June 26, 2017
Amid all the hoopla over the acquisition of exciting new point guard Markelle Fultz, a story with equally stunning implications slipped right past most of Philadelphia last week.
The Sixers announced that they have already sold 14,000 season tickets for the 2017-‘18 season, more than any other NBA team. They expect that all 41 home games will be sold out.
Do you believe it? Two seasons ago, the Sixers finished tied for last in attendance, based on the percentage of tickets sold per game, among the 30 NBA teams. That year, fans were buying tickets on the secondary market for less than a dollar. Now, your best bet might be to make friends with one of the scalpers who soon will be back out on Pattison Avenue.
What is most amazing about this phenomenon is that it refutes the long-held belief that you have to win games to draw fans in our passionate sports city. The Sixers were 28-54 last season. Only in comparison to their 10-win team of a year earlier were they not terrible.
The biggest cause for the surge in attendance, of course, is Joel Embiid, a wild young center who so far has had a bigger impact on Twitter than he has on the basketball court, but who promises nightly thrills akin to Allen Iverson if he stays healthy. Based on ticket sales, the fans are obviously betting that he will.
Fultz’s presence on a roster with Embiid and last year’s top NBA draft pick, Ben Simmons is part of the story of the reborn popularity of the Sixers, but definitely not all of it.
The rest comes courtesy of Sam Hinkie. That’s right, the man of mystery, still unemployed 15 months after he was forced out as GM here, has unwittingly created a dynamic in Philadelphia demanding that even the most causal fans pay attention – and, ultimately, buy tickets.
Those who worship Hinkie as a basketball god are waiting in earnest for the next opportunity to honor their reclusive hero. Those who still consider him a fraud – present company included – are enticed by the debate over his legacy.
The one thing no one can do right now is ignore the Sixers, and that reality is very, very good for business.
Last week, predictably, the trade that brought Fultz here became a point of contention between the pro- and anti-Hinkie factions. The devotees cited it as another example of the ex-GM’s brilliance, even though his successor, Bryan Colangelo, actually executed the move. The haters argued that Hinkie would never have done it.
Who’s right? That’s the best part for the Sixers. It really doesn’t matter. As long as people are talking about your team, pro or con, they are generating interest that translates into a ticket bonanza, booming jersey sales and a happy bottom line.
An interesting point of comparison is the Phillies of the recent past, when they, too, sold out every home game for the better part of three seasons. They were an excellent team, coming off a championship, but their appeal also grew because of fascinating players like Jimmy Rollins and a controversial GM, Ruben Amaro Jr.
The Sixers have skipped the part about winning a championship – or even having a winning season – at least for now. In a city with an atrocious baseball team and a boring hockey club, there is plenty of room next to the Eagles for fan interest.
And the next intriguing chapter in this unexpected Sixers attendance story will unfold next season, when representatives from the pro- and anti-Hinkie factions will gather together 41 times, hoping to reap a reward for their pain and their patience.
Even when the action on the floor wanes, the show in the seats should be riveting. What will happen first? Will the Sixers finally start winning? Or will the Hinkie debaters kill each other first?
Pete Mackanin will not survive as Phillies manager beyond this dreadful season. You read it here first.
How can I be so sure? I was doing something last week that very few fans bother to do any more; I was watching this awful team play baseball. And unlike other occasions when maybe there was an excuse for Mackanin’s decision-making, there was none this time. The likable skipper’s blunders last week will be fatal.
Rather than enumerate all of Mackanin’s mistakes, let’s just focus on how he handled his most challenging player, Odubel Herrera. On three occasions over a two-day period, Herrera acted stupidly, with no repercussions from his manager.
The first was the worst. Carrying the winning run in the ninth inning of a tie game against St. Louis, Herrera blew right past the stop sign by third-base coach Juan Samuel and was thrown out by at least 30 feet. Typical of his lazy style, he just gave himself up when he finally reached the plate. The Cards won the game the next inning.
For a fleeting moment, Mackanin appeared to take the proper action by removing Herrera after the gaffe, but the manager later made it clear his decision was simply part of a double switch. Mackanin said he did briefly consider benching Herrera the next day, but he cited a series of extenuating circumstances instead.
Herrera rewarded his manager’s support by getting picked off third base, and then by not bothering to run on a 3-2 pitch with two outs. Even then, Mackanin’s response to dumb baseball was to play dumb himself. At no point was Herrera disciplined for his malfeasance.
Matt Klentak is certainly not quick with any of his decisions, but what happened last week cannot possibly elude his bosses, not when the manager so blatantly chose to ignore the crying need for discipline on the worst team in baseball.
I happen to like and admire Pete Mackanin for his honesty and his dignity, but he’s done as Phillies manager after this season. Bet on it.
Who is Ron Hextall’s new role model, Matt Klentak?
When the once-ferocious Flyers goaltender who has evolved into a wary GM traded his third-best scorer on a goals-challenged team last weekend, Hextall was taking a page right out of the win-tomorrow playbook of equally faint-hearted Phillies GM Matt Klentak.
Brayden Schenn plays for the St. Louis Blues now, after a trade that was like a neon-sign announcement that Hextall is in no hurry to return his team to the playoffs.
Although the Flyers live the charmed life of an organization rarely criticized for its failures, what happened on the first night of the NHL draft last weekend was a punch in the solar plexus to every fan who is tired of losing. Schenn scored 51 goals in the last two seasons, including 17 on the power play last year alone.
I know, I know. In some circles, Hextall’s moves are being hailed as a brilliant execution of a long-term plan. Well, not in this circle – and not among the smart fans of a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 42 years. Asking for more time now, more years to rebuild, is unacceptable, especially given the fickle nature of prospects.
Schenn wasn’t a prospect; he was a valuable, proven NHL player. Who’s going to replace a top scorer like that on a team that ranked 21st in goals scored? Obviously, the No. 2 pick in the draft, Nolan Patrick, will take over for Schenn at center, but he’s not going to provide that kind of production at 19 years old. Or 20. Or 21.
Hextall also moved back into the first round with the trade to take another center, Morgan Frost, whom the GM said every single scout in the organization loved. Of course, at 18, Frost will also need some time (years?) to adjust to the NHL. He will provide no immediate help. Nor will the provisional first-rounder Hextall got in next year’s draft.
And then there’s the small PR problem that Frost triggered when he tweeted a couple of disparaging remarks about the Flyers, including one in which he described them as “s---.” He was 15 when he said that, though, so maybe he was too young to know any better.
But isn’t that exactly the problem with the Klentak-Hextall approach? The kids they seem so obsessed with accumulating and coddling are totally unknown quantities at this point, completely unpredictable. Brayden Schenn is not. At 25, Schenn is entering his peak years – now in St. Louis.
One more time, the question must be asked: Where the hell is the take-no-prisoners, win-now Ron Hextall we all loved so much as a player?
And finally ...
• Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo said in an interview on ESPN last Friday that he didn’t plan to impose any minutes restrictions on his fragile young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons next season. Unfortunately, before fans could celebrate, he backed off the comment, saying those decisions were in the hands of the trainers and doctors. Ugh. For just a moment, it appeared that the Sixers were going to get this medical stuff right.
• Andy Reid struck again last week in Kansas City when he won a power struggle with GM John Dorsey. Within 30 minutes after Reid signed an extension, Dorsey was fired. Much like he did during his 14 years here, Reid made sure he was the big cheese. Here, he had puppet GMs like Tom Heckert and Howie Roseman. Apparently, Dorsey wasn’t so compliant. Now he has stab marks in his back, just like Jeremy Maclin.
• The way Phils GM Matt Klentak promotes prospects – or doesn’t – is one of the great mysteries of his first 16 months here. Last week, he moved outfielder Andrew Pullin up to Lehigh from Reading, citing the young player’s excellent season and an opening in the AAA outfield. A few days later – yesterday, to be precise – Klentak finally rewarded a far better prospect, Scott Kingery, with a promotion to Lehigh. Why Pullin before Kingery? It makes no sense – no sense at all.
• Congratulations to Mitch Williams, who won a $1.5-million judgment against the MLB Network last week for wrongful termination. The former Phillies closer was issued an ultimatum after an incident in the youth league that he either agree to stay clear of all of his kids’ games or leave the network. Williams disproved in court the allegations. Of course, Williams cleared his reputation, but he still has no job. Sometimes you lose even when you win.
• While controversy was swirling around his dysfunctional New York Knicks last Thursday night – with his top players in open warfare now with GM Phil Jackson – the worst owner in sports, James Dolan, took the night off to perform with his band on the other side of Manhattan. Well, at least his music was appropriate for the occasion. He sang the blues – literally.