Sixers CEO on Marketing the NBA’s Most Radical Rebuilding Plan

"This year you’ll start to see a core being built. We need to see who emerges from this core to become a star."

Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil and Coach Brett Brown. (Michelle Farsi/Courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers)

Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil and Coach Brett Brown. (Michelle Farsi/Courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers)

As the 2015-2016 Philadelphia 76ers season begins, fans have hope that the tanking phase of a long rebuilding process is finally over — and the actual building has begun. That’s certainly how CEO Scott O’Neil feels, and he’ll tell anybody who’s willing to listen. To the ever-cynical fans that saw the Sixers win just 18 games last year, it remains a hard sell.

How do you sell tickets and raise interest when your most marketable player (Nerlens Noel) is only in his second season, and two other marketable players (Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid) have never played an NBA game — and one is sitting out his second straight season with an injury? You change the logo, give season-ticket holders killer perks, and convince people that this year’s four potential first-round picks will yield a goldmine. 

“We don’t apologize for where we are,” said O’Neil. “We love where we are. We don’t lay down and cower in the corner. We’ll scream it from the mountaintops. We love this plan and believe in it.”

After spending an hour talking hoops with O’Neil at his office in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, some things become incredibly clear: He loves coach Brett Brown — calling him a hardcore Philadelphian with a Boston accent. He thinks season-ticket holders are renewing at 90 percent because they’re excited to get good seats as the team builds — he calls it “beach front property.” He really likes guard Nik Stauskus (who’s been injured during the preseason) and expect him to be one of the team’s most marketable players this season. He also let loose on Wells Fargo for not sponsoring the team and explained why team executives refuse to say the words “Wells Fargo Center.”

I sat down with O’Neil and Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer Tim McDermott to discuss the front-office strategy for the upcoming season. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

How do you market this team, knowing that you’re still far from becoming a winning team?

O’Neil: I just want to get some context. I’ve been here two years. [General Manager] Sam Hinkie inherits Jrue Holiday, Spencer Hawes, Thad Young and Evan Turner. He’s got three firsts in the next five years. That’s what he’s handed. That’s now Jahil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskus, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Convington and likely four first-round picks, likely two high lotteries this year and swap rights with Sacramento. It’s pretty amazing to see the transformation. It’s sometimes easy to think about “where are you in a moment in time” but without understanding the timeline, it’s not as rational.

It’s different this year. It’s like one more step further. It’s not a completed process but I think some of it is playing out. We have a coach who has captured the hearts of the city. He’s probably the only hardcore Philadelphian with a Boston accent in the history of the city — he calls it Bostralian. He’s real. He’s gritty. He’s tough. He’s competitive. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s just a magical, wonderful guy who’s captured the hearts of the players in the locker room. There isn’t a coach in the world who could keep the locker room together after winning 19 and 18 games [in consecutive years] and he does.

I think this year you’ll start to see a core being built — we need to see who emerges from this core to become a star.

Who is the most marketable player on this team?

O’Neil: It’s Nerlens right now, but I think you’ll see Jah, Nik and Nerlens all having different pockets of growing fanbases. Again, they’re just really young so I think Nerlens [is marketable] with his personality, his smile, his hair, he’s long. He’s got one more year under his belt, so I think he comes with a base that knows him and likes him. Jah has done a terrific job of being in the city and being part of the fabric of the community. I think people will fall in love with Nik too.

How do you get cynical sports fans to trust the process and have hope that this will one day be a team that can compete for an NBA championship?

McDermott: From a fanbase perspective we have a great following particularly from our younger generation of fans who really believe and are behind what’s going on.

O’Neil: The older group is a little more wait-and-see. Younger groups, 20s and 30s, they’re in. With the 40s, 50s and 60s, it’s much more wait-and-see. It’s like “alright, smart guys, let’s see what you can put on the table.”

This year’s advertising campaign, dubbed Since 1776, draws on similarities between the American revolution and the Sixers’ revolutionary rebuilding process. Tell me about that?

O’Neil: We took on an empire and won. Not everybody jumped on board early. We were literally taking on the greatest empire ever and we beat them. How? We all united together. This is a part-brain, part-boxer city. We’re inventive. We’re different. We never take the traditional approach ever here. It’s very consistent with how we run this business and how we run this team. We are doing things differently — and it’s a little polarizing at times — but that’s OK because if you do what everybody else does, you get what everybody else gets. And we’re not interested in getting what everybody else gets.

McDermott: We invited the fans into the process. In my journeys doing this with a couple of teams, if you listen to the fans, they’ll usually tell you the answer. What do they want us to be? Real, revolutionary, hard-spirited, tough-as-nails, passionate, authentic, vibrant and real. So I think we package that now in a go-to-market campaign that’s exciting and does feel really authentic to who we are.

We want people to have a great time when they come to a game. We want them to scream and cheer and laugh all at the same time. Our brand is different from some of the other teams in the marketplace. Clearly the Flyers have had the “vengeance” thing for a long time and the Broad Street Bullies.

O’Neil: That’s not us.

McDermott: Right. And the Phillies had the “It’s a lazy Saturday or Sunday thing.” You just kind of look at the landscape of the brand in the marketplace and for us, we have this intense fun. We want you to come to the game, we want you to bring your family, and we want you to cheer and scream and laugh.

Do you help players with social media? Because in this day and age, you’re one stupid tweet away from a national news story that won’t die.

O’Neil: We bring in a social media consultant to work with them. It’s a lot different than it was five years ago. A lot of mistakes were made. I’m sure there’ll be a mistake now and I’ll eat my words, but I’ll say for the most part these guys know exactly what they’re doing. Some of them have people managing it for them but most of them are doing it themselves. Look at Joe [Joel Embiid], he’s amazing.

Speaking of Embiid, how does his injury hurt this year’s marketing plan?

O’Neil: I’m not sure it’ll hurt the marketing. I mean it’ll hurt our basketball team. I was just downright nauseous when we found out he’ll miss another season. I mean, he’s an elite player. From a marketing standpoint, we can say ‘hey, he’s amazing’ but fans won’t believe it until they see the guy out on the court. It’s different when you see him miss a year. If Nerlens played that first year there would have been a lot more excitement. He sits a year, and the fans have to gear up to see him that second year.

On draft night, someone was tweeting out #CenterCity [because of the team’s three young centers]. I thought that hashtag would have caught on. That would have been sweet.

Of the top 15 free agents this summer, only two of them moved. And the two that moved were young bigs. [Greg] Monroe and LA [Lamarcus Aldridge] so you think, why is everybody so attracted to these bigs? Because there aren’t any. And we have three. So we love the talent level there.

Reigning rookie-of-the-year Michael Carter-Williams got traded last season. How does that change the marketing plan for this coming year?

O’Neil: I don’t think it changes the marketing plan. It’s never gonna be linear with us. Sam [Hinkie] has this great expression. “If you want to go to the moon, don’t climb a ladder.” For everything that we talk about, we ask “how are we going to build a team that can compete for an NBA championship?” That’s our lens for almost every decision we make. If there’s an opportunity to do what he thinks is a great deal, Sam would do it every day and twice on Sunday. At the end of the day, we will build a very very good basketball team. If, on the marketing and sales front, we have to scrap a little bit harder, get more creative, change plans, change a tagline or change an image — we change it. That’s life.

Your recent TV commercials have combined old-school highlights from guys like Allen Iverson and Dr. J with highlights from this current season. Is that a strategy for this season as well, because of the lack of marketable players?

O’Neil: This organization and this city celebrates history and tradition. As a fan, I still want to see Mo Cheeks dribbling down the court. It’s probably weighted heavier now because of where we are in our development for sure but I hope they always play a role here. Seven of the top 50 NBA players of all time were Sixers. This is a complete one-name star organization. You’ve got Wilt, Doc, Moses, Charles, AI — you don’t need their names in this city and they’re all game-changing guys.

What kind of extra stuff are you doing for season ticket holders so they hang with you through the transition?

O’Neil: We froze ticket prices for two years. That’s pretty radical in this business. It’s pretty rare to find any examples of teams doing that.

McDermott: We had over 100 events for season ticket holders last year whether it be meet-and-greets, or something post game. Before every game, Brett [Brown] meets with season ticket holders.

O’Neil: I’ve never seen that in 20 years. One time Brett Brown says, “I’d like to take the front-row season ticket holders out to dinner.” What do I think? I said I think that would be the coolest idea I’ve heard from a coach in the history of my life. So he takes them out to a fancy dinner and he has each of his coaches walk them through the Xs and Os of how we’re seeing our team and where we’re seeing the pluses and minuses and where the player development is making a difference. It’s unbelievable. You could never get this anywhere.

I wonder when we win 62 games one year does he say, “Hey I’m going to take the front-row guys out to dinner?” I hope so. But now is the time when we need it and he’s there for us.

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