For the last several years, members of the Philadelphia 76ers marketing team have more or less had one job — get butts in the seats at the Wells Fargo Center for 41 nights per year.
Now, however, with the team being one of the biggest draws in the NBA and every seat sold out throughout the remainder of the season, they can shift their collective focus elsewhere. It doesn’t mean their jobs are no longer necessary, it just means they’re about to become a lot more interesting. And fun.
In the downtime that’s been created due to soaring ticket sales, the 76ers came up with an idea that will not only benefit fans and the team, but also the Philadelphia and Camden communities as a whole. And, it just may open some eyes as well.
On Saturday, the team will launch the inaugural event of their 76ers Crossover platform, which “celebrates the intersection of 76ers basketball with all of the cultural lifestyle elements that make Philadelphia spectacular – from the arts, to music and fashion, to cuisine,” when it opens the doors to its “76ers Crossover: Art Exhibition,” presented by Reebok.
The event, which will be held at the Fitler Club (24 South 24th Street) and is free to the public, will run from Saturday though Tuesday and will feature more than 200 pieces of Sixers inspired art from over 100 artists spread across 11 different countries, including 40 from Philadelphia. And if fans see something they like, all the art work will be auctioned off following the exhibition, with all proceeds going to the Sixers Youth Foundation.
It’s something that’s been in the works for quite some time. And this weekend, it finally comes to life.
“The 76ers Crossover is a platform we’ve been working on for a long time. We are super excited to see it finally come to life with the art exhibition,” Sixers Chief Marketing Officer Katie O’Reilly said. “But really, what it is, it’s a way for us to celebrate where basketball intersects with the other cultural and lifestyle elements that makes Philadelphia spectacular and that our fans enjoy. I think the wonderful thing about the NBA and what we do at the Sixers is that we’re a league of global superstars.
“These guys are known around the world — they are celebrities — first and foremost for what they do on the court, but for many other reasons as well. And we really want to capitalize on that and celebrate 76ers basketball in a way that our fans will really enjoy. And we really want to bring it to life, whether that’s the arts, like for this first one, or fashion and music, food, you name it.
“These are all things that make Philadelphia spectacular, that our fans enjoy, and — oh, by the way — they’re things that our players enjoy as well. So we’re really excited to have it all come together.”
A professional sports organization creating an art exhibit doesn’t seem like a natural fit. But when it comes to this team, in this city, it makes a lot more sense than one might think. And the art exhibit is just the beginning, as future 76ers Crossover events will focus on other cultural aspects of Philly, from food to music to fashion.
According to O’Reilly, however, the art exhibition was really the genesis of this idea, and the rest kind of grew from there. They also aren’t the only professional sports team to do something like this, but they’re likely the first to do it this big.
“We did not invent this wheel, but we didn’t want to reinvent it either. We actually saw a few different sports franchises doing some art-related stuff. And it was fine, but it wasn’t to the level that we thought it should be,” said Sixers Vice President of Business Development Desron Dorset. “We looked at the art, and were in a very good spot that we were sold out of season tickets, so we had the opportunity, finally, since we’ve been there, to think outside the box and not think about driving everything back to ticket sales, which is [what we focused on] our first four years here.”
The question from there became how do they do something like this, but keep it true to Philadelphia and make it something to which the local fanbase could connect.
“Once we had this opportunity, we looked at the art and we looked at the city of Philadelphia, and it was a seamless integration into what Philadelphia was,” Dorset continued. “Then we actually asked ourselves — we have a nice group that really comes from different backgrounds, so we get a lot of opinions. I’m not from Philly, but I’m hoping to be adopted. I’ve been told it takes 20 years, so hopefully I’m still around. It’s a long time, but I do believe it, because the one thing [about this city] is authenticity.
“Philadelphia is all about being authentic. And the art scene in Philadelphia — just think, the Art Museum is one of the most iconic locations in the city, you’ve got the Barnes Foundation — we understand that art is authentic to Philadelphia. We started thinking like, ‘How do you make a big splash while still be authentic to the art community?’ Then we talked about, ‘What is Philadelphia about, and what are the 76ers about?’ And that’s when we saw the art integration, the music, the food, the fashion. And that’s how the brainchild of 76ers Crossover was born.
“But because the art was the first child, we decided to focus on that, and that’s why it’s rolling out first, but the other components are not far behind.”
And keeping it “authentic” to Philadelphia did not mean limiting the artists they included. Instead of keeping it entirely local, which they certainly could’ve done given the number of artists living in and around the city, they decided to open it up to not just the rest of the nation, but to the rest of the world as well.
There’s good reason for that. Beyond the diverse demographics of the city, just look at the demographic makeup of the Sixers: players hail from Australia to Cameroon to Turkey, and everywhere in between.
“I honestly think if we wanted this to be purely Philadelphia artists, we could probably get a thousand — that’s how strong the community is,” Dorset said. “But the NBA is a global brand, a global sport. We have, I think I counted last, seven members of the 17-man roster were born outside of the United States. So, to be authentic to the team as well, it was important for us to have a global presence within the show itself.”
That being said, there was one category that was limited exclusively to local artists. And it might wind up being the star of the show.
The Sixers decided to break out blank versions of their City Edition jerseys from 2017-18 (the cream-colored parchment-colored ones) and asked 20 local artists to use them as their canvas.
“We actually partnered with Peopledelphia, which is a popular social media outlet ran by Brendan Lowry, and I actually had this idea that I had seen somewhere else,” Dorset said. “It was taking blank jerseys — and the NBA now has the City Edition program that are one-year uniforms authentic to your city — and we had a handful of uniforms left over from our 2017-18 campaign that provided for a nice canvas. We could’ve shipped them all over the world and received them back, but I wanted that to be local to Philadelphia. So we have 20 Philadelphia artists creating art on these City Edition jerseys, and it was important for us to keep that piece, specifically, local to Philadelphia.”
Is there any chance the Sixers get some inspiration for future jerseys from something one of these artists have produced? Given that the inspiration for using the “Join Or Die” severed snake logo came from watching an episode of HBO’s “John Adams,” it was worth asking.
“That’s a great question,” O’Reilly said. “It hasn’t crossed my mind but I think that would be awesome. I certainly hope so.”
“I think we take inspiration from everywhere. We’re not a team that’s stuck in our ways,” Dorset added. “And these jerseys are awesome. We actually have all the final versions, and they are awesome. It’s really a nice expression of Philly’s local artists.”
Additionally, 76ers Crossover will also feature an exhibit called Mark’d Sneaker Design, where artists will be creating designs on blank Reebok shoes for fans, as well as sculptures from Fisher Sculpture, the same firm that designed and created all the statues on Legends Walk outside the team facility in Camden.
To help them find some of the international artists, the team turned to Vince Chang, founder of Conscious Basketball, a site that curates basketball artists worldwide. With so much basketball art coming out of Asia, and China specifically, it was important for the team to have someone who could speak directly to these artists in their native language.
But for some of the artists, the Sixers didn’t even have to look outside their own building.
Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle is an extremely talented photographer, and for the first time ever, some of his photographs will be displayed at an art exhibition. Given his abilities, it’s likely this isn’t the last time.
Clearly, the kid has talent.
“I actually think this could open some eyes to maybe in the offseason — because we want him to focus on being the best basketball player he can be — or even on the road when we have an off day, it’s always amazing being in a different city and capturing some shots in a place you’re not native to, but I think he will eventually either produce a photobook of some sort or have his own gallery showing at some point,” Dorset said. “It might be a year from now, it might be five years from now, it might be 10 years from now, but he’s that talented that I think that’s what he should do.”
More than just showing off a player’s hidden talent, it also serves as a reminder that professional athletes are more than simply what they do on the court. They’re people, just like you, with hobbies and interests outside of what they do for a living.
“This is such a fun opportunity for us to humanize these guys and talk about them and showcase them in ways that’s not necessarily on the basketball court, which is so much of what Desron and I do day in and day out,” O’Reilly added. “We are eating, breathing and sleeping just thinking about ways to make our fans, both in Philadelphia and around the world, love this team as much as we do. And so this has been a really fun way to bring this to life and let our fans connect with the players in a little bit more of a normal day-to-day way than besides being superstars on the basketball court.”
That, however, isn’t the only way in which this event will help humanize the Sixers players. There will also be a photo exhibit from Alex Subers, who captured some of the players in their natural habitats.
“Alex Subers, our staff photographer, he actually came to us with the idea — it’s always great when someone comes to us with an idea so we can think a little less — but he came to us with the idea of taking our concept of 76ers Crossover and applying it to a handful of players,” Dorset said. “So he actually shot a handful of players in non-basketball settings, doing things they like to do. So, one player is big into video games and he has a very cool photo concept of him in his natural habitat playing video games. Another player is, believe it or not, an underground DJ, and you have a cool shot of him doing some DJ’ing. And another player is into yoga, and Alex went to the yoga studio and did a photo shoot. So that’s some of the stuff that really speaks to what the 76ers Crossover hopes to embody.”
[NOTE: Although Dorset didn’t want to disclose the names, a quick Google search suggests that Josh Richardson is the unnamed underground DJ. Sorry if I buried the lede here.]
Perhaps most importantly, however, will be what happens after the exhibition: the auction, which will be available to everyone on the 76ers team app and will go live once the show opens this weekend. It will also be left open through Thanksgiving, allowing fans plenty of time to browse all the art and perhaps bid on something, maybe for a Christmas gift for someone. Either way, all proceeds go to the Sixers Youth Foundation.
“It’s always important for us. Supporting and giving back to the community is one of our most important values in the organization, so it’s always something we’re thinking about and thinking about ways we can tie it back to what we’re doing,” O’Reilly said. “So, to be able to do something that’s incredible for our brand and speaks volumes about our players and the talents of our fans and the fanbase, and it’s all for a good cause, that’s really special. It really rounds it out and makes it really special.”