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.
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.
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.