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April 13, 2015

Philly fans have gone from anger to something far worse: Apathy

The fan discontent is quieter now, but more ominous. Despite a horrific year for Philadelphia’s four pro sports teams, the patrons are not jamming the phone lines on my sports-talk show screaming their frustration anymore. They are doing something far bolder and more compelling. They are not going to the games.

That’s right, the most passionate sports city in America is telling three of its franchises that they are no longer worth the price of admission. And these fans are absolutely right.

Last Friday night, the Phillies attracted a record-low crowd of 19,047 to Citizens Bank Park for a game against division-rival Washington. The weather was not great that night, but it was a lot better than the uninspiring team the Phils are trying to sell to the public.

How far have the Phillies fallen since their epic run from 2006-11? Just three years ago, they drew 45,429 for the fourth home game of the season, in the midst of a sellout streak of 257. On Friday, 57 percent of the seats were empty. Has the franchise ever had an attendance free-fall like this? Has any team, in any sport?

From a fan perspective, the Phils are the worst kind of ballclub, with some of the same names – Utley, Howard, Ruiz, Hamels – who were there for all the glory now reminding everybody just how far the franchise has fallen. The fact that the names making the decisions about the future – Gillick, Amaro – are also familiar is no source of comfort.

Fans are not angry anymore. They don’t care enough to show any real passion. That’s why the attendance numbers are plummeting.

The Phillies are not the only franchise dealing with smoldering fan-discontent right now. In the most underreported story of the year, the Flyers’ sellout streak ended in February after 175 games, a span of over four years. They ended up with their lowest attendance in 15 seasons this year.

What neither the Phils nor the Flyers have been able to understand is the nature of hope in Philadelphia sports. Fans don’t need a parade every year to buy tickets, but they do need change when their teams underperform. Having Ed Snider, at 82, still making the key decisions is a recipe for business failure.

Meanwhile, the Sixers are drawing far worse than the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, for good reason. They are an unwatchable product run by snake-oil salesmen with zero track record for NBA success. The team ranks last in NBA attendance this season, for what is believed to be the first time in their history.

In one way, they are the flip side of the Phillies and Flyers. The Sixers are all about change – interchangeable players, innovative scouting, new-fangled analytics, even a new mascot. But they have convinced only the naïve so far that this approach will work. The best news for them, from an attendance standpoint, is that they can only go up. There is nothing below 30th in a 30-team league.

As someone who has talked to fans every day for a quarter-century on WIP, I can say with confidence that the public’s response to the recent failures of the Phillies, Flyers and Sixers is nowhere near as vocal as it has been during other lulls. Fans are not angry anymore. They don’t care enough to show any real passion. That’s why the attendance numbers are plummeting.

So far, the Eagles have been exempt from this phenomenon, still having no trouble selling every seat for every game, and with a waiting list in the tens of thousands for season tickets. They play so few games, and do so in such a crazed football city, the attendance trend probably will never affect them.

Of course, if Chip Kelly’s roster makeover is a disaster, if the Birds fall to 4-12 or worse, will fans still shell out thousands for season tickets? The other three teams are offering a surprising answer to that question this year. Don’t be so sure.

*** 

One of the hardest things for a writer to do is try to capture in words the essence of a person who was a master at the art, a wordsmith with no peer. Nonetheless, I will try to explain why Stan Hochman was so much better at writing a sports column than me, and just about everybody else, for that matter.

Hochman passed away last week at 86, right to the very end a vibrant voice in the Philadelphia sports media both as a writer on the Daily News and as The Grand Imperial Poobah on my WIP radio show.

What is the definition of greatness in sports writing? It is Stan Hochman, who provided potent, thoughtful and entertaining opinions every day for more than half a century. He was intimidated by no one, offered honest insights with no agenda and could bring down a fool with either a hammer or stiletto.

There is nothing I can say about Stan Hochman except that he was the best sports columnist this city ever had, and one of its finest people.

As a man, he was even better. Hochman was an accomplished chef, ballroom dancer, philanthropist, husband, father and grandfather. His 54-year marriage to an equally amazing writer, Gloria, has been the ideal for all couples. She was there for all of it, the big games, the fund-raisers, the special nights with so many close friends.

Both Gloria and Stan thanked me many times over the past three years after I anointed him the Poobah, assigning him a segment on my show in which he handed down verdicts on all of the big sports disputes of the week. They both said it gave him relevance late in his life – as if he needed me for that.

The truth is, I was the beneficiary of that arrangement, not Stan. To everything he did, Hochman brought an elegance, a wisdom, that was unique to the sports community. People waited in their cars – many of them – to hear Stan’s segment before they went in to work. I know this because they told so last week, after he died.

One of Stan’s cardinal rules was always to balance a column, acknowledge both sides of the argument. Well,

I’m not going to do that this time. There is nothing I can say about Stan Hochman except that he was the best sports columnist this city ever had, and one of its finest people.

At the very end of his courageous 10-week battle for survival, Hochman said to Gloria last week: “Don’t be sad. We had a wonderful life.”

Even his final words were perfect.

***

Slowly, the truth is emerging about LeSean McCoy and the reason he is no longer an Eagle. His move to Buffalo had less to do with his running style or his declining production and more to do with his obnoxious personality.

During his brilliant career here, McCoy was as unpredictable off the field as he was with a football in his hands. Most of the time, he said and did the right things. He appeared on my radio show for two years and was a cliché machine, never venturing a single opinion that was controversial. He knew how to act like a star.

But every once in a while, he would stumble. Last year at this time, he was on a national tour predicting a 2,000-yard season for himself. Then there was that still-puzzling bus ride with 16 party girls that resulted in a physical incident, and a civil lawsuit. Even more infamous was his 20-cent tip at a Center City restaurant after a dispute with the wait staff. 

The dark side of LeSean McCoy appeared again last week, when he publicly lambasted Chip Kelly for not knowing how to handle star players, and for wanting the public spotlight for himself. He based these illogical views on the abrupt departures of DeSean Jackson and himself.

Let’s get the record straight right here, OK? The Eagles coach has no problem with stars – he just brought in DeMarco Murray, Sam Bradford, and Byron Maxwell– but he doesn’t tolerate divas like McCoy and Jackson. Big-headed loudmouths like them hurt the culture of Kelly’s team. It’s really that simple.

It is getting clearer by the day that 2015 is going to be a season of revenge for McCoy, a 16-game pity party after his exile to Buffalo. What McCoy has not yet grasped is that he earned the banishment. Kelly has room on his roster for all kinds of players, but no tolerance at all for jerks.

And finally . . . 

     • Head into any sports store this week and you will find the jerseys of new players Byron Maxwell and DeMarco Murray, but not Sam Bradford. This couldn’t mean Chip Kelly is still trying to find a way to trade for Marcus Mariota, is it? The Eagles coach cannot still be looking to move up in the draft by trading Bradford, can he? Hmmm.

     • I realize we’re all supposed to root for hometown heroes, but Bo Ryan of Wisconsin – by way of Chester – is a spoilsport who was classless after losing in the NCAA final to Duke. Despite surviving in the semi-final because of a shot-clock mistake, he actually whined about the officiating in the next game. In the end, Ryan got what he deserved.

     • How did Allen Iverson blow so much of the $200-million he earned as an NBA superstar? Matt Barnes of the Clippers says he often accompanied Iverson to strip clubs, where AI routinely blew between $30,000 and $40,000 per night. Iverson is pretty much broke now. Do you think he’s figured out yet how stupid he was

     • John Middleton, the power broker who has been trying to take over financial control of the Phillies, is in the middle of a family mess involving funds for the cigar company he sold in 2007 for $2.9 billion. His sister, Anna Nupson, thinks he’s a ruthless businessman who outmaneuvered his own family. Sounds like a perfect sports owner to me. When can he start?

     • One of the nicest people in sports retired last week, Eagles ticket manager Leo Carlin. He had been working in the ticket office for 55 years. Do the math. The team won the championship in his first year there, 1960, and never again. He said he was really surprised by that. Aren’t we all?