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Is Philly an NBA Town?

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E. James Beale, from the Philadelphia City Paper, wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece for the Daily News about our fair city's luke-warm relationship with the Sixers. Thoughts on his thoughts after the jump.

Beale's thesis is the love this city has for basketball is focused more locally, on high school and college teams, and it has never really extended to the Sixers. He's got some evidence to back it up, as well.

Even in the finals-bound 2001 season, they drew better on the road (second) than at home (fifth).


That's damning evidence, to be sure, and Beale asked Bill Simmons for his opinion on why this might be the case. Here is the sports guy's theory.

"It could be a race thing to some degree. They've never had an awesome white player, and they've always had the most iconic African-American player. They had Doc, then they had Barkley, who was obviously very outspoken, and then Iverson."


Beale isn't buying that line of logic, and neither am I. If you've read Simmons book, it's pretty clear that he sees everything through a green lens after growing up worshiping the Celtics in America's most racist, blue state.

Personally, I struggle with explaining why the Sixers didn't draw better last year. Perhaps it was the slow start coupled with the Phils playing baseball into late October. By the time fans shifted their focus away from the W.S. championship, the Sixers were grossly under-achieving, shortly thereafter they canned Mo Cheeks (a Philly hero, if not a great coach), and then Elton Brand went down. By the time the team started playing inspiring basketball, the interest was gone and it wouldn't really come back until they held a 2-1 lead in the playoffs. Then all the bandwagon fans had the pleasure of watching the Sixers drop three straight, culminating in a fold of epic proportions at the Wach in game six.

After writing that, I guess I really don't wonder why they didn't draw last year. I get it, it's just a shame because those Sixers personified everything this city is supposed to love in sports. An underdog out-hustling more talented teams. Players giving it their all. Against all odds, you know the script. Last year, and really the year before as well, they had "it" whatever it is. Still, the Sixers ranked 23rd out of 30 in attendance.

When I first finished Beale's piece, it struck a nerve. Maybe the answer is simply that Philadelphia fans have other options when it comes to basketball. They know Temple is going to be decent and you have Nova, St. Joe's, even Penn if you're into the Ivey League. High school hoops are big as well, it sort of makes sense. But I don't think it ends there. Here's a look at where the Sixers ranked in attendance each season since 80-81:

  • 7 of 23
  • 6 of 23 (lost in finals)
  • 2 of 23 (won title)
  • 4 of 23
  • 5 of 23
  • 9 of 23
  • 7 of 23
  • 11 of 23 (missed playoffs)
  • 15 of 25
  • 18 of 27
  • 11 of 27
  • 15 of 27 (missed playoffs, traded Barkley)
  • 26 of 27 (missed playoffs)
  • 26 of 27 (missed playoffs)
  • 25 of 27 (missed playoffs)
  • 28 of 29 (missed playoffs)
  • 22 of 29 (missed playoffs, Iveron's rookie year)
  • 21 of 29 (missed playoffs)
  • 11 of 29
  • 8 of 29
  • 5 of 29 (lost in finals)
  • 2 of 29
  • 4 of 29
  • 4 of 29 (missed playoffs)
  • 10 of 30
  • 21 of 30 (missed playoffs)
  • 29 of 30 (missed playoffs, traded Iverson)
  • 23 of 30
  • 21 of 30
There's a pretty clear trend there, when this team is winning, they draw as well as any team in the league. When they don't win, Memphis out-draws them. When you look back on it, you can clearly see this city will follow the Sixers, but they aren't easily won over. The team needs to prove they're contenders before fans will start coming in droves. For example, the 2000-2001 team who went to the finals was only the 5th-best draw that season, but the following year they jumped up to #2 and they stayed at #4 for the following two seasons, even though they missed the playoffs in 2004. Then the attendance started to drop off, as did the team's play, until it disappeared with Iverson's departure.

But even after Iverson left, the city did respond to the underdog Sixers who made a late push for the playoffs, even though they fell short. Attendance jumped for the following two seasons. Both years the new fans were rewarded with trips to the postseason. But now we sit with the 2nd-worst total attendance (worst per game) after 13 games. There's no buzz around this team, other than the outlandish comments their coach is making and premature mutterings of "Elton Brand is a bust." If you're wondering why, I think the answer is pretty simple. This team traded away its past two iconic stars and they both left on bad terms. This is a fanbase that's been bitten, twice, and it's going to take a lot to get them to believe again. They don't want to get burned for buying in only to have their hearts ripped out.

To put it simply, the Sixers can draw, and they will draw, but not until they put a viable contender on the floor. If they had continued their march toward respectability this season, with their young core intact, I believe attendance would've improved again, but those scorned fans have seen scripts play out like this before and they won't buy in fully until the team shows them something.

I don't think Beale was completely off base with his theory, but I think maybe it just needs to be twisted a little bit. It's not that Philadelphia is indifferent to the Sixers because they're so focused on college and high school, it's that college and high school hoops do a fine job of filling the void when the Sixers aren't worth the money to root for. Win games, the fans will come. Simple as that.
by Brian on Nov 23 2009
Tags: Basketball | Sixers | Support |