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October 06, 2023

The 76ers have turned to Kevin Hart to raise support for their arena proposal

The North Philly native talks up the 'downtown environment' in a sponsored TiKTok video. Critics question whether the comedian is fully informed

To build public support for their proposed arena in Center City, the 76ers have tapped Kevin Hart to talk up the promise of a vibrant "downtown" home for NBA action and other live entertainment in Philadelphia

More than a year into their campaign to reimagine East Market Street, the team believes the comedian's roots in the city and his celebrity cache can help cast the controversial project in a more positive light. 

In a 30-second ad that first appeared on TikTok in September, the North Philly native speaks about the buzz an arena would bring to Center City. The video, shot on Hart's cellphone, is cut with various scenes in Philadelphia — the Ben Franklin Bridge, the statue of William Penn atop City Hall and a train barreling through a station. Hart suggests his hometown has been missing something special that other cities have.

"Thinking about the games in Philly now coming to downtown, an amazing feeling," he says. "More importantly, an amazing tone attached. Honestly, the cities that I've been to that have it ... honestly, I've always been a little jealous of it."

On TikTok and other platforms, the video is presented as sponsored content from Kevin Hart & 76 Place. A spokesperson for the 76ers said Hart was eager to share his thoughts when approached about making the ad and that he was not compensated or given talking points for it. 

"Kevin Hart is a longtime, diehard Philadelphia sports fan with deep roots in the city. He is close personal friends with members of the ownership group as well as players," 76ers spokesperson Amanda Conte said. "Who better to offer a perspective on what a downtown arena could mean for the City of Brotherly Love than Philly's own son?"

The $1.55 billion project calls for replacing a portion of the Fashion District mall, between 10th and 11th streets, with the arena and building a 20-story residential tower just north on Filbert Street, at the edge of Chinatown. Many residents there oppose the project, saying it will disrupt life, congest its streets, drive up the cost of housing and threaten the survival of a culturally significant neighborhood.

The 76ers have pledged to privately finance the project and include a $50 million community benefits agreement. 

The arena would be built above Jefferson Station, the transit hub the team views as the lynchpin of the project's feasibility. In the ad, Hart visualizes a bustling atmosphere where fans are dazzled by a state-of-the-art building, a public promenade and all the amenities that would surround 76 Place.

"Phenomenal opportunities just to expand, stopping to eat before, going to eat after," Hart says in the ad. "I mean, these are all things the downtown environment can present. And downtown is always lit up. It's always an energy to downtown, so now having that energy double down with an arena that's visible, it would be massive."

The 76ers declined to discuss their budget for the ad campaign, or their distribution strategy for it. But the team, which is seeking city approval for the arena, said it may collaborate with Hart again in the future.

Hart, 44, cut his teeth in Philly's stand-up scene before emerging as a promising young comic. He moved to Los Angeles at 23, and while he's now one of the world's megastar entertainers, he's still a loud and proud ambassador for his hometown. He sits courtside at Sixers games and mingles with Joel Embiid. His Netflix miniseries, "True Story," was set in Philly and prominently features fictional scenes at a Sixers game. Even some of Hart's philanthropic projects in the city, like his educational scholarship program with Meek Mill and Michael Rubin, the Fanatics CEO and former Sixers part-owner, have connections to his favorite basketball team.

One commenter on the TikTok video called Hart a "shill," while many others claimed his endorsement of the arena ignores the concerns of Chinatown. Community advocates that oppose the project argue that such reactions underscore the unpopularity of the project, and that the benefits the team has promised are thin on proof. 

"It's clear 76 Place is unwanted by the majority of fans and Philadelphians, and a 30-second video isn't distracting anyone from the fact that developers refuse to share the math behind their outlandish tax projections or meet the community in public and in person," Mohan Seshadri, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance, said of the team's effort to make Hart a face for the arena. 

The Sixers turning to a celebrity to boost the arena's image is a familiar strategy. More than a decade ago, hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Jay-Z played a major role in repping the opening of Brooklyn's Barclays Center, not far from where he grew up. At the time, he owned a small share of the Nets and the arena, which also faced significant community opposition. Hart doesn't have any financial investment in 76 Place, the team said. 

Shawmar Pitts, an anti-arena activist with the social justice group Philly Thrive, questioned whether Hart has been closely following the city's debate about the project.

"I don't think Kevin Hart looked that deep into it. He's a Sixers fan just like myself. Seeing as he's who he is, he's closer to certain people in the organization, and I don't believe he even looked at it the way we look at it," Pitts said. "I would ask him to do (his) homework. A person like him, an entertainer and very wealthy and on-the-go, doesn't have the full picture. This isn't about basketball."

Pitts, a Grays Ferry resident, previously fought for the closure of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery after a 2019 fire and explosion exposed the environmental health risks in his community. He helped form Philly Thrive because of the hazards he and his neighbors faced. With plans now progressing to redevelop the refinery site as a logistics and life sciences hub, Philly Thrive is concerned about displacement of longtime residents. The group joined the Chinatown activists in their fight against the arena because it sees the 76ers' plan as posing a similar threat to that neighborhood. 

"To actually sit down and think about all of the people affected by developers coming to the city and just running over the poor people in the city, I believe that if (Hart) knew all those things, with where he comes from growing up poor, he would understand why there's pushback," Pitts said.

Attempts to reach Hart through a publicist were unsuccessful. The 76ers said Hart's support for the arena is based on its capacity to create jobs, including many for Black businesses and workers.

"He understands and sees firsthand the benefit a downtown arena can bring and knows well how badly this neighborhood needs revitalization," Conte said.

Pitts said he would invite having a conversation with Hart about the drawbacks of the arena.

"I would love to, and I'd ask him to change his mind," Pitts said.