2020 has been a year full of surprises, yet the news of an exploratory plan by the Sixers to build a new arena at Penn’s Landing was a shock to Philadelphia. Few will argue that a Delaware River venue is an ideal location. The prospects for the stadium receiving funding are slimmer than ever as the coronavirus strips local governments of their financial flexibility. Could this be a ploy for Sixers ownership to move the team to New Jersey?
I hope this idea is just crazy paranoia only bolstered by years of being a Philadelphia sports fan. That being said, it is a nagging thought I cannot let go of. We have seen owners hold other cities and fanbases hostage over new stadiums before. The threat of relocating or gaining a sports franchise has prompted governments to spend billions to build athletic facilities that are closer to palaces than gymnasiums.
The Philadelphia Inquirer article that broke the story mentions that the Sixers hope to move to Penn’s Landing in 2031. Their bold plans are especially odd because the Wells Fargo Center recently completed a $265 million renovation that significantly improved the sports complex. Why bother with an expensive facelift to attract fans if one of the two teams is planning on moving?
This could be a ploy to gain a more favorable lease from Wells Fargo Center landlord Comcast Spectacor. Losing a basketball team that ranked in the top three in average attendance over the last three years would undoubtedly be catastrophic to Spectacor. Certainly, the corporation that also owns the Flyers will do whatever it takes to give its primary tenant a better deal if the threat of moving is real.
It is unlikely that even a fanbase as rabid as Philadelphia would embrace a new arena in an inconvenient location and want their tax dollars to fund the venue during a recovery from one of the biggest economic crises in American history. These long odds result in a few questions:
- Why would an ownership group probe the relocation of the team in a manner that is unlikely to happen? Money.
- What region would welcome another team without cost to taxpayers or private investment? Northern New Jersey.
- How can a billionaire earn even more money than tickets and jersey sales? Television.
To dig into this crazy conspiracy theory, fans only need to drive up the Jersey Turnpike to the Prudential Center. The primary team in the 13-year-old arena is the longtime Philly hockey nemesis New Jersey Devils. Their owners? Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, two people with significant stake in the 76ers ownership group. Harris and Blitzer own the Prudential Center and adding a second franchise to the building without the cost of a new palace would increase the value of their assets.
Added to this reality is the Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment group’s prospects as the potential new owners of the New York Mets. The company is one of the final candidates being considered by current Mets ownership. Adding another Philly rival to their portfolio lacks a brand unity that only relocation solves.
By possessing three teams in the biggest sports market in America (if not the world), the group would increase their revenue even more through a regional sports network. There is no value to a Philadelphia-New Jersey-New York television package to the average fan, but three teams in the metropolitan New York City area may be too good of an opportunity to pass on.
The ascent of streaming also increases the place that sports has in the television world. Live entertainment that promotes simultaneous viewership is more important than ever to advertisers. The Sixers’ current television deal with NBC Sports Philadelphia runs until 2029, two years before the team plans to move from the Wells Fargo Center.
It would also be unusual for the Sixers to plan a move just four years after opening a new training facility in Camden, N.J. Unlike most sports-associated deals that lock in teams for decades, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority only gave the team ten years of tax incentives. That arrangement would be the first of the team’s significant contracts to expire and only be beneficial in the long term if the franchise was looking for a package relocation.
The possibility of the Sixers moving across the Delaware River to get another favorable tax deal from Camden County is also real. Camden has been trying to develop their waterfront area for decades. An NBA arena promises jobs and glitz to the region, although the bridge traffic woes pose as a nightmare. A move to northern New Jersey, where the Sixers would have a no-cost facility to themselves, is far more likely.
This confluence of factors can only fade with a new arena or lease that locks the Sixers into the Wells Fargo Center, the place where they belong. The outcome of staying in Philadelphia for Josh Harris and David Blitzer puts hundreds of millions of dollars into their portfolio. The net possibility of a bigger stake in New York City sports is in the billions. One hopes that these circumstances are only a crazy conspiracy theory, but the roadway to the 76ers joining the likes of the Colts, Rams, and Browns is just a few rest stops away.