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Don’t say the Sixers are tanking: What it’s like to work for the worst team in pro basketball

Correction appended

The man who says we’re not allowed to talk with #LOLSixers’ parking lot attendants sneaks up on a golf cart that emits less noise than a Prius. It’s Monday, about 90 minutes before the tipoff of another game the #LOLSixers will lose by double digits — and not even give their fans the dignity of getting a discounted Papa John’s pizza by scoring 90 points.

Just how bad are the Philadelphia 76ers? They have won fewer than half as many games as the three teams above them in the basement of the NBA’s rankings.

The man, Omar Alshaikhli, says — very politely — that any interviews done here must be approved by #LOLSixers’ management. He says management has approval of all facets of media, even social. He asks what our story is about. When Billy Penn told him we were at the Wells Fargo Center to learn what work is like for employees of a struggling basketball team, Alshaikhli, a manager for the third-party that oversees the parking lot, interrupts: “Who says they struggle?

“I don’t see them struggling. They’re not winning games,” he allows, but “that doesn’t mean it’s struggling.”

And if fans don’t show up for the games, it doesn’t mean they’re apathetic about a 2-22 basketball team that management built to suck. Who knows? They might all be staying home applying an important third layer of lacquer to their kitchen cabinets. But at least fans have a choice. Workers don’t. They direct cars, sell cotton candy or beers and make sure the hardy, loyal fans can find the right seat among an ocean of empties. They’re always there. Some employees are #LOLSixers supporters as hardcore as the biggest fans (one has the team’s logo tattooed on his leg); others, believe it or not, have no idea the main attraction — the reason they’re on the job at all –is awful, literally the laughingstock of the league.

They’re just here for the paycheck.

Be they mercenaries or devotees, some are unfortunately getting screwed, too. The #LOLSixers’ awfulness can mean fewer hours and smaller paychecks.

About a half hour prior to tip on Monday when the #LOLSixers took on the Boston Celtics, three employees at a run-of-the-mill concession stand behind the counter. None of them are helping customers because, ya know, #LOLSixers.

One man who’s worked home games for 27 years says his younger co-workers are like his family, and he worries about how they’re being affected by low fan turnout. The Sixers are averaging 14,159 fans per game this year (with likely far less actually showing up), compared to 19,651 in the Finals year of 2001. Fewer fans means fewer employees.

“I work no matter what, but some employees are getting less hours, and that hurts a lot,” he tells Billy Penn, noting his seniority. “But they’re trying to build it back up because they want the draft pick, and I think we all understand that.”

Steven Cedrone and Gretchen Horrisberger work the bar at P.J. Whelihan’s. They say they used to have three or four more employees back in the good days, when they started in 2003. Iverson was still around, and the team’s run to the 2001 NBA Finals was a recent memory.

Cedrone believes the #LOLSixers can turn it around. He doesn’t have a choice, of course. Cedrone got the team’s logo tattooed on his leg as part of a sports radio promotion.

“I got courtside seats and met Pat Croce,” he says.

Cedrone has plenty of company in employees who love their work. Even when the #LOLSixers suck, as long as you get enough hours, it’s a good job.

Mike Neal, the 28-year-old owner of the Gozen Yogurt company based in Northern Liberties, makes sure to watch every Sixers game one way or another. Since he’s usually perched behind his colorful froyo counter for every home matchup, the hipster-crossed-with-diehard-fan records every game and watches it when he gets home.

He said the losing streak has caused a slight downtrend in froyo game sales, but nowhere near to the extent he thought it would. People are still showing up for the entertainment value, he says.

“We’re happy to be going this way, because there’s only a certain amount of ways we can get better,” he said. “I don’t want to lose. Losing is terrible. I’m not happy about that. But this team shows a lot of effort.”

Not every employee goes to the extent of Neal to follow the #LOLSixers — or even knows the team’s record. Elen James has worked parking lot duty for just the last several weeks. Asked to guess the #LOLSixers’ record, James said, “Zero to something?” Told they had won two games, she says, “They did get two of them? Oh damn.”

Parking might be the toughest job of all when the #LOLSixers are terrible. Octavia Stevens said fans often complain about the $20 parking fee because tickets to games can easily be found for half that price. Stevens’ friends tease her about it, too.

“They ask the parking price, and I say $20,” she says. “They’re like, ‘you know that isn’t right.’”

Stevens was happy to discuss her work at the #LOLSixers’ games and didn’t take offense to suggestions the team wasn’t any good. But if you’re at the Wells Fargo Center, a warning:  Be careful to not say tanking, aka the “t-word,” in the wrong company.

A Wells Fargo Center employee donning a security uniform was inside Monday evening leaning against a wall, faithfully guarding a staircase near the entrance. He’s worked the Sixers games for 18 years, and remembers the good ol’ days of Iverson.

When Billy Penn asked him about his feelings on working for a team that’s so clearly tanking for the sake of a better draft pick, he stops and gets defensive: “Tanking? Who said they’re tanking? Wow. That’s a new one. Where did you hear that?”

Billy Penn’s response: “Well, the New York Times ran a story about the Sixers tanking, so I think it’s pretty well known.”

“What are you with again?” he says. “Who are you with again? Tanking! That’s a new one. Tanking? I think we’re done here.”

Update: The article has been corrected in light of an email we received this morning from Steven Cedrone: “Great story Mark. Only problem the tattoo is on my leg lol. Not my ass lol. I was kidding at first. Then I said my leg. Maybectou (sic) can edit that for me buddy. Thx.” Billy Penn regrets the error.

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