Philadelphia’s new CEO, Adam Aron, talks about winning the city over, one fan at a time.
I first met Adam Aron on Twitter.
Early in January, shortly after the Philadelphia 76ers traded power forward Marreese Speights, Aron weighed in on the transaction via the popular social media medium. Taken by his honest and insightful analysis, I tweeted him back. Moments later, the former CEO of Vail Resorts retweeted me. Nothing about the back and forth was unusual in the least—except for the fact that Aron is part owner and CEO of the 76ers.
More recently, before the Sixers hosted the Milwaukee Bucks on MLK Day, I met Aron in person.
Aron was part of a group that purchased the Sixers from Comcast-Spectator this past October. And while billionaire Josh Harris is the managing partner and Will Smith is the big-name partner, Aron, the team’s CEO, has quickly emerged as the face of the new ownership.
That was evident in our first minutes together, when, during our walk from the locker room to the court, multiple fans recognized Aron from newspapers, TV and, yes, Twitter. Some called out his name; some thrust out their hands for shakes; some asked for pictures; some even offered business advice.
No matter the request, Aron, a lifelong fan of Philadelphia teams and graduate of Abington High, obliged. He stopped and waved when they called his name; he shook each hand with vigor; he posed for photos, even with a Curious George prop for what someone said was a school project; and he offered his email address to those who wanted to talk business.
Suffice to say, a minute-long walk from the innards of the arena to the court became a 10-minute meet-and-greet. And whereas those seemingly lost minutes would’ve frustrated most front office personnel, a gregarious Aron spun it positively.
“I now come to the arena and it is what you just saw,” Aron told me as the crowd around us disbanded. “And it’s like this all night long for me. But you know what? If we’re going to re-energize and reconnect with the fan base one handshake at a time, it’s fine with me.”
After a few more interruptions (all welcomed by the CEO), Aron and I sat behind the Sixers’ bench and spoke about the view from the owner’s box.
SLAM: Is that part of the job description as CEO of an NBA team—posing for pictures with fans and kids?
Adam Aron: Kissing babies, right (laughs)? Well, we’re off to a great start as the new ownership. One of the critical issues for us was to re-energize the fan base in Philadelphia to care about the 76ers, and to reconnect with fans. And, beyond our wildest expectations, it’s already happening. One reason is because we’re 9-3 [they are currently 12-5—Ed.]. Another reason is because from the very first press conference we were open with Philadelphia sports fans. We’ve been quite visible on radio and television; we set up that fan email link, where we got 6,500 fans writing in; but I think the thing that’s really the marvel of them all is Twitter. I went on Twitter [@SixersCEOAdam] at the end of October, and I’ll hit 10,000 followers in two months. And I’m actively tweeting 30, 40 times a day and I’m getting 100 of responses. So I now come to the arena and it is what you just saw, and it’s like this all night long for me. But you know what? If we’re going to re-energize and reconnect with the fan base one handshake at a time, it’s fine with me.
SLAM: Is that something you expected and planned going—that you would have to connect on an individual basis?
AA: Yes. What I didn’t realize was how quickly it would come. Look, Philadelphia is a sports crazy town, and the NBA is a very important professional sports league. But the Philadelphia 76ers have been on a 10-year downward slide, in terms of ratings and attendance. When we bought the team, we didn’t know if it would take us a year, two years, three years to really turn it around. Well, we’re selling tickets like crazy, our TV ratings are up 60 percent year-over-year, and of course the team is off to a great start. So between our openness with the fans, the team winning and the improvements we’ve put in game nights, Philadelphia is buzzing about the Sixers more than it has in years.
We’re very excited about where we are. The new ownership is off to a great start, with the city and with the team. And that’s showing up with greater press coverage, greater fan interest—we had our first million-dollar sales week last week in tickets, and TV ratings are way up. We’re going to have several sellouts or near sellouts in February.
SLAM: Are there concrete goals for what you’d like to accomplish?
AA: The long-term goal is to win an NBA Championship. The short-term goal is to win our division and get at least into the second round of the Playoffs this year, which will be the first time in a while that either has happened.
In terms of other goals, we’d like to start selling out or building. As I said, we didn’t know whether that would take months or years. Well, it looks like it could happen in our second month of home games. We’re very excited.
SLAM: Do you look at yourselves as being in competition with the Eagles, Flyers and Phillies?
AA: Not at all. This is the fifth largest city in the United States, so it’s perfectly capable of supporting a team in each of the four major league sports. I think we’re not competing for the entertainment dollar with the Eagles, Flyers or Phillies. What we’re competing for is to be as popular with the fans as they are. This fan base is perfectly capable of being in love with all four sports teams.
SLAM: We’ve seen that in the past. And is that another big thing: honoring the past and tradition? I saw you tweeting about possibly doing something for AI and I know you’ve already done some things to commemorate the ’83 team.
AA: We are very much reaching into the heritage of the team. The Sixers are not any old basketball team. If you go back over the 60-year history of the franchise, this is one of the elite franchises in the NBA. When we bought the team, we had to redesign the business cards because the seller’s logo was on it. But on the back of the card we put our 13 championship banners and the line THIRD MOST WINS and THIRD MOST PLAYOFF APPEARANCES IN NBA HISTORY. That line is up on the LED rings frequently during the night.
We’ve got three television commercials running in Philadelphia right now. One is about Doug Collins; one is about our young players; and another is about the great Sixers, starting with Wilt Chamberlain all the way to Allen Iverson. And what the announcer says is, ‘the third most wins and the third most Playoff appearances in NBA history.’ Meanwhile, you’re watching these incredible players—there’s that famous shot of Daryl Dawkins smashing that backboard; there’s Julius Erving’s windmill dunk; there’s AI stepping over Ty Lue; there’s Jrue Holiday beating LeBron to the hoop. So anyway, we think reconnecting Philadelphia to the history of this team is one of the strategies for reconnecting Philadelphia to the current team.
There’s a tradition that’s passed down, from Chamberlain to Erving to Barkley to Iverson to Lou Williams and Thad Young and Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday. So far, this strategy of reminding people of the great heritage of this team is one of the factors behind the buzz and excitement we’re generating.
SLAM: On a personal level, do you think you’re maybe more connected to the Sixers, because of your roots in the area, versus some owners who don’t necessarily own in their home city?
AA: I’ve lived in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami. But of all the cities I’ve lived in, Philadelphia’s the city where I was born, raised and spent the first 20 years of my life.
I was born into a sports fan family. My father and I had season tickets in the upper deck of the end zone to watch the Eagles play in Franklin Field. I was at Connie Mack stadium the night the fans tore it down brick by brick after the last game. I was there when Johnny Callison was in right field, and Richie Ashburn and By Saam were the announcers. I was a Flyers, pick-a-plan, 18-game ticket holder when I was 15 years old. And my father, brother and I used to go to the old Civic center—that’s how old I am—and watch Wilt Chamberlain play with Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham. And I think I understand the psyche of Philadelphia sports fans, because I am and was a Philadelphia sports fan. And anybody who suffered with the 1966 Phillies knows what it’s like to be a Philadelphia sports fan. That was the year they collapsed down the stretch.
I think I understand what a Philadelphia sports fan is all about. It’s a very demanding sports audience, but it’s demanding in ways that a lot of outsiders to Philadelphia don’t understand. Some people mistakenly think that what Philadelphia sports fans want is a winner. But more than a winner, the fans wants teams and players that give 100 percent effort all year long, win, lose or draw. If Philadelphia sports fan had the choice between a winner that was mailing it in and a winner who was gutting it out every night, they’d always choose the winner that guts it out.
SLAM: Less than 20 games into your regime, is it safe to say it’s everything you pictured and imagined—being a part of owning your childhood team?
AA: Let’s just say that even though my right knee is convinced I’m 57 years old, my head is absolutely convinced I’m 14 again. To take over the leadership of one of the four major sports teams, in your hometown, this is a boy’s dream. And then to have the kind of start we’ve had at 9-3, to pick up 10,000 Twitter followers in two months, it’s just the most enjoyable sheer, pure fun thing I’ve done in my entire life. And I’ve had a pretty successful career—I was chairman of the board and CEO of a $2 billion company with 16,000 employees for a decade—but running an NBA team, when you’re winning, it just doesn’t get any better than this.