July 17, 2017

The Sixers should try not sucking for at least a season before they attempt to fleece fans

In the long and sordid history of pro sports in Philadelphia, there has never been an organization with such an open disdain for its own fans like the current 76ers. Last week provided the undeniable proof that owner Josh Harris and CEO Scott O’Neill have only one tangible goal – to squeeze every nickel out of their loyal patrons.

After four seasons of the worst basketball any NBA city has ever had to endure – three years of failure by design, no less – the Sixers have introduced Club 76, a shameless scam designed to charge fans for the honor of waiting to buy season tickets.

For a mere $176 a year, the team is offering “elite” status to people waiting for season tickets after a recent surge of sales sold out the 14,000 available plans. Fans not quite stupid enough to pay that amount can receive “priority” ranking – the middle of the list – in the season-ticket pecking order for $76.

What’s so bad about a team exploiting supply and demand this way? Absolutely everything is bad about it.

First of all, the Sixers didn’t even wait to have a respectable season before finding this new way to gouge their patrons. Is it asking too much to win more than 28 games before they adopt such a fan-unfriendly scheme? For Harris and O’Neill, yes, it is asking too much. Greed is their only governing emotion.

Second, the fee is annual. That’s right. Every year in which fans wait without receiving season tickets, they must pay the $176 or $76 again. They do receive a hat, t-shirt and/or car magnet for their troubles, however. Whoopee.

And third – this is the most insidious part – the amount paid for membership in Club 76 is not applicable to the eventual season-ticket package. Unlike every other team employing such a waiting-list program, the Sixers just pocket the money. Wow.

None of this should shock fans who have been paying attention during the six years since Harris, a hedge-fund billionaire, bought the team. He was the first owner to accept advertising on uniforms, and he has the only team in sports history that wouldn’t acknowledge its own arena’s name because the Wells Fargo Bank wouldn’t buy ads.

But still … charging fans to wait in line? Even the Eagles, who embraced personal seat licenses when they opened Lincoln Financial Field, don’t have the audacity to use the demand for season tickets against their own fans. They’ve got over 50,000 eager customers waiting in that line right now, and they’re not sending them bills.


RELATED: Club 76 is also a strip club in Ohio


Philadelphia has a history of taking advantage of fan passion. Ed Snider priced many of his blue-collar fans right out of the Spectrum after winning two Stanley Cups in the 1970s. Norman Braman led the NFL in ticket-price increases during his miserly tenure. And the Phillies were notorious for ticket-bundling – packaging good games with bad ones – during their great run.

Nothing compares to this Club 76 scheme, however, because at least fans in those other cases got something for their money. They got tickets to games. All the Sixers are offering is the promise, maybe, of tickets someday. While you wait, you can keep filling the coffers of a billionaire and his slick, money-grubbing CEO.

The problem for a lifelong fan like me – over a half-century and counting – is that I do not have the liberty of rooting only for Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. When the Sixers win, alas, so do Josh Harris and Scott O’Neill – two carpetbaggers who don’t give a damn about the fans of this passionate sports city.

Our only solace right now is that Harris is bound to sell the team at the first major opportunity. He is, above all, a businessman. When the price is right, he and O’Neill will stuff their bags with our hard-earned money, jump into their fancy helicopter, and seek out the next financial bonanza.

That day cannot come soon enough.

***

It is hardly a secret that the Phillies (30-60) are having a historically bad season, but the less obvious story is the sobering state of their talent development program in the minor leagues. Some of these kids we’re all waiting for are probably not worthy of our patience.

In fact, the jewel of the farm system, shortstop J.P. Crawford, received some shocking reviews last week from some of the same prospect analysts who were once his biggest supporters. Crawford is a bust in the making. It’s hard to say what’s worse right now, his fielding (14 errors) or his hitting (.218 batting average.)

Baseball America reacted to Crawford’s nightmare season by dropping him from 12 to 92 on the list of the top 100 prospects. Editor John Manuel, in an interview with CSN Philly, said there was a debate over whether to drop Crawford out of the rankings entirely.

Keith Law of ESPN said it succinctly: “I got nothing but negative reports from scouts and execs this month … I’m alarmed, and I’ve been a big fan of his since high school.”

Meanwhile, Mickey Moniak – the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft – suffered a drop from No. 17 to 46 on the Baseball America prospect list last week, a direct result of his struggles (.268) in Lakewood (A) this season. Even at 19, the top pick in the draft is supposed to dominate, not barely survive against marginal talent.

The truth is, only one Phillies prospect has truly emerged so far this season, and that’s Scott Kingery, who is hitting .297 since his promotion to Lehigh late last month. The second baseman belongs in the big leagues right now, but Matt Klentak is reluctant to showcase the one potential superstar he has developed in his two years as GM.

Klentak can put off the scrutiny only so long. The unproven GM has failed repeatedly with acquisitions so far, making his performance before the July 31 trade deadline even more crucial. Based on the recent results from the minor leagues, it’s time to take a much more critical look at what he has been doing, and not doing.

***

The most interesting debate going on during these slow sports times in Philadelphia is which top young star will be more successful, Carson Wentz or Joel Embiid. (See below for the correct answer.)

Wentz is the Eagles quarterback, so he has an immediate advantage. If the Eagles quarterback is a superstar, he will rule a football city like ours, just about every time. But Embiid is a unique entity, his immense talent matched by a whimsical, engaging personality.

On Twitter, it is no contest. Embiid has more than double Wentz’s followers, and with good reason. The young Sixers center holds nothing back on social media, as proven by the recent $10,000 fine for directing a profanity at LaVar Ball. Embiid is the master of the hashtag. Wentz is more inclined to show photos of his dog.

On the field or court, the true test will come soon. Wentz starts his second training camp one week from today, with improved throwing mechanics and a maturity he lacked as a rookie. Embiid will be as impressive as his health allows. A total of 31 games in three seasons does not encourage optimism.

What the debate comes down to, then, is whether Embiid will be able to play 60 or more games next season, or any season. If he can, he should be able to win the city over the same way Allen Iverson prevailed over Donovan McNabb 15 years ago. Talent and personality equals acclaim in Philadelphia, regardless of the sport.

But ultimately Wentz will win the race because he is more serious about success. On my WIP radio show last week, he unveiled a new charitable foundation, flashed a surprising sense of humor and reinforced his commitment to win at all costs.

Embiid is a character, but his zest for fun and his propensity for serious injury make him the definite underdog in this battle for the love of Philadelphia sports fans.

And finally …

• Allen Iverson will always be a hero in Philadelphia, but he blew it on Sunday night when he didn’t play in the Big3 exhibition at the Well Fargo Center, offering only a lame excuse. “On the advice of my doctor” is not enough when most of the people in a big crowd were there to see Iverson. Not being available to answer questions after the game only made it worse. The fans deserve a refund, and an explanation.

• One year after serious allegations of domestic abuse, Ezekiel Elliott faces an imminent suspension by the NFL. The Dallas running back was accused by his then-girlfriend of being “thrown into walls. Being choked to where I have to gasp for breath. Bruised everywhere – mentally and physically abused." After the debacle last season with Giants punter Josh Brown, why has it taken so long for the league to react this time?

• Tony Romo has been doing some mock broadcasts in preparation for his debut as CBS’s No. 1 analyst this season, and there are early indications that his genius bosses are telling him to temper his opinions. Yeah, that’s the way to win over viewers – by pulling your punches. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Disaster is ahead for Romo.

• It must be depressing for the many Sam Hinkie cultists here to see their hero networking at the Las Vegas Summer League in the hope of finding another GM job in the NBA. With a new look – a shaved head – he remains impressive only to lost souls who consider a 47-195 record a great accomplishment. Unemployed for 15 months, Hinkie needs one of these blind zealots to hit the lottery and buy a team. That will be the only way he gets a job.

• Bryce Harper said last week that he’d like to punch some of the rude Mets fans he encounters every time he plays in New York, but he finds Phillies fans “not as bad.” Then he added: “They’re going to be disappointed to hear that.” Yes, we are.