South Philly was the place to be on Wednesday night. A pretty singer with killer pipes belted out the national anthem. An inspirational video and two local sports legends sent 19,000 fans into a frenzy. Columns of fire exploded. T-shirts parachuted from the rafters and launched from rapid-fire cannons. Pom-poms were shaken. Trampoline dunks were thrown down. Confetti rained upon a jubilant crowd.
There was also a basketball game. Sixers won.
Sixers CEO and co-owner Adam Aron had little to do with that last part, aside from giving his stamp of approval for this season’s dramatically rebuilt roster. But all the rest is his handiwork. In just the second campaign under the leadership of Aron, head owner Josh Harris, and their partners, the Sixers have transformed from afterthoughts into a sliver of light in what’s become a dark, stormy sports landscape. Think about it—if I asked you two years ago to rank the big four teams based on your enthusiasm for both the players and ownership, the Sixers would probably be last. Now, the Eagles are crumbling, the Phillies are aging, and the Flyers are locked out for the second time in less than a decade. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi to Princess Leia, the Sixers are our only hope.
As a lifelong fan, I thought the wins and losses were really all that mattered. But the more I talked to Aron, when interviewing him for a story in this month’s Philly Mag, the more I considered all of the trappings that surround the game, stuff we think of as “the little things.” The secret to Aron’s career as a marketing whiz really isn’t a secret. He figures out what his customers want—sometimes before they even realize they want it—and gives it to them. The free t-shirts they handed out on Wednesday and last season during the playoffs look like ones you’d buy and wear, not cheesy freebies you’ll use to wash your car this weekend. Fans want to be heard, so Aron opened a Twitter account; after the game, he was still replying to his constituents after 1 a.m. Follow him at SixersCEOAdam and you can be sure it’s not an intern writing you back. What other team in town is working that hard to connect with the public?
In my November sports column, I take a look at Aron, and how he and his fellow owners have made being a Sixers fan fun again. He’s a guy with Philly roots and a personality to match his big ideas. Some don’t work, but most of them do, and Aron never stops thinking of the next big thing. On opening night, aside from the halftime show—a tightrope walker who nearly castrated himself on a fall—my only disappointment was that I didn’t know about the team’s new t-shirt bazooka. It’s called Big Bella, is said to launch 100 tees in 60 seconds, and looks like something Arnold Schwarzenegger used to storm the dictator’s compound in Commando.
After the game, I figured the best way to reach Aron was on Twitter. I sent him congrats on the win and said I wish I’d mentioned Big Bella in his story. He replied after midnight: “For the sequel.” The only chapter fans are clamoring for is one that ends in a championship. But until then, the free shirts don’t hurt.