Does Philadelphia need star power to sell tickets?

Zach Lowe over at the Point Forward caught my eye with a recent quip:

Why are the Sixers such a distant fourth in popularity among the city’s four major sports teams? Fans filled the place during Allen Iverson’s prime, and this Philly team, looking great so far against a schedule heavy on both cupcake teams and road games, could become one of the league’s most likable groups if it keeps winning.

When the Wages of Wins first came out Dave Berri made a name for himself proclaiming that Allen Iverson wasn’t that good and that star power isn’t what sells tickets, winning does. Dave even went as far as to make that point in the New York times in 2007 when A.I. came to Denver. Allen Iverson made sure to take his revenge by destroying Dave’s Pistons, but the point is still true. And I wanted to highlight the notion that Allen Iverson’s star power didn’t sell many tickets for the Sixers.

Allen Iverson’s performance vs. 76ers attendance
Season A.I. Minutes A.I. PPG A.I WP48 76ers Wins 76ers Attendance
1996  N/A N/A N/A 18 489,327
1997 3045 23.5  0.009 22 626,478
1998 3150 22.0  0.124 31 655,417
1999 3264 26.8 0.095 46 715,768
2000 2853 28.4 -0.006 49 756,929
2001 2979 31.1 0.048 56 805,692
2002 2622 31.4 -0.001 43 842,976
2003 3485 27.6 0.054 48 807,097
2004 2040 26.4 -0.018 33 788,128
2005 3174 30.7 0.097 43 732,686
2006 3103 33.0 0.100 38 677,248

The truth is that Philadelphia’s interest in basketball peaked when the 76ers were winning games in the early part of the last decade.  It happens this coincided with Allen Iverson scoring a bunch of points and generally being treated like a major star. We can see that after the Sixers peaked, though, that Allen Iverson kept scoring — and in fact improved his production of points — and yet attendance fell.  And attendance dropped even though people still believed Iverson was a major star.

I just want to remind those of you that may not have read The Wages of Wins recently of some important trends.

Winning and the previous season influence attendance:

Fans like watching a team that wins. They will also watch a team that was recently good, even if it is on the decline. However, a team that consistently does not win will lose fans. This is what has happened in Philadelphia.

Star power does increase attendance…on the road:

We may remember people coming out to see Allen Iverson play in his hey-day. The thing is, it wasn’t the fans in Philly. When A.I was scoring the most points of his career in 2005 the Sixers actually saw a dip in attendance from 2004 by around 50,000 fans. Fans on the road did indeed come to see A.I. as the 76ers had the sixth highest road attendance. At home, though, they were actually in the bottom half of the league at 16th.

Iverson’s star power helped, but it didn’t help the team paying him $15 million a season at the time. No, it helped out all of the 76ers competitors.

Summing up

The reason the Sixers are not getting a lot of the fan love in Philadelphia is that they simply haven’t been good as of late. The Sixers haven’t come close to 50 wins since 2003, which was also the last season they escaped the first round of the playoffs. At the same time, fans in Philadelphia have had three teams make it to the conference finals, two make it to the finals and one win a title. Of course — as was pointed out yesterday — right now the Sixers are playing like the best team in the league. If they keep it up then fans will certainly be back. However, if they can’t keep it up, then the fans will certainly stay away or go watch a better team in the area play. Once again, it turns out that scoring lots of points isn’t the answer, rather it’s about winning basketball.


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