Sixers Spat With Wells Fargo Could Prelude a Move to Camden

Sixers owner Josh Harris already owns one arena in New Jersey. Why not another one? Here's how it would happen.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

I don’t really know what to think of the Wells Fargo Center. For example, the original first sentence of this story was, “The Wells Fargo Center sucks.”

So I guess I’m leaning that way. I don’t hate it though. I’ve attended hundreds of events there. Mostly the Sixers — but also the Flyers, concerts, WWE wrestling, arena football, the Harlem Globetrotters, summer merchandise clearance sales, sneaker conventions, plus a summer interning at Comcast SportsNet’s website (where, one night at work, I watched a Britney Spears concert from the hockey press box).

There’s just nothing it does great. I’ve been attempting to come up with my favorite thing about it and the best one I can think of is, “The concourses are wider than they were at the Spectrum.” This narrowly beat out “the roast beef sandwich at the old brewpub, if they still serve them.” It doesn’t have a sense of place. It’s been named for four different banks. It’s kind of bland. It’s just at the top of a parking lot hill surrounded by fence and a highway.

The Sixers don’t like the Wells Fargo Center either, maybe for some of the same reasons I don’t. The main problem the Sixers have, though, is they don’t own the arena. Comcast Spectacor does. That means less income for the owners, which means the team is less valuable. The Sixers, then, don’t get any money from the Wells Fargo Center naming rights. As such, the Sixers have stopped referring to the Wells Fargo Center as the Wells Fargo Center.

CEO Scott O’Neil called it the arena that we play in on Twitter. “The particular bank referenced is currently not a sponsor of the Philadelphia 76ers,” a Sixers spokesperson told Biz Philly yesterday.

Maybe this is simply a ploy to get Wells Fargo to sign a favorable deal with the Sixers. Or maybe the Sixers brass just enjoy looking like babies to many fans. But I think it’s a reminder: It’s conceivable the Sixers could move to New Jersey. When Sixers owner Josh Harris bought the Devils (and their Newark arena, the Prudential Center) almost two years ago, some fans panicked. After all, Harris said the arena was more valuable than the Devils in his purchase. What if he moved the Sixers there?

At the time, though, Delaware County Daily Times columnist Jack McCaffery wrote of a plan that would maximize Harris’ value even more:

Harris knows he cannot threaten a Sixers move to Newark. The Nets and Knicks have rights to that market, the NBA would seltzer-bottle him if he tried to move a team into it, and Philadelphia is too deep a basketball city to leave it free of a basketball team. There will be no threat of the Sixers moving north. None. East, though, is always in play.

If New Jersey executes the play correctly, it could have two big-league arenas, one on either pole of the state, one for hockey, one for hoops, both for circuses and concerts, all with the ability to lure promoters with a two-for-one special. It could take years. But, again, the play is just setting up.

In this scenario, the Sixers would move to Camden. That’s where they almost moved when this exact situation played out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Sixers played in a somewhat-aging arena they didn’t own. Owner Harold Katz had “the worst lease in sports.” The Sixers’ current straits aren’t so dire (the arena was built in 1996) but there are similarities.

Katz first tried a move to Jersey in the late 1980s. He negotiated to build a new arena in Camden with outgoing Gov. Jim Florio in 1993, but Gov.-elect Christine Whitman announced the next year she was rejecting the deal. Katz and his backers tried to salvage the deal with private funding, but he eventually agreed to stay in Philadelphia. What was originally called Spectrum II became the Corestates Center then the First Union Center, then the Wachovia Center and now Wells Fargo. It was largely financed privately (it did have $20 million in state funding and a small low-cost loan from the city). Ed Snider sold a majority share of Spectacor to Comcast in 1996, and the renamed Comcast Spectacor bought the Sixers.

What if the Sixers make noises about a new arena again? Not having a deal with the sponsor of your arena is not a problem you have if your own the arena. You can see how state funding for such a move would be pushed in Jersey: The state is already throwing money at companies to relocate to Camden — including the Sixers, who have a practice facility planned for the waterfront. A basketball arena would be the centerpiece of an entertainment district that already includes a minor-league baseball stadium, an aquarium and a summer concert venue. This would bring a real surefire attraction to the Camden waterfront for 41 nights a year. (Well, if the Sixers eventually get good.) These arguments might not make financial sense — public sports stadium funding is generally wasteful — but think of the civic pride! And so on.

If Pennsylvania and Philadelphia were to attempt to keep the team, they would be met with resistance on spending public money. That will happen in New Jersey, too, but maybe there will be less resistance there. Maybe the Sixers will end up actually moving to Camden after all. If so, the team would need to make one change: Dribblin’ Ben Franklin becomes a Dribblin’ Walt Whitman mascot. Or maybe Nipper could be looking into a basketball hoop? Eh, maybe not. We’d have some time to figure it out, at least.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.