City of tough love

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two Philadelphia sports teams returned home last week.

Despite wondrous performances by its nationally renowned star, the first split two games before tepid crowds.

The second arrived in glory with the best record in its league and played before another guaranteed full house.

And that's about how it has gone all season for the 76ers and Flyers in Baltimore's sports-crazed neighbor to the north. The Sixers boast one of the biggest national stars in Allen Iverson, but have struggled to break .500 and attract fans. The Flyers have come off a potentially devastating work stoppage to play like contenders and reclaim their rabid fans.

"Like any business, sports is very cyclical," said Peter Luukko, president of Comcast-Spectacor, the company that owns both teams. "We have one team that's in the right cycle and one that's down a bit."

Sixers attendance has dropped rapidly, from 10th in the NBA last season at 17,870 a game to 27th this season at 14,938. Almost a third of the Wachovia Center's seats are empty on an average night, putting Philadelphia on a par with disillusioned fan bases in Atlanta and Portland.

Those numbers may seem odd to the casual observer because the Sixers aren't terrible. At 18-20, they would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Iverson is having the best season of his career, shooting more accurately than usual and averaging nearly 34 points a game, almost unprecedented for a man his size.

But fans are turning away in droves, unconvinced that the team is capable of an upswing.

"This city is starving for a champion, and I can't overemphasize that enough," said Glen Macnow, who hosts a sports radio show and covered sports business for The Philadelphia Inquirer. "People just are more and more almost in a panic. They won't get excited about a team with no chance to win a title, and the 76ers have no chance to win a title."

The Flyers do.

Philadelphia had ranked among the NHL's most consistent franchises before last season's lockout. But the Flyers upped the ante in the preseason, acquiring forward Peter Forsberg, regarded by many as the best all-around hockey player in the world.

Led by the Swedish passing wizard and sharpshooter Simon Gagne, they are in the running for the league's best record.

Fans jam the Wachovia Center for every game.

"What the Flyers did that really catapulted them was the key signings," said Joe Waugh, a Philadelphia-based sports marketing analyst. "When they signed Peter Forsberg, it was like, 'We have a chance. We have a shot.' People here are just so starved for a championship."

Macnow hosts radio programs after both teams' home games. The 76ers draw a smattering of calls. But during the Flyers show, all 12 phone lines remain lit.

"The 76ers may have a broader fan base, but it ain't that deep," the radio host said. "People who love the Flyers really love the Flyers."

That's always been true, said Dave Coskey, a Philadelphia native who until recently worked as a marketing executive for both franchises.

"The Flyers have something special," he said. "The Sixers have historically gone in cycles, and I don't think there's a lot that's going to change that."

It's hard to extrapolate a more general trend from the Philadelphia scene. NBA attendance remains steady in most cities, and the NHL is struggling in some of those same towns. So it's not that hockey is suddenly eclipsing pro basketball in general popularity.

Instead, the divergent fortunes seem to illustrate one city's historical relationship with the two sports.

Philadelphia has a storied basketball history, from Tom Gola in the college game to Earl Monroe on the playgrounds of West Philly to Wilt Chamberlain at Overbrook High School. The 76ers have been no exception, sporting a line of stars from Chamberlain to Julius Erving to Moses Malone to Charles Barkley to Iverson. The Sixers have won two NBA titles and been to the Finals four other times.

But attendance has always been volatile. After Chamberlain departed, a losing run ensued and crowds fell to an all-time-low average of 4,626 in 1973-74. The arrival of American Basketball Association stars Erving and George McGinnis revived the franchise, but even in Erving's prime, the Sixers sometimes struggled to draw sellouts. Attendance again dipped dramatically after the Sixers traded Barkley to Phoenix in 1992.

Iverson changed everything.

The 76ers drafted the diminutive star in 1996 and, shortly after, began setting attendance records. His jerseys and shoes proliferated in the city and became national best-sellers. The 76ers reached the NBA Finals in 2001.

Despite controversies from Iverson's legal woes, hip-hop attire and reluctant practice habits, his popularity seemed to hold. As recently as 2003-04, the 76ers ranked fourth in the NBA in attendance and the Wachovia Center was more than 90 percent full for the average game.

But, this year, local columnists are bandying the term "Iverson fatigue" to explain the sluggish attendance.

"He's the most exciting player in the NBA, at least around these parts, since Julius Erving," Macnow said. "But everybody has seen his act now for eight or nine years, and they want something new."

Luukko argued that Iverson is still a draw but said "basketball is a team game."

"We're in that cycle with the 76ers where they're playing at the .500 level," he said. "When that happens, you tend to have a dip in attendance."

Much of fans' animus seems focused on general manager Billy King, who has handed long-term contracts to middling talents such as Aaron McKie, Eric Snow and Kenny Thomas.

Waugh said the team tried its best to market the return of former point guard Maurice Cheeks as head coach. "It didn't deliver," he said. "I went to a few early season games, and there were like 10,000 people there. It was just sad because it was so quiet."

But, he added, a contending Sixers team would still be bigger than the Flyers because the NBA appeals more to families and the city's African-American population. "The Flyers have more of a niche audience," Waugh said.

Philadelphia was part of the NHL's initial expansion in 1967. Attendance grew slowly at first, and some feared the Flyers might abandon Philadelphia after roof damage at the old Spectrum forced the team to play a spate of home games in Canada during its inaugural season. But the Flyers stuck it out and built a champion, the renowned Broad Street Bullies of the mid-1970s.

The Bullies attracted a rabid following that held up even as the team failed to win another Stanley Cup through the 1980s and 1990s.

Coskey, who grew up with the Flyers, said the club has a special fan base that makes most others look wishy-washy.

"Flyers fans are among the most loyal fans of any team if you look back over the last 30 years," he said. "The Flyers came in at a time when Philadelphia needed a winner, and they gave us a winner. I was a Flyers fan growing up. Everybody was a Flyers fan growing up."

Naysayers said the lockout that cost the NHL last season might strain the strongest bonds between fans and teams. But that was never the case in Philadelphia, where the Forsberg trade built excitement and the arena was full from the first game on.

Some say the Flyers outperform the Sixers because Ed Snider, who oversees both teams as chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, started as a hockey owner and dotes on his original club. But Coskey, who worked closely with Snider, dismissed such talk.

"Ed Snider only knows one thing, and that's winning," Coskey said. "You can watch the color of his face change if one of his teams is losing, and it doesn't matter if its the Flyers or the Sixers."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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