What happens if you throw a party and no one shows up? That’s the question some Sixers insiders worried about last summer when the team’s CEO and co-owner, Adam Aron, had another of his electrifying brainstorms.
For the record, here’s a partial rundown of the ways Aron has pumped some voltage into the once-moribund franchise in just one season: Lowered ticket prices. Hired a Broadway company to transform the arena lighting. Added more dancers. Created a section for lunatic fans. Invited an honor roll of Sixer alums to return for a bow. Brought Dr. J back as a consultant.
So rather than welcome newly acquired all-star center Andrew Bynum in the usual way—media room at the Wells Fargo Center, shake hands, flash the jerseys, answer questions, blah blah blah—Aron wanted something big enough to match the moment. Finally—finally!—the team had a player who was a force in the paint and had the skills to win a championship, as if someone had ducked into a lab with DNA from Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo and engineered a game-changing seven-foot center. Aron’s idea for this historic day: to introduce Bynam at the National Constitution Center, with an event that would be part press conference and part tailgate (with, apparently, a little Constitutional Convention thrown in for fun). Fans were encouraged to attend en masse and show their love, loudly. It was another novel notion from a man who’s made a career of them, but some inside the team voiced concerns. It’s a Wednesday afternoon. In a museum. Two months before the season begins. We’ve never done anything like this. We’ll need hundreds of screaming die-hards. We might only get a handful.
Even Aron was surprised when he took the stage with alpha owner Josh Harris that day in August: Roughly 1,500 people had filled the center’s second floor, a sea of red, white and blue chanting Bynum’s name and “Let’s go Sixers!” It felt like the ear-splitting atmosphere in the arena after a playoff-series win—something that when private-equity titan Harris and his posse of millionaires took over in the summer of 2011, the Sixers hadn’t experienced in nearly a decade. Now, in little more than a year, the group has already succeeded in one of its two goals for the team—making the Sixers relevant again. In a fan survey published in ESPN The Magazine two months ago, the Sixers were named the best franchise in Philadelphia, topping the other Big Four squads in six out of eight categories, including fan relations, ownership and affordability. In the same poll two years ago, the Sixers finished last.
Of course, success in sports is ultimately measured by championships, not polls, press or ticket sales. But something else was remarkable that day at the Bynum blowout (besides the fellow dressed in a Batman costume for no apparent reason). Some of the loudest cheers erupted for a middle-aged guy who’ll never score a point or grab a rebound, as the crowd chanted “A-dam A-ron!” Not since Pat Croce was rappelling from the ceiling has anybody in the Sixers front office made such a connection with the fans. “He’s good,” Croce says of Aron. “I love the energy injected into the team, the enthusiasm. What Dougie Collins brought to the basketball side, now they’re bringing to the marketing and the fans.”
Like Croce, Aron knows it takes more than winning games to bring a dead basketball franchise back to life. We tell ourselves that all that matters is what happens on the court, but in reality, that’s only a part of what draws us to fill arenas and sell out stadiums. From his business decisions to his life away from basketball, Aron gets that, perhaps better than any other owner in town.