunities.”

       Conaway, of Wanamaker’s Tickets, said more games like last night’s win over Toronto would help. “Last night’s win was a good win, but we need more of them for people to get interested.”

       So will opponents that have players with name recognition, at least until the Sixers start winning consistently. The Lakers and Kobe Bryant are due in on a Wednesday night, Dec. 3. LeBron James and the Cavaliers will visit later. So will division rivals New Jersey and Washington. Their next home game is Saturday night against Oklahoma City.
       “Fans are very basketball smart [and I think less loyal than to the other three] and saw during the preseason that the Sixers weren't going to make a splash for awhile even with Brand,” wrote Dana Wickes, of Langhorne, Pa. “Given the economy, they’re not going to spend good money on bad basketball when they can maybe have a little better holiday season.”