Philly is a baseball town now, said some. Philly is a football town, always has been, countered others. Philly is a college basketball town, argued a few.
Why would I even watch the 76ers when the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers consistently compete for championships and they compete for lottery picks, explained others, justifying their indifference.
The strongest argument, and the most common, though was silence: as in the only time people talked about the Sixers was to discuss why no one was taking about them.
The chorus became louder (quieter?) still when on opening night of this season the WFC greeted the Miami LeBron’s, the offseason’s conquering heroes and the hottest ticket in basketball since the ’96-97 Bulls, with a collective “meh” in the season-opener.
The chorus was off-key though. The Sixers hadn’t lost their town, they’d just misplaced it.
|Season||Sixers Home Attendance|
The Sixers’ home attendance (see above) has been on a steady downward trajectory since the 2000-01 Finals run. Our League ranks in home attendance for the just completed decade were 5th, 3rd, 4th, 4th, 10th, 21st, 29th, 23rd, 23rd, and 26th. These steadily worsening rankings are old news to anyone who has spent anytime at the Corestates Center/First Union Center/Wachovia Center/Wells Fargo Center the past few seasons. (Oh, yeah. That’s no one)
This has much less to do with the fans though than it does with bad basketball. As Dave Berri and his cohort demonstrated in The Wages of Wins, teams that win fill seats and teams that don’t, don’t. (the story is a little more complicated than that, but winning games is the most powerful driver of attendance.
|7-6 Attendance||CT* Attendance 1||
CT Attendance 2
This is how the Sixers (represented by the left column) compared in home attendance to the two teams whose won/loss record was most similar to theirs for that given season. Looks a little better, right? While the 7-6 have doubtless lost pace the last few years (and this is largely to do with unfavorable comparables: Cleveland in LeBron’s rookie season, Chicago in Rose’s, et. al) we generally stack up pretty well. Sixers fans were in the top half of the NBA (11th) in home attendance from ’99-00 to ’08-09, despite the fact that in every season save one they were shelling out to see a middling product.
Philadelphia hasn’t been a bad basketball town — it’s been a town with a bad basketball team.
Note the tense though. Has been. As in no longer.
The 7-6 have gone 24-16 in their last 40 games. They hold the seven seed in the East, are two games out of the six seed — with the mo (not Speights) heavily in their favor — and with the Wiz and the Pistons as their first two post-ASG opponents, are primed to reach .500 a year ahead of even the most wildly optimistic time-frames. They play selflessly (has any team in the NBA had more leading scorers?). They play intelligently (second-fewest turnovers in the Association). They play big-swinging-dick defense (seventh in the league in FG% allowed, fourth in 3FG% allowed).
They are young (Thad Young, one of their veterans, is 22). EVERYBODY is getting better (Young, Brand, Iggy, Holiday, Turner, even Noicioni — nearly every rotation member is playing significantly above expectations). They have one of the best head coaches in the NBA (doubt this? Read this past paragraph again. Think about last season. Then read the paragraph again). And according to the savviest analysts, are a legitimate center away from contention.
And slowly but surely the town that forgot about them is starting to take notice. WIP is fielding calls about Brand’s resurgence. When Tim Legler guest-hosted “The Fanatic’s” afternoon radio show, Sixers talk dominated the airtime without complaint. Team bloggers are getting texts from friends wondering what we could do to land Andrew Bynum and whether they know anybody who sells Adderol (admittedly, the second question is probably unrelated to the Sixers’ rising popularity). Maybe most tellingly, people have dropped the “them”s, “they”s, and “those m***er f***ers”s when they discuss the team: the Sixers are back to being “we.”
And while we’re still pretty dreadful on the attendance front (27th in the league in home attendance and last in percentage of seats that are sat in) present-season attendance is as much a function of how you did last season than anything you’re doing this year (case in point: the Cavs are presently third in the NBA in home attendance). It won’t just take a name change to get the funk of Eddie Jordan out of the WFC, it’ll take a solid year of good basketball. And we’re more than halfway there.
In Philly basketball, as in other cities, as in other sports, the rules are pretty simple (and better imagined as spoken in the voice of James Earl Jones): If you build it, they will come.
Doug Collins is hammering away, and if you listen really closely, you can hear the footsteps.