Philadelphia’s NBA franchise has been losing games and fans for most of the last decade. This fall a group of alumni investors led by Joshua Harris W’86 bought the team and have big plans for turning around this troubled asset. Is that crazy?
BY DAVE ZEITLIN
Save for one older gentleman checking out, it’s a quiet Saturday morning inside the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel. Cool jazz accompanies the rhythmic drip-drop of a soothing waterfall. There are few other noticeable sounds, not even from outside on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where cars have yet to emerge from their Friday night slumber.
Upstairs in his suite, Joshua Harris W’86 sits at a long table. A half-eaten bowl of oatmeal and a nearly finished cup of coffee indicate he’s been awake for a bit. Perhaps it was hard for him to sleep. Twelve hours earlier, the Philadelphia 76ers played their first home game of the 2011-12 season, and the rousing fanfare from that night contrasted considerably with the tranquil scene at the hotel the following morning.
“It was,” Harris says with a smile, “a very, very memorable night.”
The game itself was a blowout as the Sixers clobbered the visiting Detroit Pistons by 23 points to continue their strong start to the NBA season. More importantly, the Wells Fargo Center—the team’s home arena—was filled nearly to capacity with fans on hand to see the return of some of the franchise’s legends who were honored before the game, enjoy some of the arena’s new fan-friendly features such as “dollar dog night,” and watch a likable team filled with no superstars but a bevy of promising youngsters.
For a franchise that has seen its popularity and relevance dim in recent years, the game almost seemed like a new dawn. Many fans, for the first time in a long time, were hopeful. And Harris was a big reason for that.
Less than three months earlier, in the midst of a lockout that threatened to cancel the NBA season, Harris and a group of other investors that included fellow Penn alumni David Blitzer W’91, Art Wrubel W’87, and Marc Leder W’83 officially purchased Philadelphia’s NBA franchise from Comcast-Spectacor. (At the time of publication, another Penn graduate, Tony Ignaczak W’86, was also possibly becoming a partial owner, pending league approval.)
Since then, Harris—the team’s managing owner—and his partners have wasted little time trying to restore interest in the once-proud franchise. They hired a new CEO in former travel executive Adam Aron (he didn’t go to Penn but his son does), whose hyperactivity on Twitter engages fans on a whole new level. They started a website called NewSixersOwner.com, where Sixers supporters can offer their feedback on ways to improve the organization. And they slashed ticket prices, added new promotions and improved concessions, all in the hopes of creating a superior game-day atmosphere. Those moves, combined with the confidence the new owners placed in veteran head coach Doug Collins and his cast of young players, created a noticeable basketball buzz in the city, which built to a crescendo for the team’s home opener on January 6.
“We introduced a lot of fan-friendly things at the arena—everything from dollar dogs to giveaways to videos,” says Harris, a New York-based leveraged buyout specialist who says owning the Sixers will basically be his night job. “We’ve tried to engage the city. It was really amazing to see the building nearly full.
“It was almost like going to a party.”
During the game, Harris tried his best to greet many of the partygoers, leaving his owners’ suite to walk around the concourse. A lot of people high-fived him and everybody told him he was doing a great job. Well, almost everybody.
“One thing that stood out is someone told me we ran out of hot dogs, and he was mad at me,” Harris says. “He said, ‘If you’re gonna sell dollar dogs, you’ve got to make sure you don’t run out.’ I said I’d talk to some people about it, and I thanked him for his input.”
The new managing owner of the Philadelphia 76ers laughs, remembering what the semi-disgruntled fan told him next.
“But then he said, ‘Other than that, you’re doing good.’”
Welcome back to Philly, Mr. Harris.
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From left: 76ers owners David Blitzer W’91, Joshua Harris W’86, Marc Leder W’83, and Art Wrubel W’87. Illustration by Jay Bevenour