PHILADELPHIA -- By now, the myth of Philadelphia as a great basketball town is as tired as Charles Barkley's aching knees. But what does it say when 5,000 empty seats are expected for tonight's game at the Spectrum as the 76ers try to sweep Milwaukee from the NBA playoffs?
"It's a sad state of affairs," said Sixers marketing director Alan Sharavsky. "I guess fans are waiting to see if this team is for real before they venture out to watch."
Sixers officials expect a crowd of about 13,000, even though, by winning, the club would advance to the next round of the playoffs. Curiously, the Sixers averaged 15,469 for the regular season, a 10 percent increase from 1989-90. Ten of the 41 games were sellouts.
But the postseason has historically been a tough sell for this franchise. Since 1983-84, the 76ers have averaged about 14,600 fans for their 24 playoff games.
In other cities, playoff tickets are a treasured commodity. This year, 14 of the National Basketball Association's 16 postseason games have been sellouts. The only two that fell short were the Sixers' games at Milwaukee's Bradley Center.
None of those contests had as much meaning as tonight's game at the Spectrum. If they beat the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers will move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where, in all likelihood, they will face the Chicago Bulls.
In addition, the Sixers have little hometown competition these days. The Flyers are out of the National Hockey League playoffs for the second straight season, and the Phillies are -- as usual -- off to a disappointing start.
"All the elements are there for a sellout," said Sharavsky. "All that's lacking is enough fans."
Sixers officials have wrestled for years with the club's relative unpopularity, seeking to explain why Flyers fans pay scalpers' prices for early-round playoff games while the Sixers struggle to reach even regular-season attendance levels.
The best theory to date, concocted by former general manager John Nash, is that the 76ers have a relatively low season-ticket base, making them largely dependent on a walk-up market. And much of that market, as Sharavsky points out, takes a wait-and-see approach in the playoff's early rounds.