The sweeping view from Aron’s office at the new Sixers headquarters—the former Tastykake digs at the Navy Yard—is impressive, looking out across the waterfront and uptown to the Center City skyline. Today the room is nearly empty. Yet there’s an unmistakable feeling of optimism framed by the windows Aron looks through, a sense that something great lies ahead in the distance.
Dressed in khakis and a blue pinstripe shirt, the 58-year-old is engaged and engaging, eager to chat about everything from the team to the city to the political fund-raiser who keeps blowing up his cell phone. As we talk, Aron swivels in his desk chair, frequently repositioning himself like a schoolkid who’s too hyperactive to sit still. The move here to the Navy Yard was necessary for physical reasons, he says; the team had simply outgrown its old space at the arena. But as is the case with nearly everything Aron does, there was also a psychological rationale in play: “A lot of people who worked for the Sixers were in the basement for a long time.”
Aron meant that literally—staffers worked in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center—but the organization has also had a beaten-down mind-set for years. “When I grew up here, it was a four-sport town,” Aron says. “When we bought the team, this was a three-sport town … and the Sixers played here, too.”
As a guy who was raised in Abington in the 1960s, Aron speaks from experience. He grew up seeing Eagles coach Joe Kuharich burned in effigy at Franklin Field, carried home a seat from Connie Mack Stadium, and made trips with his dad to the Civic Center, where Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Cunningham led some feared Sixers squads.
Aron’s love for his hometown teams is an obvious asset in his role as CEO; less so is a title he held as a senior at Abington High—class treasurer. Yet in that job, Aron raised more than $10,000—money he used to slash the price of the senior prom from $75 a head to only six bucks. It was his first ticket-discount program. “We referred to it as the Great Class of ’72,” he says with a laugh. “I was a marketing man from an early age.”
After Harvard Business School, Aron built a résumé that reads like a road map for the strategies he’s now employing with the Sixers—especially his philosophy that focusing on customers leads to big returns. At Pan Am airlines in the early 1980s, he launched one of the industry’s first “frequent flier” programs, a pioneering moment. Last
season, the Sixers established their own version: the Franklin Club, which gives season ticket-holders perks ranging from meet-and-greets with players to dinner with Julius Erving. As the CEO of Vail Resorts in Colorado in the 1990s, Aron learned the power of pricing when he slashed season passes from $700 to $200; revenues shot up from $3.5 million to $14 million. Last season the Sixers followed suit, cutting ticket prices in the upper deck to $17.76—the best sports bargain in town. The franchise finished the season with the NBA’s biggest increase in ticket sales, and as with the ski-lift passes, profits rose despite lower fees. “If you charge an eye-catching price,” Aron says, “you can make it somebody’s habit to want to buy your product.”
Of course, there’s always fresh powder in Vail. For the first time, Aron is trying to sell a commodity whose stock could rise and fall nightly, on something as simple, and uncontrollable, as a missed free throw.