For a team that’s supposedly irrelevant in this town, the Philadelphia 76ers sure have made a lot of news the last couple of months. Philly’s NBA team has been such an afterthought in the local consciousness for so long that their motto might as well be “a distant fourth,” but all of sudden they’re all over Philly sports discussion.
There was the arrival of statistically oriented general manager Sam Hinkie, the subsequent media freakout about Hinkie’s low profile, the team’s dramatic draft-night makeover, the strangely drawn-out departure of much-maligned CEO Adam Aron, and the seemingly never-ending coaching search that at last concluded with the hiring this week of Brett Brown.
But all that was nothing compared to the news earlier this week, first reported by Fox 29′s Howard Eskin, that the team’s ownership group, led by Josh Harris, was in talks to buy the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
The Newark-based hockey team and hated rival of the Flyers, currently flirting with bankruptcy, is available for a song to the right buyer, and it seems like Harris is the one. Subsequent reporting has placed the purchase price at $240 million, including assumption of debt, and the deal seems to be final, pending the formality of league approval and a sign-off by creditors of the Devils’ current ownership.
The move is especially ironic, since for years the Sixers and Flyers were both under the ownership umbrella of Ed Snider, who was known for caring a bit more about his hockey than basketball team. Now, the Sixers will again have owners with one eye on the NHL — except rather than running the local team, they’ll be in charge of the guys trying to beat them.
Some local fans, it’s safe to say, aren’t happy about this development. When fans buy tickets to a Sixers game, they’ll be putting money in the pockets of the owners of the Devils, the Flyers’ sworn enemy. The talk radio lines have been full of fans vowing to never again attend a Sixers game, with the names “Eric Lindros’ and “Scott Stevens” invoked repeatedly. The hosts were even more critical — Eskin tweeted that Harris is “good in business but obviously a ‘Sports Idiot.” Ray Didinger, meanwhile, said on the air (as reported by Philly.com) that the owner is “money smart — but… sports dumb, and he’s Philly clueless.”
I admit, it looks bad. But there are some mitigating factors.
First of all, while a lot of fans take the “four for four” thing seriously, I get the sense that a whole lot of Sixers fans don’t care about the Flyers, and vice versa. And once the season starts, fans of those teams will probably be more concerned with what’s going on with the team than with what the owner is up to. Meanwhile, Flyers fans will likely be able to pick out numerous individual Devils players easier to vilify than their owner.
Secondly, I’m not sure fans reacting to the Devils purchase by vowing to never again purchase Sixers tickets will follow through, because fans, throughout sports, are notorious for never sticking to that sort of pledge. As Spike Eskin, rapidly emerging as the city’s most authoritative media voice when it comes to the Sixers, wrote the other day, Philadelphia fans in the recent past have forgiven everything from dogfighting to domestic abuse to not running hard on ground balls to racial slurs at Kenny Chesney concerts.
If Hinkie’s strategy of stockpiling young assets succeeds, and the Sixers become a contender in a year or two, I’ve got a feeling that building’s going to be full, regardless of which out-of-town teams Josh Harris owns.
Thirdly, this episode shows just how out-of-whack our expectations are of the people who own the local teams.
We want our sports owners to be down-to-earth, authentic guys — people who act like fans, who understand the fan base on an instinctive level, and who run the team and make decisions the way we would if we were the ones in charge. But the problem is, they never, ever are.
When people say Josh Harris (or Jeffrey Lurie, or the faceless consortium of elderly recluses who own the Phillies) don’t “get” the mentality of the Philly fan, that’s probably true. But neither, chances are, will anyone else with enough money to ever conceivably purchase a professional sports franchise. Pat Croce was an outlier, and he wasn’t even really the owner.
I’ve heard a lot of local fans over the years wish for Mark Cuban to someday swoop into town and rescue the Phillies or Eagles, but that’s not too likely to happen, and guess what — he owns a team in another city too.
If you’re a fan, you shouldn’t expect sports owners to relate to you, and you really shouldn’t be surprised when they act like greedy, out-of-touch fat cats. Owners have been doing that for as long as there’s been professional sports. No matter what city you live in, if you’re expecting the owner of your favorite team to identify with you as a blue-collar fan, then that’s a recipe for perpetual disappointment.
My ideal of a sports owner is someone who’s willing to spend a competitive amount of money, hire a smart general manager, and otherwise get out of the way. I think that’s more of a reasonable expectation.
The other aspect of the Harris/Devils deal causing concern is the nightmare scenario that Harris will one day move the Sixers out of Philadelphia and into North Jersey, which was vacated by the NBA when the Nets departed for Brooklyn two years ago.
There are a lot of reasons why that’s almost impossible.
1. The Sixers have a lease at the Wells Fargo Center that they can’t break for a long time.
2. The Nets left New Jersey for a reason — with a few brief exceptions, they never were able to draw there for their entire existence.
3. The Nets and New York Knicks, in turn, would probably have something to say about a third NBA team in the New York area, and
4. Chances are Seattle, not Newark, has the next crack at an available NBA franchise.
Mayor Cory Booker has been leading the fight to get the NBA back in Newark — but he’s about to no longer be mayor. Meanwhile, Jack McCaffery of the Delco Times thinks the Sixers could end up moving to Camden, because we all know how much money they have lying around. No matter who owns them, the Sixers will stay the Sixers, in Philadelphia.
These questions will likely be debated for awhile. But the fact is, even with the Phillies collapsing down the stretch and the Eagles in the middle of the preseason, it’s August, and we’re talking about the Sixers — a team that’s been bad for years and will be especially bad next year. When was the last time that happened?