In the 1983-84 season, the 76ers appeared to be bursting with the kind of marketing potential that savvy new NBA commissioner David Stern hoped to create and exploit in a league that was underachieving in that area.
They were the defending champions. They occupied the nation’s fourth-largest market, one with deep basketball roots. In Julius Erving, they had the league’s most exciting player; in Moses Malone, its MVP.
And they would sell barely 4,000 season tickets.
Only rarely has Philadelphia embraced its pro-basketball franchise with the passionate bear-hugs it routinely gives the Eagles and Phillies. Even in their historically dominant 1966-67 season, the Sixers were fourth in attendance — in a 10-team league. Playoff games frequently were contested before empty seats. Future Hall of Famers such as Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, and Charles Barkley couldn’t regularly fill the house.
But now, on the verge of the 2017-18 season, flush with the wealth of young talent a poverty-stricken decade has earned them, in a city whose sports focus has turned sharply in their direction, the 76ers seem finally to have fulfilled their financial promise.
Selling the Sixers — not long ago among the most difficult and dispiriting jobs in Philadelphia sports — has become a snap. By almost any off-the-court measure — ticket sales, sponsorships, social-media buzz — the franchise, with its youthful holy trinity of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz, has reached or is fast approaching an unprecedented level of popularity.
“The hardcore fans have always been with us,” said Chris Heck, the team’s president of business operations. “But now, we’re picking up fans of all sports, even casual fans. Sports, and in particular the NBA, have skyrocketed. This was always a sports town, but it’s now as robust a sports town as it ever was.”
The 76ers have sold a record 14,000-plus season tickets, more than quadruple their 2013 total. While seats will be set aside for individuals and groups, the team anticipates sellouts at all 41 homes games. Demand has been so strong, Heck said, that, for the first time ever, there’s a waiting list several-thousand-fans deep.
“The only way to get a season ticket is to be on a waiting list,” Heck said. “There are only a few NBA teams like that, and now we’re in that game. We looked at several NFL teams with waiting lists and their strategies, and that’s helped us create a model.”
Corporate sponsors seem just as eager to leap onto the 76ers bandwagon. Dunkin’ Donuts, Chaddsford Winery, and NFI are new sponsors. And, thanks to Simmons, there’s even a deal in the works with an Australian meat-pie company.
According to Heck, sponsorships, which increased sharply in each of the last three years in anticipation of an upswing, grew “30 to 40 percent” this offseason.
And those sponsors haven’t been limited to America. With foreign-born players such as Dario Saric (Croatia), Embiid (Cameroon), and Simmons (Australia), the 76ers appeal is expanding internationally.
“Our fan base goes well beyond the 6½ million in the Delaware Valley,” said Heck. “Take Ben Simmons. Here’s a guy who was the No 1 pick in the draft two years ago. He’s exciting, dynamic, and unique. He also has this unique following from an entire country. And there are Australian companies that want to take advantage of that. They are interested in getting their products into the U.S. through the affinity fans there have shown for our team.”
Just as with the painstakingly slow improvements to the team’s roster, this marketing surge, club officials said, was the result of a process — a plan implemented four years ago to enlarge the sales and marketing staff, to tap into technology trends, and to incorporate 76ers history and traditions into the efforts.
“We decided we were going to build this thing up year to year to be something the city had never seen,” Heck said. “And we’re right on track. We’ve been going up 30 to 40 percent every year in sponsorship sales. We’ve been going up 30-plus percent in season-ticket sales.”
Devising that plan to complement then-general manager Sam Hinkie’s so-called “Trust the Process” approach was a textbook step in rebuilding a fan and sponsorship base, according to one sports-marketing authority.
“The best way to market a poor-performing team is usually … to be sure to let those you conduct business with know that you have a plan and that you’re doing everything you can to return to competitiveness,” said David Carter, a sports-business professor in the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.. “An authentic demonstrated commitment to winning is imperative. And … double down on customer service.”
Just prior to devising the master plan, the 2012-13 Sixers were 17th in attendance. And there were many who, seeing the tiny crowds that regularly turned out, believed their per-game average of 16,617 was wildly inflated. The club’s season-ticket total of 3,400 was among the league’s worst, and sponsorships, according to one team official at the time, were “abysmal”.
In the first year of the plan, the sales and marketing staff — which comprises the “large majority” of the 76ers’ 250 full-time employees — grew 10 and now is “the largest in sports,” according to Lara Toscani Weems, director of corporate communications.
“We not only have the biggest staff, but we have the highest retention rate,” Weems said. “You’d ordinarily think the bigger the staff, the more turnover. But that hasn’t been the case here.”
Surprisingly, the kind of positive camaraderie the retention rate reflected was evident even in the down years, Heck said.
“Of course, it’s fun to be with a team on the rise,” Heck said, “but the culture here was good from the beginning. Even when we were having rougher times, we were always exploring new ways to operate and think.”
To that end, the team created the 76ers Innovation Lab at its Camden training center, which encourages start-up companies to piggy-back on the team’s resources. They’ve leapt into the ESports universe, with connections to teams in six leagues. They offer one-on-one interaction with ticket buyers, reaching out personally, for example, to someone who bought Celtics tickets last season whenever that team is coming to town. And almost every transaction is done remotely.
“We’re doing things differently and in a different manner,” Heck noted. “And, quite frankly, we think it’s in a better way than this product has ever been represented.”
While reaching out to a new generation of Philadelphians, the Sixers have been careful not to alienate older fans. They erected statues of 76ers greats outside the new training facility. They tweaked the uniforms and logos to make them look more like those used by great 76ers teams, a subtle way to help fans forget the recent gory years and embrace what officials hope will be the future glory years.
“It’s just little touches like that that we’re focused on,” Heck said. “We’re taking the great history of the 76ers’ past and bringing it into the future.”