The Philadelphia 76ers sit at the top of the Atlantic Division at 7-2. Tuesday night, they won their sixth straight game by rolling over the woeful Sacramento Kings, 112-85. They’ve won 5 games by at least 20 points and lead the NBA in point differential, defensive efficiency, and bench scoring. The team is made up of young, athletic, exciting players – 7 members of the 9 man rotation are 25 or younger. The group is led by a former Sixer and fan favorite, Doug Collins, who finished second in Coach of the Year voting last season. Under Collins, the Sixers play hard and play defense for 48 minutes. Offensively, they share the ball and are extremely balanced; no player averages more than 16 points per game (Lou Williams) but 6 players average double figures, and a 7th, Elton Brand, is just a shade below. So why won’t anyone go see the Sixers?
The Sixers had won four straight, including two home blowouts, heading into Monday’s matchup against the similarly young and upcoming Indiana Pacers. Yet the attendance for this intriguing matchup between two of the better young teams in the league was a disheartening 8,612. The matchup with the Kings the following night drew an only slightly less embarrassing 10,255. They could have combined both games’ attendance figures and it would still have fallen well short of capacity in the Wells Fargo Center. So much for building momentum off the buzz from Friday’s home opener.
There are plenty of theories attempting to explain why the Sixers are the forgotten team in a sports crazy city. Philadelphians will tell you that the fans will come once a higher quality product is put on the court and that a decade of bad basketball has soured the fan base. The economy is down, so there is less disposable income available. They don’t have a marquee player to attract the casual fans. Or maybe Philadelphia is just not a “basketball city.”
While there may be nuggets of truth in some of these arguments, to me none of them really explain why the Sixers are the only team in this town that needs to be a title contender in order to draw even mediocre attendance numbers. The fact of the matter is that Philadelphia has never been a good pro basketball city. Even in the early ’80s, when Doctor J was at his peak, the Sixers had trouble selling out the smaller Spectrum. While the crowds came to see the wizardry of Allen Iverson, they quickly grew tired of his act once they decided it would never bring them a title. As for cost, there isn’t a better value in town than a Sixers game. In the effort to boost attendance, the Sixers new ownership group is basically giving tickets away. Every seat in the upper level is no more than $17.76 for January home games, and if you buy three tickets to any combination of January games, you get three FREE! I recently bought 6 tickets (3 for each game) to the Indiana and Denver games for $51; at less than $10 a ticket, it will cost me more to park. They’ve even waived the online processing fees.
The final argument about this not being a basketball city is a joke, and in Philadelphia, only two words need to be uttered to get the punch-line: Big 5. Only last week, the Duke/Temple game set record attendance numbers, in the same building which the Sixers barely filled over a third of the seats five days later. Duke is a brand that is always a big draw, and to be fair, when the Sixers play marquee teams like the Heat, or Lakers, the building will not be empty. But whose jerseys will they be wearing? You certainly can’t find much Sixers merchandise at a local Modell’s.
But there’s a good chance that the Big 5 is one of the biggest reasons this town is so indifferent about the Sixers. Name another big market city that has 6 (counting Drexel) Division I schools playing inside its city limits, and mostly playing at a fairly high level. You can’t because it doesn’t exist. The unique nature of this city’s college basketball tradition is a source of immense pride in the Philadelphia area; maybe so much pride that there isn’t enough left to go around for the 76ers.
A large percentage of the Philadelphia region attended one of those 6 schools, or their parents did, or their cousins, or their friends. As Philadelphians, we often associate ourselves with one of the schools due to these affiliations. I’ve always favored all of the Big 5 schools, but favored Temple the most even before attending the university – because my Dad went there. While that is common, my willingness to root for all six city schools is not. Ask a St. Joe’s alum if they root for Villanova once their Hawks are eliminated. The point is, that in most major cities, basketball fans associate themselves with the Knicks, Bulls, or Lakers. Philadelphia basketball junkies associate themselves with their favorite Big 5 school first, and do it proudly. The Sixers are the second basketball team in this town to many people, despite being the only pro basketball team in the city.
The Big 5’s stranglehold on basketball in Philadelphia extends further. Due to the dominance and storied tradition of the Big 5, many people in the region simply prefer college basketball. I enjoy basketball as a sport in both variations, but there’s no denying the pro and college games are different. Many people dislike the NBA for its one-on-one emphasis, showboating, and overpaid pampered athletes that don’t “play for the love of the game like the college kids.” In Philadelphia, with a ton of college teams to watch, the differences are in stark contrast and front and center. Ironically, the current Sixers play exactly the way a good college team does; with heart, hustle, and true enjoyment for playing the game.
The Sixers have a storied history, one that the owners are wisely now embracing. They predate the Flyers in this town, and have as many titles as their co-tenants, with the first title (’67) coming before the Flyers even existed, and their last being more recent than any Flyers Cup win. Yet, somehow this is one of the few hockey hotbeds in the United States, while a proud Sixers franchise begs for customers. But try mentioning the phrase “basketball history” or “tradition” in this town without getting back responses that include the Palestra.
If the Sixers continue to play good, unselfish, team basketball, Philadelphia will eventually notice. This city certainly knows good basketball when it sees it. But it’s unlikely the Sixers will ever be first in the hoops hearts of Philadelphians – for 5 (or 6) good reasons.