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October 23, 2019

Sixers, Philly sports back at center of national scene — where they should be

ESPN broadcasting 'SportsCenter' live from the 76ers home opener is just the latest reminder that this team — and city — belongs on the biggest stage.

Al-Horford-intro-102419_Kate-Frese Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Forward Al Horford is introduced for the first time as a member of the Sixers.

October 26, 2016. That was the first time "The Process" Era Sixers appeared on national television, with ESPN broadcasting Ben Simmons' NBA debut (a six-point loss to the Thunder). 

It was the first of three national TV games that season for the still-rebuilding Sixers — and, more importantly, it was the first nationally televised Sixers game since they had last made the playoffs back in 2011-12.

Starting with Wednesday night's 107-93 win over the Celtics, the Sixers will play 24 times, or a third of their games, on ESPN, ABC or TNT (and that number jumps from 24 to 36 times if you include NBATV). It's really not worth comparing teams with the most national TV exposure — teams like the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors have an unfair advantage playing the majority of their games late at night on the West Coast, which gives them an automatic avenue for more games — but Philly has the most of any Eastern Conference team.

They have really come a long way. 

"I love it," said ESPN's Kevin Negandhi, a Philly native and Temple grad, who was on the floor pregame hosting a special edition of SportsCenter Wednesday night. "I was a part of it last year during the playoffs when we came here during the Raptors' series. It was incredible. We love our Eagles, but this city loves hoops. When we went through that lull, all those losses, I really felt bad for the city and the fans. We became kind of a punchline, but we are passionate basketball fans — from the Big 5 to the rich history of Sixers — so to get back to the prominent role on national TV warms my heart. 

"If the Eagles are the passion of this city, the Sixers are the soul of this city. When they are rolling, everyone is behind them."

There have been more lean seasons than productive ones in Philadelphia of late, with the local four teams (or five if you include the Union, who were equally as meager) putting together a bevy of less-than-interesting seasons prior to 2017-18's Eagles' Super Bowl run. Following that February parade down Broad Street, the tides have almost completely turned in the city. 

TeamW/L 2012-17 (playoffs)W/L since (playoffs)
Eagles38-42 (0-1)25-14* (4-1)
Phillies361-449 (0-0)227-259 (0-0) 
Flyers**178-143-63 (5-8)82-66-23 (2-4)
Sixers109-301 (0-1)103-61 (12-10)
Overall.407 win %.508 win %
*Won Super Bowl in 2017-18
**Counted Flyers OTL — which count as a point in standings — as a loss for W/L %

And now, everyone knows it.

For whatever reason, after seeing the Sixers, Flyers and Phillies all make the playoffs in 2012 — a five year spell of irrelevancy began the following season, lasting more or less until the Eagles won Super Bowl LII and the Sixers pushed their way past The Process into the playoffs two postseasons ago.

It wasn't long ago that all four teams were only getting attention from national outlets like ESPN for painstaking or embarrassing storylines.

Since then, Philly has been everywhere. From Bryce Harper's winter-long saga a little less than a year ago leading up to his record-setting contract, to the Eagles contending in the NFC, to the Sixers now playing as NBA Finals favorites (the Flyers, too, look to be on the upswing), Philadelphia sports have been national news on a nearly daily basis now.

Which is music to Negandhi's ears.

1_Kevin_Negandhi_sixers_ESPN_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpgKate Frese/for PhillyVoice

ESPN's Kevin Negandhi before the Philadelphia 76ers season opener against the Boston Celtics at the Wells Fargo Center.

"I feel like my role there in Bristol, especially on air, is to provide context and nuance about the Philadelphia fan," the 13-year ESPN veteran said. "I take great pride in that. I take it seriously. Sometimes things get twisted, you go with lazy, broad brush strokes of how it's painted, not just by one place but how the entire national media views Philadelphia. I try and set the record straight. Like the Santa Clause thing. Let's have some context here on why it was done. Let's understand we aren't the only city that does this, there are a lot of cities that do stupid things."

One would think the road to respect nationally would be winning. But even the Eagles' Super Bowl victory saw national stories of fans punching horses, running into poles in the subway and climbing them on city streets.

"It's a lazy trope people sometimes fall into it and they don't expand on it," Negandhi said. "They were booing Bryce Harper, and my attitude was, we boo because we care. There are many cities that just don't care. You look at Miami, you look at Atlanta or what the Chargers are dealing with in LA. 

"If you're an athlete, just give us 100%, whether you're good or not, all we care about is if you are giving it your all. There are a handful of guys who are not the best at their position. Great example: Mike Scott. When he's on the floor, we know he is going to give is 100 percent."

Philly teams have also done it with winning and with star power. Here are the 50 top selling jerseys in each major sport — the ranking on the right is how the player's jersey sells compared to others in the same sport:

AthleteTeamRank (among sport)
Bryce HarperPhillies1 (MLB)
Claude GirouxFlyers6 (NHL)
Joel EmbiidSixers7 (NBA
Ben SimmonsSixers13 (NBA)
Rhys HoskinsPhillies20 (MLB)
Carter HartFlyers21 (NHL) 
Carson WentzEagles23 (NFL)
Zach ErtzEagles26 (NFL)
Aaron NolaPhillies43 (MLB)

Nine current Philly athletes are in their respective top 50 lists for jersey sales (with 123 total teams in the four leagues to fill 200 spots). Not bad.

The four major Philly sports teams — plus the Union, who look to continue their run for the MLS Cup on Thursday night in Atlanta — have become mainstays on rundowns on shows across ESPN, FS1 and on syndicated talk radio shows and podcasts on a daily basis. They've earned their way back into the conversation and look poised to stay there.

Especially the Sixers, a team Negandhi predicts will be in the Eastern Conference Finals this May, and possibly more.

"I believe this team is going to get a Top 2 seed in the East and I think they're good enough to beat the Bucks," he said following his live broadcast just feet away from the Sixers as they warmed up. "The question is, where are they going to get the shooting? The health of Joel [Embiid], and when you get ready for a team like the Bucks — let's say Giannis takes the next step with shooting — if Ben [Simmons] can give you a couple of open looks a game to spread the floor, my goodness."

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