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It was almost 10 years ago that Allen Iverson provided the last memorable moment in Philadelphia 76ers history.He’d shocked the L.A. Lakers with a three-pointer in overtime, and then emphatically stepped over a defeated Tyronn Lue on his way back down the floor.
Now, the embattled franchise is set to be sold by owners Ed Snider and Comcast-Spectacor.
The sale comes as a relief to both Snider and Sixers fans.
Fans, many of whom believe that Snider cares more about his beloved Flyers than his ugly-duckling basketball team, will hope new ownership breathes life into the perpetually mediocre franchise.
Snider, for his part, will be able to focus on his other ventures and avoid a potentially costly player lockout this summer.
While the Sixers may be one of the most boring, least star-studded teams in the NBA, this could turn about to be a steal for Harris and friends. Here’s why.
Forbes valued the Sixers at $330 million in January, ranking them 17th among NBA teams. In a lot of ways, this ranking is understandable. In the past three years attendance at the Wells Fargo centre has been horrific: 23rd in 2009, 26th in 2010, and 25th in 2011. Those numbers are even more embarrassing considering that the Sixers made the playoffs in two of those years.
During this period, the Philly front office mismanaged the team into the uninteresting, middle-of-the-road group that’s such a chore to watch 82 times a year.
They have sunk too much money into too many overvalued players (looking at you, Elton Brand and Andrew Iguodala). This effectively put them in NBA limbo — too good too earn the high draft pick it takes to luck into a star, but lacking the cap room necessary to sign a difference-maker. Even when they fell into the second-overall pick in the 2010 draft, no potential superstars were on the board and they ended up with Evan Turner.
So without a star or a legitimate chance of winning interested has dwindled, TV ratings have sagged, and the Sixers’ value has fallen just below Utah’s.
But this does not have to be the case.
As the fifth-largest metro area in the country, Philadelphia has an inherent advantage over its competitors.
Seven of the eight most valuable franchises in the NBA – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Miami, and Phoenix – call one of the 10-largest metro areas home.
Simply put, to be one of the richest franchises in the league, you have to be located in a big-time city. Only a few franchises have that luxury, and the Sixers are one of them.
To monetise this inherent advantage, the Sixers have to overcome a disturbingly low level of local interest that has become the norm since Iverson left.
In a sports-mad city, the Sixers are by far the least popular of the four major pro teams. The Phillies 2008 World Series title placed them in a class above the rest in the minds of Philadelphia sports fans. The Eagles are consistently a contender in the country’s most popular sports. The Flyers have a loyal following and an owner (ironically, Ed Snider) obsessed with winning a Stanley’s Cup.
The Sixers? Eh, not so much.
But as hard as it will be to get out of local sports cellar, there is already a precedent for such a rise: the transformation of the Phillies since 2002.
In 2001 and 2002 the Phillies ranked 24th in the majors in attendance, averaging just 21,000 fans per game. Now, the Phillies are the sixth-most valuable franchise in the league, and will sell out their 168th-straight game tonight.
There’s no reason why the Sixers can’t be this decade’s Phillies.
With a revamped front office that resists handing out multi-year contracts to the Jason Kaponos of the world, the Sixers should be able to unload Andre Iguodala for a young player that can complement the promising Jrue Holliday-Evan Turner backcourt. From there, they can let the team develop until the 2012-2013 season when they will have enough salary cap room to add a legitimate superstar (assuming the cap rules are similar to what they are now).
But perhaps the biggest thing Harris and his buddies have working for them is the dirty little secret of Philadelphia sports: Philly is a basketball town.
This sounds counter-intuitive considering the popularity of the Phillies and Eagles in recent years. But if you take all levels of the sport — from the NBA to Junior ABA — basketball is bigger than baseball or football in Philly by far. The city supports five major college teams and a high school scene that’s (as I’ve witnessed) surprisingly intense.
If Harris and friends can turn the Sixers into a contending team with at least one star, they can tap into the passion for the sport that already exists in pickup games and college arenas all over town. And if they tap into that passion, $290 million will seem like highway robbery.
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