In retrospect, Aron seems like a logical choice to run a business that was hemorrhaging customers and in desperate need of new marketing energy. But when Harris first approached him, it was simply for feedback on what the franchise needed to do differently. Aron and Harris had known each other for years through Harris’s private-equity firm, Apollo Global Management, where Aron was a senior operating partner. As Harris expected, Aron came to his Manhattan office with a legal pad full of research on how to turn the Sixers around. What surprised him was Aron’s suggestion for the CEO role—himself. “There are plenty of people with experience running NBA franchises, but we decided to go out of the box and bring in someone who’s a native Philadelphian, who’s a real grassroots marketer,” Harris says. “He’s a big personality.”
The last oversized character with unusual sports credentials to occupy the Sixers’ front office was Croce, who rose from team trainer to president and eventually became a folk hero. Croce didn’t have Ivy League degrees, but he was a natural-born marketer and a one-man promotions department. He launched himself from the rafters down onto the court. He scaled the Walt Whitman Bridge. He handed out t-shirts, shook hands with ushers, and sold his “I Feel Great!” philosophy to a skeptical fan base.
Harris was a courtside regular last season—he estimates he attended 80 percent of the team’s home games—but making Aron the public face of the franchise was a shrewd move. Like Croce, Aron looks as comfortable in khakis and a Sixers warm-up jacket as he does in a suit—and his waistline suggests his love of Ralph’s in South Philly isn’t a PR stunt. What’s more, he understands that our sports are parochial, like just about everything else in Philadelphia—we’re born here, we stay here, and we’re drawn to folks who mirror ourselves. Harris is no less obsessed about the team, but he looks like an owner. Aron could pass for a guy who snuck down from the nosebleeds, talked himself into a front-office job, and still can’t believe he’s in charge.
Even Aron’s real estate decisions in relocating here from Miami were symbolic, as he passed over Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill for a loft at 11th and Washington. “I liked the anti-snooty feeling of living in the Italian Market,” says Aron, who’s married with twin sons in college. “I thought from day one that it wouldn’t be impossible to win back the fan base. It would help if we explained who we were—good guys who are sports fans, who care a lot about the Delaware Valley. Living right in the heart of it was part of walking the walk.”
Aron also called Croce, who offered advice on how to better serve his customers. “I remember saying, ‘Listen. They’ll tell you what they need,’” Croce says, adding that fans view ownership in the same way they see players, holding them up to the Pete Rose standard: “They want to see you dive into second base. Get dirty! Don’t hide! I told Adam that, too—don’t say ‘No comment.’” Croce praises Aron for being “out there!” among the crowd, something I’ve seen as well: I once watched him chat with two Sixers die-hards he’d just met on a late-night Amtrak train, giving them a half-hour of his undivided attention.
These days, fan relations also means having a social media presence, something the Sixers are doing better than any other team in town, by a mile. It began on day one, when the owners announced a website, NewSixers-
Owner.com, for submitting feedback. Aron says he read every one of the roughly 6,500 submissions, and that many of his changes—
including the retirement of Hip-Hop, the creepiest mascot in sports—were a result of those suggestions. His best weapon in winning hearts and minds has been Twitter, something he’d never used prior to October 2011. Since then, he’s sent more than 2,500 messages from his iPad and has nearly 23,000 followers. The strategy is simple—respond directly to one fan, and the rest will see that you’re talking to them. That approachability is probably why Aron received a rock-star welcome at the Bynum press conference.
As Croce advised, there’s no hiding when times get tough, and during the team’s slump in March, Aron’s “tweeps” let him have it. The heat also turned up earlier this off-season—weeks before the euphoria that followed the Bynum deal—when perennial bust Kwame Brown was signed for $6 million. Among the constructive Twitter criticism posted to @SixersCEOAdam: “Great move (if you’re a dumbass),” “Why did you fucking sign Kwame Brown? I can’t take this organization anymore,” “You are the worst” and “You were cool for a year you can fuck off now tho.”
To his credit, Aron hasn’t ducked for cover—during the team’s springtime swoon, he kept his promise to appear on WIP. “It’s remarkable how spot-on accurate the perception of the fan base is about the team,” he says. “Overall, they’ve got good sense. We knew the team would have to be considerably better.”
Even Aron isn’t naive enough to think t-shirt giveaways trump a playoff victory, especially in this sports-obsessed town. So really, all this other business—the tweets, the guys doing trampoline dunks—does any of it matter? One-word answer: yes.
During a home game I suffered through in 2010, there was no halftime show. At the time, I didn’t care. Later, I realized that the absence, when coupled with the dim lighting upstairs to camouflage all the empty seats, added up, like an echo chamber of bad vibes and misery. It felt as though the owners had surrendered. Most sports-talk radio callers would say they don’t notice all those little details, but as much as Phillies and Birds fans pine over the glory days at the Vet, they’ve embraced the creature comforts of the Linc and Citizens Bank Park. They’re also a very small percentage of the ticket-buying crowd. To make enough money to afford free agents like Bynum, the Sixers need to lure casual fans and families who might instead buy a Flyers partial-season plan or a new refrigerator. What Aron’s done is turn a morgue into a house party, one with a cheap cover charge and a little something for everyone—
including a basketball team worth rooting for.
Aron admits he’s surprised that the reengineering of the perception of the Sixers has proceeded so quickly: “Every indicator you can think of within the first season of this ownership group—it’s just one reassuring signal after another that the Sixers have a serious piece of the mind-set of Philadelphia’s sports fans.”
That’s another trait Aron shares with Croce—he’s just on the right side of the line between arrogance and confidence, likeable but shameless in bragging about what his partners and his team have accomplished. The bravado is partly in Aron’s nature as a marketing whiz. It’s also the result of achieving something that less than a year ago seemed impossible.