76ers’ CEO joins the pod to discuss the franchise’s future.
On the Friday edition, Howard Beck welcomes 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil, to discuss Philly’s playoff collapse and what comes next. They also discuss the life lessons and inspirational stories in O’Neil’s new book, Be Where Your Feet Are: Seven Principles to Keep You Present, Grounded, and Thriving.
Scott O’Neil: I think about what I walked into eight years ago, and I walked into a team that had just traded for … the Andrew Bynum experiment was over. We had two first-round picks in the next five years. Sam Hinkie was a wet-behind-the-ears general manager who had just traded Jrue Holiday—who is still a heck of a player, for the right to draft Nerlens Noel. And we eventually got Michael Carter-Williams with the next pick. And we were practicing at PCOM, which is a medical college, there was just one court. And you’ve been to plenty of practice facilities around the world and this was probably the worst in history. It reminded me a lot of my junior high school gym. There were four baskets and one court, and we shared it with med students—future doctors. And the locker room had 12 lockers in it and we had 15 players on the roster, obviously. So some of the guys just put their stuff in the corner on the floor. Our workout room was the size of my bathroom. And I remember I walked in there my first day for the press conference announcing I was the new CEO and looking around, and the only thing that was going through my head as I was trying to mask it was, this is not a world-class organization; it’s just not.
On the business side, we were last in every metric, just to put things in perspective, I think our season-ticket revenue was something like $14 million, and right now it’s like $80 million—just to give you a sense of the difference. I think we were 28th, 29th or 30th in every metric from season tickets, to attendance, to sponsorship revenue, ratings, brand metric, brand affinity, any way you measure our KPIs—our key performance indicators—we were last. And this was clearly a turnaround, so much so that my dad called and said, ‘Son, even you can’t fall for this.’ It was like that. And so if you go back to eight years ago and you fast forward to last night, we have a world-class training center. I say it’s the best in the world, but maybe it’s top three in the world. We have two global, iconic superstars. We have Doc Rivers, who through this pandemic has proven to be an extraordinary leader on the court and off. Daryl Morey is on-brand; we’re like we’re solid. So … and the basketball team finished first in the East and we had a disappointing finish.
But on the business side, holy moly. I mean, this is the place to be. It’s the team to follow. When I got to Philadelphia, they told me we were five of five, meaning behind the Philadelphia Union and the Flyers and the Phillies and the Eagles in terms of affinity. And you’d make a strong case that we’re No. 1, very least No. 2 behind the Eagles in the market. You know, we’re the fourth-most-followed team in China. We bought the Devils’ Prudential Center creating an innovation lab, built a real estate company, built a sports marketing company called Elevate. We raised a venture fund. I mean, this is now almost a $3 billion venture. We’ve grown the business, the value of this organization over six times in eight years.
So when I step back, I go back to trusting the process, if you will. That’s where I am; I’m in a better place when I focus on the moment, or two years ago, the Mother’s Day massacre in Toronto, or this Father’s Day fiasco last night. It’s hard, man; when you put your blood, sweat and tears into this, just to be fully transparent, it’s hard. And I hurt for the players, I hurt for their families, I hurt for the staff. Look, I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve been in this business 25 years, won some big games, lost some big games. And you either love this or hate it.
I’ll give you a story. My daughter, she’s interning for the Jazz, O.K.? She goes to school out there interning. And she called me after they lost, and burst into tears for 20 minutes. And so I let her carry on and give me her sob story. I said, ‘Honey, look, here’s the deal. You either love this and this is what you love. I’m not saying you love the pain, but you love the emotion. You love the ride, you love the wins, you love losses, You just feel.’ And we feel in our family, like we’re emotional. I think it’s the Italian blood. And I was like, ‘You gotta make a call, you got to make a call.’ And I hope she stays in the business because there is nothing like this business. We have purpose. Like if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we have purpose like our ‘why’ is so clear to me. It’s like we bring people together, we unite people, we unite cities. We give you escapism, we give you love, we give you happiness, we give you fear and despair. And we give you emotion, escapism. But we break connection at a time when we need connection more than anything else in the world.
So a long answer to a really short question is when I think about today, I’m very proud, but not a pat-yourself-on-the-back type, but if you can be humbly proud, that’s how I feel. I feel like this has been a heck of a journey. It’s been eight years, and boy, if you told me in 2014, ’15 or ’16—whenever that 10-win season was, that we’d be sitting here at No. 1 in the East, after you could shoot a cannon in those stands and not hit anybody. And now you can’t get a ticket. I mean we have the biggest season-ticket base in the league next year; it’s crazy. So if you would have told me then, that it’s like this now, I would have thought that’s crazy. I used to tell my kids not to go to games, like, ‘You can’t come.’ Why? Because I don’t want you to hear what they’re screaming at me. That’s why. Do you want to check out something good? Go Google ‘Reddit Scott O’Neil’ and go look at what that was like. I don’t think people really understand, like, what that was. I know what that was like. I went through it, I went through the mud and I got to tell you, I love where this organization is. I love the people here. This is a family. We take care of each other, we treat each other well, we work really hard, we have really, really big eyes and really big goals. And we talk about growth and business and it’s fun. But man, it’s been a tough day today, for sure.
Howard Beck: So, obviously, I appreciate the long view here. I’m a reporter; that’s the whole point of my profession, which is professional, emotional distance. I can sit here and go, I know you’re disappointed, but the Sixers—think about where you were, exactly what you just presented, Scott. The trajectory and the path that this franchise has been on, the evolution. And that’s all great, and those are all positive things. And Philly fans, eight years ago, seven years ago, whatever would have killed for that outcome. Guess what, guys, here’s where you’re going to be in 2021. But of course, none of that matters today because just the sting of defeat and not just that, but this team had legitimate championship hopes and the roster, the coach, the front office, everything is in place. And you look at it in the outline of a championship is there. And you’re following a couple of rounds short now.
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