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Jon Wertheim: 76ers, StubHub partnership shows advertising's influence in sports
1:40 | NBA
Jon Wertheim: 76ers, StubHub partnership shows advertising's influence in sports
Thursday May 19th, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — 76ers head coach Brett Brown’s barren roster fought tooth and nail only to muster 10 wins this season. General manager Sam Hinkie resigned as ownership swept the rug out from underneath him and his patient rebuild. Yet while near-chaos ensued in the franchise’s basketball operations, the team’s corporate faction experienced rousing success this season.

Even before the Sixers were granted the No. 1 overall pick on Tuesday, Philadelphia ranked third in the NBA in new season ticket sales for the 2016–17 campaign. Shortly after the calendar flipped to 2016, the Sixers saw the largest single sales day in organization history and they have renewed over 90% of its season ticket members each of the last three years.

“The culture of the Sixers’ sales staff has been the main driver of their success,” says Brendan Donohue, the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Team Marketing and Business Operations. “It’s vibrant, fun and contagious, with a terrific group of hard-working professionals who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

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***

He emerges from the door at the center of the room on a hoverboard, materializing out of a thick haze from the nearby fog machine and entering a sea of screaming 20-somethings. This is not a Kanye West album debut. It’s the 76ers’ sales staff’s pregame meeting, and the team’s senior vice president of ticket sales and services, Jake Reynolds, is the moshpit’s emcee. John Wall and the Washington Wizards are in town, the Wells Fargo Center a stone’s throw from the 76ers’ corporate offices in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. But before Reynolds can detail each associate's game duties for this February evening, he leads the entire staff in a raucous raffle.

The group is huddled at the center of the Sixers’ sales floor, with two 7-foot baskets bookending the aisle in the middle of a maze of cubicles. A hands-slapping-knees drum roll ensues as Reynolds draws poker chips out of an enormous tupperware box, each with staffers’ names printed across the face. Nerlens Noel’s signed jersey and a Jahlil Okafor-autographed poster are up for grabs among other prizes.

A chorus of cheers erupts with each winner, until today’s stock of spoils has been awarded. Or so we thought. Reynolds announces one more give-away. The crowd shrieks in delight with the late addition of new Beats headphones. Only this time, Reynolds draws four names to compete in a rock-paper scissors tournament to claim the prize. The staff clad in designer suits instantaneously plays along, emphatically screaming, jumping and sweating over the schoolyard gambit. “We do that before every game,” Reynolds says. “We walk a very fine line between having fun and having too much fun.” The 76ers now snap instead of clap inside their offices after the building warned their deafening festivities could be heard.

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The corporate culture spawned from a brew of hope, zany energy and innovation. At the heart is the Sixers’ sales force, which has gone to greater lengths to incorporate youth than Hinkie did. The Sixers’ 105-person sales team is the largest in the NBA and all of professional sports. Millennials comprise 99% of the department. “They want to run through walls, they want to change the world,” CEO Scott O’Neil says.

The Sixers employ a strict criteria when hiring new sales associates. Management specifically looks for the “three C’s” they deem congruent with their unique culture: Competitiveness, coachability and curiosity. Philadelphia will soon introduce a 25–30 question personality test as part of its interview process, an attempt to compare candidates’ results to those of the Sixers’ elite ticket sales representatives. Additionally, the 76ers utilize a two-week onboarding process to immerse new employees within the office’s controlled chaos, complete with a required reading and book report. Philadelphia swears by The Arbinger Institute’s “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box.”

The 76ers then uncovered the stimulants for high-level, entry-salaried millennial performance, emphasizing a collective effort, providing daily free food, endless team memorabilia and premium rewards. “We love to share our toys,” says Chris Heck, the 76ers’ Chief Revenue Officer. If the Sixers sold 700 new full-season tickets between Feb. 27 and April 15, the end of the regular season, the team would sponsor an Atlantic City trip for the entire staff. Upon reaching their “stretch goal” of 850 full-season tickets, the entire management team planned to shave their heads. Heck would move his desk from a private office overlooking the waterfront out to the middle of the sales floor. A buzzing clipper sent clumps of hair to the floor on April 27.

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Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Red banners, printed with the team’s Ballin’ Ben Franklin secondary logo, hang from the sales room’s ceiling, acknowledging all ticket representatives who have ever been promoted within the organization. Framed tie fragments adorn the back wall, having been snipped directly from associate’s necks after completing their first sale over $10,000. The right wall displays a sales and service leaderboard with people’s faces.

At a weekly meeting, the sales team MVP—voted by the reps themselves—is announced. A hard hat, signed by head coach Brett Brown, is awarded to a team member who “did the dirty work.” A championship belt, golden boot and bronze wolf statue also rotate around the office. “There’s a lot of weekly awards,” Reynolds laughs. The Sixers’ five hoverboards are constantly fluttering around the room. Shots are perpetually flung at each basket. “You’re always at risk of being dunked on,” Reynolds warns.

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“The root metaphor of sales often emphasizes competition and it seems like they’ve emphasized the community and the collective,” says Jesica Speed Wiley, a professor and researcher of organizational communication at Northeastern University.

That interruption of traditional sales culture sparked an energy this season which reverberated through the phone as associates sold the team’s message to their fan base. The 76ers wholeheartedly believe in the team’s surplus of future assets, despite Hinkie’s departure. “You’re selling one of two things: You’re either selling championships, or you’re selling hope,” Reynolds says. Ticket reps have pitched fans on the tantalizing prospect of healthy Joel Embiid, flashes of greatness from Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, unsung projects Jerami Grant and Robert Covington and overseas prospect Dario Saric. There's also the No.1 pick in June's NBA draft. “This will soon become a harder seat than not,” Heck says.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The hopeful intimation can only go so far with the on-court product so obviously lacking. To counteract the potential fragility of their message, the Sixers have created one of the most fan friendly arena experiences in sports. On opening night in 2012, the Sixers unveiled Big Bella, a 600-pound t-shirt gun capable of spitting out 100 T-shirts every 60 seconds. In August 2014, the Sixers purchased Quince Imaging’s cutting-edge, projection-mapping technology to be beamed onto the Wells Fargo Center court.

Philadelphia is in a continuous search to reinvent the overall game experience. While Hinkie was scouting Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone at the University of Maryland this spring, he noticed an entertaining halftime hopscotch game and immediately phoned O’Neil. The 76ers regularly challenge one fan to a halfcourt shot during home games, with free season tickets on the line. There’s been internal talks of installing a money-grab booth on the concourse, offering fans an opportunity to grab as many bills as they can toward a discount for future ticket purchases. The corporate brass considered distributing fly swatters to fans. The Sixers do rank third in the league in blocked shots after all.

“I want to create an atmosphere where a grandma, an 8-year-old kid, and a guy in a suit are all jumping for T-shirts, cheering, singing, dancing, and rooting for the Sixers,” O’Neil says.

Perhaps the perfect confluence of it all lies in Brown’s pregame ritual. Minutes before delivering his pre-tip locker room speech ahead of each home game, the spry 55-year-old coach meets with season ticket holders in the arena’s press conference space. Brown pitched the idea himself during a weekly meeting. O’Neil asked if the New England native would be comfortable meeting with fans the following Tuesday. “And he shakes his head. ‘No, every game,’” O’Neil recalls. “It is pretty amazing how candid, open, and engaging he is in telling our story and walking fans through the roller coaster ride we are on.”

***

After raising Allen Iverson’s No. 3 to the rafters during halftime against the Wizards on Mar. 1, 2014, the 76ers brought the banner back down to the floor following Philadelphia’s loss to Washington. Season ticket holders lined the court to take pictures next to the iconic fabric. Wall bashfully emerged from the visiting locker room to ask the Sixers brass if he could pose next to Iverson’s number, merrily taking part in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Somehow, the 76ers bottled Wall’s energy and shared it with a tuckered fan base. Whether that energy carries on—only time will tell.

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