Not long ago the fiercest competition in Philadelphia basketball involved the 76ers versus the Boston Celtics. But recently, it’s been two squads of battling billionaires.
(Bloomberg) — Not long ago the fiercest competition in Philadelphia basketball involved the 76ers versus the Boston Celtics. But recently, it’s been two squads of battling billionaires.
On one side are owners of the 76ers: Josh Harris, co-founder of Apollo Global Management, David Blitzer, an executive at Blackstone Group and real estate developer David Adelman. On the other: Brian Roberts, chief executive officer of Comcast Corp.
The 76ers want to build a new $1.3 billion home. Comcast, the cable and media conglomerate that owns the NBA team’s current venue, the Wells Fargo Center, wants them to stay. Since being announced over a year ago, the proposed development, called 76 Place, has divided the city and turned into an increasingly nasty public relations spat. Still, neither side is backing down.
For six decades, the 76ers have thrilled and disappointed fans in Philadelphia, a place sometimes called “Comcast Country,” reflecting the company’s outsized sway in local politics. Comcast is one of the city’s largest employers and occupies its two tallest buildings. Whether the team’s proposed new arena gets built is shaping up to be a major test of Comcast’s political influence.
“Essentially, I live in a company town here,” said Adelman, who is leading the project. Comcast, he added, “is afraid they’ll lose to the newer shiny building.”
Adelman, the CEO of Campus Apartments, one of the country’s largest privately-held student housing companies, was speaking from his home office outside Philadelphia, where he keeps a basketball signed by members of the 76ers and a bottle of American Harvest Vodka, a liquor brand he owns.
Last fall, he bought stake in the group that owns the 76ers, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, from Michael Rubin, founder of the sports-apparel giant Fanatics Inc.
For months, Adelman has tried to win over skeptics, arguing that the new arena would be good for the team, fans and the surrounding community. He said the Wells Fargo Center, which opened in South Philadelphia in 1996, is “old and functionally obsolete.” The team plans to move after its current lease expires in 2031.
Owning their home arena, he said, would help the 76ers with scheduling — the team sometimes plays on back-to-back nights because of concerts and other events taking place at the Wells Fargo Center, a tiring set-up for the players that puts them at a disadvantage.
The 76ers haven’t won a championship since 1983. Recently, James Harden, one of the team’s best players, lashed out publicly against Daryl Morey, the franchise’s president of basketball operations — providing even more talk-radio fodder for a fanbase that has had plenty to gripe about in recent years.
A new stadium would also allow the team to give fans more modern amenities, Adelman said.
“I’m in the apartment business,” he said. “At some point, my renters leave and go buy their first home. We’re just looking to do the same thing.”
Unlike many new sports venues, which are built with taxpayers’ dollars, the proposed 76ers arena would be privately funded. The team predicts it would generate $1 billion in new tax revenue for the city, school district and state over 30 years and promises it will revitalize an area around Market Street in Center City.
The team plans to build apartments on top of the arena, setting aside about 80 units for affordable housing. Eager for the construction jobs, the city’s trade unions support the project, as do some prominent African American groups.
Irving Azoff, the music mogul, said there’s a need for a new concert venue in Philadelphia because the 76ers and the Flyers hockey team tie up many weekends at the Wells Fargo Center.
“The Philadelphia market is not attracting as many arena shows because it doesn’t have great dates available,” said Azoff, co-founder of Oak View Group, a live-events business that has a proposed partnership with the team for the new venue.
Comcast, which sold the 76ers to a group led by Harris in 2011, disagrees. It owns the Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers and other businesses through a subsidiary called Comcast Spectacor.
A recent $400 million renovation project has made several upgrades to the Walls Fargo Center, according to a Comcast Specator spokesman who disputed the notion that the arena’s current scheduling process is unfair.
“Philadelphians deserve the facts, not mistruths and distortions being said about the Wells Fargo Center, game and event scheduling, and more,” the spokesman said in a statement.
The venue hosts about 220 events a year and accommodates at least 98% of major concert scheduling requests, the spokesman said. Among the artists who performed there this year are Drake and Bruce Springsteen.
“There simply aren’t many – if any – additional shows that want to come to Philly, play in an arena-sized venue, and can’t do so at the Wells Fargo Center,” the spokesman said.
Larry Magid, a longtime concert promoter in Philadelphia, said “it is hard to imagine” the city can support another new arena.
“Philadelphia is not New York,” Magid said.
The 76ers expects to fill the proposed new arena with events at least 150 nights a year. Adelman said he’s in conversation with booking agents whose clients are eager to perform in a new venue.
“We’re confident there will be even more shows in the market that will benefit everybody,” he said.
The new arena would be located near Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. In June, community advocates marched through the streets to protest the project. Residents are skeptical of the team’s promises of jobs and revitalization and worry about the impact that construction would have on the environment, health and traffic, said Mohan Seshadri, executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance.
“It’s an existential threat to our community,” said Seshadri, whose group is part of a neighborhood coalition opposing the proposed arena.
The team is working with experts in sustainability, traffic and public safety and willing to adapt its plans, the 76ers spokesperson said.
The fate of the project will likely depend in large part on Mark Squilla, the Philadelphia city councilmember whose district includes the arena.
Squilla said he has not decided whether he’s in favor of it, noting that there are still planning studies to be done. After that, the City Council would need to vote on legislation before it can move forward. That’s most likely to be considered next year when a new administration takes office.
Squilla said he gets “lobbying from all sides, all the time” about the arena and other matters but doesn’t let that influence the process.
“Comcast is a big part of Philadelphia,” he said. “Do they have sway? I’m going to say yes.”
“But we need to put all those things aside,” he added, “and look at the benefits and impacts on our Center City area and Chinatown community and the people who will be impacted the most by this.”
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