Sixers Fans (Image c/o Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)
If you have lived in Philadelphia any length of time and pay attention to the sports scene here, then you know the pecking order of the various teams that call the city home. And if you don’t, then all you have to do is listen to sports radio for about 10 minutes to grasp who falls where. For the uninitiated among you the order is:
3. Phillies (if they’re winning)
5. Any of the city’s college basketball teams
So as you can see, the Philadelphia 76ers have been fighting an uphill battle for years for the hearts of sports fans in the City of Brotherly Love. They have been the red-headed stepchild of Philly sports for over a decade and that was before the arrival of Sam Hinkie and the great Sixers Rebuild. Years of mediocrity can do that to a franchise.
So that begs the question: after tanking for two consecutive seasons, how long will it take for Sixers fans to start going to games again?
If you ask Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil or owner Josh Harris, they seem to think that as soon as the team starts winning again, the fans will be lining up to buy tickets and watch the Sixers play basketball. But all indications are that it’s not going to be that easy.
Right now the Wells Fargo Center can hold 20,328 fans for a basketball game. The last time the Sixers even came close to those kind of numbers was during the 2001-02 season when they averaged 19,640 fans per game and that was the year after Allen Iverson took the team to the NBA Finals.
During the 2011-12 season, the last time the Sixers went to the playoffs, the team averaged 17,611 fans per game which landed then firmly in the middle of the pack in NBA attendance numbers. In 2012-13, during the failed Andrew Bynum experiment, the Sixers averaged 17,020, which put them at 18th. In 2013-14 when Tank 1.0 was in effect the number dipped to 15,655 which was good enough for second to last ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks.
So far this season, during Tank 2.0, the Sixers are averaging 16,313 in attendance which places them at 28th in the NBA, ahead of the Bucks and the Detroit Pistons. But that number is sure to go down as the losing continues and the novelty of paying money to watch Nerlens Noel and K.J. McDaniels fades away.
So what will it takes to bring the fans back? Joel Embiid? A trip to the playoffs? A winning record? Drafting players who will be able to play right away and not get redshirted for an entire season? Some kind of assurance from Hinkie that the tanking is over for good?
Because honestly? At this point I just don’t know.
The hardcore fans will always go to the games and find some way to enjoy them. That’s part of the reason I have long said that true Sixers fans are some of the most knowledgeable and faithful in all of sports. But to fill the WFC on a regular basis, the casual fans are going to have to come back and not just when the team is winning. Otherwise you end up with the same situation the Philadelphia Phillies find themselves in: sellouts when the team does well, empty seats when they aren’t.
Tanking may be the best way to rebuild a basketball franchise right now in the NBA. It gives you the best odds of putting a winner on the court for the long-term. But unfortunately it doesn’t do anything to help you rebuild a fanbase.
The Sixers are going to have to figure that part out soon, or this could all be for nothing.