At a moment of heightened anticipation Monday afternoon, somewhere before 2017's first pitch but after the moving homage to the 2008 championship that began the Phillies' season-opening telecast, the team aired a new commercial.

The ad wasn't pointed toward the past or future. It didn't try to foster optimism or plead for patience. It was instead a humorously ironic spot starring the Phillie Phanatic.

"Without a great product on the field, the Phanatic has become a much more prominent part of their marketing mix," said Scott Rosser, a sports-business professor at Penn's Wharton School. "In many ways, he's their most marketable asset."

For this city's four struggling professional sports franchises, marketing has sometimes been as problematic as contending. For several mostly bleak years, the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, or Flyers have been unable to promote the one commodity guaranteed to sell tickets and move merchandise - victories.

"Winning puts the wind in your sails," Rosser said. "The hot dogs taste better, the beer is colder, the experience is better. Nothing can replace that."

Lacking that, experts said, local franchises have emphasized game-day experiences while avoiding any reference to competitive success. And unless they're better at that than in the standings, they risk the significant erosion of support the Phillies and 76ers underwent earlier this decade.

When in 2016, the Wall Street Journal devised a formula - primarily based on attendance - to identify which U.S. sports teams were losing fans most rapidly, the Phillies (No. 2) and 76ers (No. 7) were high on the list.

Each Philadelphia team, experts said, faces its own marketing challenges.

The Eagles, despite a large and rabid fan base, need to create a better game-day atmosphere. With their top prospects still in the minors, the Phillies can't yet sell what they believe will be a bright future. The 76ers continue trying to persuade skeptical fans to "trust the process." And the Flyers need to shake an extended run of mediocrity.

"Sports is the one area marketers can't control," said Joris Drayer, an associate professor in Temple's School of Sports, Tourism, and Hospitality Management. "At Apple, marketers work closely with product developers to create a holistic experience for phone-buyers. That doesn't work in sports."

So until they contend again, the Philly teams must seek other strategies, including the four highlighted in a 2004 academic study on the subject:

Promote your stars.

Remember the good old days.

Look ahead to better days.

Link your team to some broader local theme, such as convincing Mets and Yankees fans that their support makes them "true New Yorkers."

"It's all about levels of expectations. These strategies might work at a place like Northwestern, but I don't think the Yankees could milk them for long," Vassillis Dalakis, a California State sports-marketing professor and one of the study's three co-authors, said earlier this week. "It's the same in Philadelphia. People have high expectations. Any one of the strategies might work in the short run. But eventually fans are going to run out of patience."

More than commercials

Sports marketers face a brave new world. Gone are the days when Philadelphia Sphas owner Eddie Gottlieb could guarantee himself a larger crowd by scheduling a postgame dance at the Broadwood Hotel ballroom where his team played.

Now marketing means more than TV and radio commercials, more than giveaways and game-day promotions. Sophisticated algorithms and social-media techniques are employed to create deeper and more customized interactions.

"It begins when you click on a Facebook post about the 76ers or go to their website," said Drayer. "All that data is trackable."

There are algorithms, for example, that automatically link NASCAR marketers to anyone who has purchased a ticket to a country music concert. The Cleveland Indians, Drayer noted, use data to help make such decisions as whether to give out 30,000 bobbleheads at a single game or 10,000 on three different dates.

"Big data allows us to be better-situated to provide better experiences than ever before," said Drayer, who previously was an Oakland Athletics marketer. "We understand consumers better than ever and we understand what they want at any given point in time. We can provide a more tailored experience."

Among the local franchises, both Drayer and Rosser pointed to the 76ers as an example of a losing team that markets itself well. Last in the NBA in attendance just two seasons ago, the Sixers are now 17th, their per-game average of 17,564, more than 4,500 above the 2015-16 figure.

"That team is extremely well-run on the business side," said Rosser. "When the basketball side catches up, look out."

Drayer suggested the 76ers might have the NBA's biggest sales staff.

"They do a great job. They reach out face-to-face," he said. "I've been to one game in the last two years, but they called me and said, 'Hey, we see you came to a Knicks game then. Would you have any interest in coming to one this season?' Without having a competitive team, they've gotten a lot of buy-in."

Like the Sixers, the Flyers probably have overachieved in terms of ticket and merchandise sales, regularly attracting large crowds despite their subpar record.

The Phillies, until they can contend, might have the most difficult task.

"They've got so much inventory," said Rosser. "Eighty-one games, twice as many as the Flyers or Sixers. And they've got a building that's twice as big. They've historically been the most conservative of the four teams. But even they realize that as attendance dwindles, you need to be more aggressive. And they've done that. They've turned the corner."

Selling tickets and merchandise isn't a problem for the Eagles, thanks in part to the NFL's enormous popularity, but the often-raucous atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field is.

"The Eagles struggle trying to overcome their fans' reputation and provide a better entertainment experience," said Drayer. "They've got to find ways to enhance the customer experience from the moment you're thinking about buying a ticket until you leave the stadium."

@philafitz