This almost sorta happened once before, in 1993. The Philadelphia 76ers and their owner Harold Katz were embroiled in a dispute with their arena partners, the Philadelphia Flyers and their owner Ed Snider. The battle was over the new home of the teams, as the CoreStates Spectrum was quickly running out of its once very useful life. A state of the art facility was needed, the question was, would it be one or two? For years, the Sixers had played second fiddle to the Flyers in their shared home, with the offices staying in the bowels of Veterans Stadium. Priority dates, media and fan events always went to the Flyers. Now the Sixers wanted equal time.
When deadlines came and past, Katz had had enough. His brand, he felt, was damaged as being second fiddle, so the two teams would go their own ways. A partnership was formed to bring the Sixers probably about six miles, across the Delaware River into their own facility right by the new amphitheater and close to a to be built minor league ballpark as part of a massive revitalization of the Camden waterfront. Governor Jim Florio, up for re-election, was a big backer of the plan, and off the owner would go, breaking ties with the Flyers and the city for a new state-of-the-art basketball specific facility just north of the Walt Whitman Bridge. The logic was that thousands of sports fans commuted from new Jersey every day, an those who were on the Pennsylvania side knew their way past Camden to get to the Jersey Shore, so the Sixers would not be leaving, and in many ways they would be a little closer to an affluent New Jersey fan base. The owner would have what he wanted and what he felt was needed for a brand; a home they could control of their very own.
It never happened.
Katz picked the wrong face in Trenton to support, as Christie Todd Whitman bounced Florio, denounced the plan as a tax payer burden, the team when back to the negotiating table and hatched a better deal than they had with the Flyers, and shortly after that Katz surprisingly sold the team to a group that included Comcast and Snider and the current massive South Philly sports complex that now exists had the anchor tenants it has today, albeit with the Sixers now back under different ownership and headed on the business side by Scott O’Neil. The minor league stadium, Campbell’s Field, was built and has housed the Atlantic League Riversharks for over a decade with some level of success and the New Jersey Aquarium was added as well, but the NBA in downtrodden Camden? No way.
So this week the Sixers to Camden talk perked up again, albeit on a different level. With the team having their D-league team in Delaware, a spot to anchor and build from in South Jersey could be a good fit. It would not be a new arena, but a practice facility which would be a potential great new draw for recruiting players as well as doing entertaining for legions of fans on non-game days in New Jersey
After years practicing at St. Joe’s Fieldhouse, the team began to practice in rented space at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in West Philadelphia in 1999. The possible move comes after plans to construct a training center at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, fell through in April, and left the team looking for alternative sites that made sense.
From a brand standpoint, the move could be a good one; a controlled multi-use facility that expands the marketing reach of the team just a bit farther into New Jersey, a state without an NBA franchise since the Nets bolted across two other rivers to Brooklyn. It helps also forge some additional cross-promotional ties potentially between the Sixers and the Devils, New Jersey’s NHL franchise (although the Flyers do train in New Jersey as well, in Voorhees), which is also owned by Josh Harris and overseen by O’Neil. The days of having a gym with a few weights to placate your athletes are long gone. Training facilities are now multi-use, multi-media hubs and home away from homes with little expense spared to keep athletes happy, trained and treated well.
Is all this just posturing and more importantly who fits the bill for the new facility, which would join Campbell’s Field between the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges? It would seem to be very much a privately-funded project with a break on land that is unused and some great tax breaks, but it would probably not be a mega-moneymaker for the cash strapped and crime ridden city. It would be an emotional boost, and hopefully help seed some small jobs for residents and get young people involved more in basketball and education-related programs in the city, which could have a nice long-tail effect for some of the kids and the families in the community.
In the end it is always hard to figure out the real economic effect new stadia, let alone practice facilities, can have on a community. However by engaging Camden, the Sixers are showing smart marketing and good community responsibility as they work hard to re-build and re-brand a franchise that has been on the downswing and is now looking to fight its way back up, just like that city across the river.