Few cities are more passionate about their sports teams than the City of Brotherly Love.
The Philadelphia Phillies recently saw their National League record 257-game sellout streak come to an end, a run that spanned parts of four seasons. The Philadelphia Flyers regularly sell at or near capacity whenever the Broad Street Bullies are in town. The Philadelphia Eagles see their fans fill Lincoln Financial Field beyond capacity every season.
And yet, for years, the Philadelphia 76ers have found it difficult to get fans to turn out for their games.
Attendance numbers from ESPN.com show that the Sixers did not break an average of 17,000 fans per game between 2004-05 and 2010-11.
The reason for the surge in interest during the years surrounding the turn of the millennium is obvious: those were Allen Iverson’s best years with the Sixers.
For all the mishaps during Iverson’s tenure with the Sixers, from his failure to show up early for Fan Appreciation Night to his press conference that forever changed the way we all say the word “practice,” Iverson was a reason to watch the Sixers play. Not only did he give the team a chance to win every night, but his dynamic style and attitude were a show of their own during any given game.
Basketball, perhaps more so than any other sport, is a sport of superstars. In baseball and hockey, almost any given player on the bench can end up putting up the biggest points of the season. In basketball, when your team has a Kobe or a LeBron on the roster, the ball is going to go to those players during crunch time. Every single time.
Hence, a basketball superstar is like an NFL quarterback. He holds the fate of each game in his own hands. He can virtually win a game on his own, and unless his teammates step up as a unit, he can also lose a game on his own.
This is, of course, is not to diminish the team element of the sport. A quarterback does not stand a chance without his offensive line or his receivers, the same way LeBron needs Wade and Bosh, and Kobe needs Gasol to round out the roster. But a superstar in basketball possesses more of an ability to change a game than almost any other player in any other sport.
Result of the game aside, superstars also put people in the seats.
And the Sixers have lacked a superstar since Allen Iverson.
The core player of the team since Iverson’s departure has been Andre Iguodala, whose sound fundamental play earned him a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic roster.
But Iguodala’s skills, while valuable to any team, were never going to bring Philadelphians back to basketball.
Doug Collins joined the team as head coach in 2010, and he immediately began building a solid team of young players including Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. The team knocked off the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the 2012 playoffs and took the Boston Celtics all the way to a decisive seventh game.
The season attendance reflected Collins’ success, as the Sixers broke the 17,000 mark in average turnout and sold at a modest 86.1 percent of capacity. But still, the team lacked two elements to put Philly over the top: size and a superstar.
The 7'0" center is regarded as one of the best in the league, the sort of player who, when healthy, is only a tier below a guy like Howard. The Sixers gave up Iguodala in the trade, but Philly now has its man.
A major key to the future of the franchise will be locking up Bynum long-term, but a feature on SI.com seems to indicate that the Sixers can feel confident about those prospects.
So, if Bynum becomes the face of the franchise, do the Sixers become relevant in Philadelphia sports again? It’s very possible.
Basketball will likely always be the redheaded stepchild of Philadelphia sports, a city that has long loved the Eagles and Flyers and recently renewed its interest in the Phillies. But Philadelphia is also a town that loves winners; simply recall the way Philly rallied around Smarty Jones, the racehorse from Chester County, Pennsylvania, who had a shot at the Triple Crown.
Bynum could well be the reason that fans flock back to the Wells Fargo Center on nights when the Flyers are on the road, and that rise in attendance could build momentum for the Sixers. But it is going to take a contending team to truly get the building rocking in South Philly.
Whether Bynum fully understands the impact he could have on basketball in Philly remains to be seen.
For now, he is doing his job simply by being a reason for fans to purchase tickets or buy a new Sixers jersey.