It’s been almost two full years since the Philadelphia 76ers revealed their plan to leave the Wells Fargo Center in 2031 and build a new arena on Market Street in Center City. There’s been quite a bit of arguing, maneuvering, and posturing over the past 23 months, but no action from Philadelphia city officials as we await the results of a months-late PIDC study that will determine the pros, cons, and viability of replacing the western portion of the Fashion District with a $1.5 billion, privately-financed arena.

In the meantime, we’ve written quite a bit on the topic, and tried to hit all of the various angles. We’ve had Sixers co-owner and 76 Place development lead David Adelman on Crossing Broadcast. We also had Chinatown representatives Mohan Seshadri and Kenny Chiu on the show, to explain their opposition to the project. The one missing piece was the Comcast-Spectacor angle.

As you know, Comcast owns the Wells Fargo Center and the Sixers are a tenant in the building. The Sixers want out to “control their own destiny,” set their own schedule, and be the de facto top dog in their own building. Meantime, Comcast is working on a total revamp of the South Philly sports complex alongside the Phillies, and maybe the Eagles, and wants the Sixers to stay in the complex and become a 50/50 partner instead of leaving for Center City.

In a 40-minute sitdown with Chairman and CEO Dan Hilferty, we got into all of that, and talked a bit about the Flyers’ regime change of 2023. Here are some of the more relevant questions and answers, some of which have been slightly truncated for brevity.

 

Crossing Broad: So where are we right now with the sports complex plan? The Phillies are on board, you’ve been in dialogue with the Eagles, what can we expect in the coming weeks and months?

Dan Hilferty: First and foremost, we’re about to announce that the Phillies partnership is real, it’s in place. We’re continuing a dialogue with the Eagles, and we have to take a step back and think about why this sports complex was developed in the beginning, and why you see it in other regions of the country as well. It was seen as a place, in Philly’s case, where four of the major teams could be in one place where, whether it’s state funding, local funding, resources around transportation or whatever it may be, it could be focused on one specific area. If you look at what’s happened around the country, it’s really neat to go to places like The Battery in Atlanta, or what they’ve done in Milwaukee, what’s happening out by SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, or places like St. Louis where they’ve created these hubs, these new neighborhoods frankly, mixed use development, everything from entertainment to housing to maybe if office space comes back, then office space. Hotels, gathering areas outside of each of the arenas. I really enjoy, for example, watching the NHL Final, the game’s down in Florida but they show Edmonton and the whole outside of the arena is packed. We want that same type of thing. But here’s what the development is about – it’s a go; we are continuing to talk to the Eagles, and the World Cup would not have happened without the Philadelphia Eagles stepping up and saying ‘we can make Lincoln Financial Field the best pitch, the best setup.’ The point of (me bringing that up) is that the Eagles are a great partner, the Eagles have bought into this whole concept of this sports district being a mecca, the best mecca for sports in the country. And they have other needs. Tailgating is a rich tradition mostly for the Eagles, though for the Phillies you get more and more tailgating. I look out my window and it’s happening. The Eagles are thinking about their options. We have to make sure we can show that their concerns are met, around parking, around transportation. We’re still operating on a 1971 grid here. We have to work with PennDOT, we have to work with SEPTA to make sure that not only do we connect to the major highways, but also connect to the local neighborhoods. Connect with a footbridge over to FDR Park, connect public transportation into the Navy Yard. Connect to the Bellwether District, the old Sunoco site. There’s so much that we’re focused on, but it’s real, and the first announcement is going to be the signing our letter of intent and then you’ll see a progression of announcements… It’s a 10 year project and this is real.

CB: That’s the one criticism I hear outside of parking. Everybody complains about parking. But people say, ‘well we’ve heard about Comcast wanting to do this for 20 years now.’ It’s the idea of ‘if they didn’t do it then, then they’re not going to do it now.‘ What’s different? Why is it going to get done this time?

Hilferty: And if I was not sitting where I am (as Chairman and CEO), I would be saying the same thing. Show me. Being on the inside now, there’s things that we can only say when we can announce them (officially). But we’re at a point now where the momentum can pick up, and we’ll be naming partners, hopefully get to a point where the Eagles still stand up with us and be supportive. I’d love nothing more than the Sixers to have an epiphany so to speak, and to decide that the four of us together in one sports district, really instead of competing with each other, we take on the world together.

CB: What is the pitch to the Sixers anyway? Publicly you’ve said that you think it’s best that they stay here and build an arena together with you. Is that a straight 50/50 split on financing? Share the revenue from events right down the middle? What does that actually look like?

Hilferty: It’s exactly that. We’d love to have a 50/50 partnership. We’d have equal governance on the facility. We just went through this $400 million transformation and (the Wells Fargo Center) is a state-of-the-art arena. There’s more to come in that regard. If we could get a dialogue with Josh Harris and David Blitzer, and team, it would be about about forming that 50/50 partnership, and at the right time, together building a new arena. What we’ve invested in this arena, we want to make sure we get the life out of it, but we’re maintaining a site. Because whether the Sixers stay or go, at some point we’re going to build a new arena. It might be past my time here, but certainly we’re gonna do that. So we would say, “do this with us together, let’s go out and get the best acts,” which, by the way, 98% of the acts we want here, we get here. But let’s do it together, let’s compete against the world instead of competing against each other.

CB: That’s the thing I’ve been trying to reconcile, because my thought has always been, look, if a tenant wants to leave a landlord, they’re going to do it. But yes, the fact of the matter is that the landlord and tenant typically do not compete with one another afterward, which is not going to be the case here. There will be competition for events. I know in previous interviews you’ve said that the one thing that bothers you is the rhetoric surrounding that, so what happens if you approach them about this 50/50 and they say no, we’re gonna do our thing?

Hilferty: They’ve consistently said that exactly, that no, this is their vision (to leave South Philly). Some people say, was this announcement, this partnership with the Phillies about trying to thwart the Sixers? And look, I was brought in here and there were a couple of things. We wanted to get the Flyers franchise back on track. Number two, we wanted to maximize the potential of Comcast-Spectacor, and in effect build our own sports and entertainment empire, frankly, that is second to none. And the third thing was to look at, can we lure the Sixers back, number one, and number two, let’s really take seriously, you’re right, what has been thought of for the past 20 years, how can we develop this great sports district into a neighborhood. I like to say, the next great neighborhood in Philadelphia, that maximizes South Philly, including the Navy Yard, including the Bellwether District, and including the amazing communities and neighborhoods that are right here, right now.

CB: One of the things that’s fascinating to me, I don’t think anybody has actually asked it, but I’ve written about the Sixers and this idea of them getting a competitive advantage by being in their own building. They don’t have to play as many back-to-back games, fewer instances of 5 games in 7 nights, a better opportunity for marquee slots like Christmas, for example. But isn’t that a two-way street? They don’t have to compromise with you, but you also don’t have to compromise with them. The Flyers get the same benefit, maybe an easing of the scheduling congestion that would open doors for you guys at the same time.

Hilferty: I could go on for half an hour with a response, let me do it in three parts.

There are 14 cities across the country where there’s both an NBA team and NHL team, now with Arizona moving to Utah, 11 of them will share the facility. And who just won the NBA Championship? The Boston Celtics. I’m an avid Sixers fan and it hurts to watch those guys parade around again. But I’ll say this to you, Boston Garden, owned by the Boston Bruins. Forever, the tenant has been the Boston Celtics. They just won an NBA Championship. They have done a great job, not only together co-habitating, but maximizing the potential of both franchises and creating an environment that attracts the greatest acts. And by the way, about the same time we built this building, they too have done a major transformation. So has Madison Square Garden. Point being, those cities have made it work. We both have to give. And we both have to make sure that we make room for these amazing acts that come in here year after year.

The second piece is content. Let’s just really think about what’s the max potential. I mentioned that we get about 98% of the acts we want. If there were more out there, we’d get them. You take a place like Houston. Single arena, and they’re about to overcome Chicago as the third largest metropolitan area in the country. They get roughly 60 acts. We’re below that, but not far below that. Don’t you think if there were more acts out there, they would get them? So let’s talk about how it will impact 76 Place. We hope the Sixers make the playoffs every year and make great runs. Let’s say they play 50 games a year. And let’s say, you hear rumors on the street, and I’m hoping we get a WNBA team, I’m hoping we get several women’s professional franchises right here…

CB: Does Comcast have a stance on WNBA ownership?

Hilferty: We love it. We’d love to do it. We’d love to figure out how to be part of it, and that will continue. But it’s owned by the NBA, so obviously the Sixers should have first right. But let’s say a WNBA team comes here in time for when they’d like to move into that new arena. Let’s give it an additional 30 games. You’re up to 80. And let’s say that if our number is similar to Houston, and they came and took every single one of our acts, that still means well over 200 nights a year, that place would be quiet.

CB: I think that’s one of the valid 76 Place criticisms. My struggle has been trying to cut through the stuff that’s invalid to focus on the stuff that does matter.

Hilferty: But you make a good point. The 76ers have the right to figure out what the best future is for them. What we keep saying is we hope we have the opportunity to continue a dialogue, maybe we can convince them that their best future is with us all being here together… If we were together, we could do these kinds of acts day in and day out.

CB: Yeah and I’ll be 100% honest with you, I think some people look at Crossing Broad and think we’re in the tank for the Sixers. Because a lot of what I write is reacting to what I think is straight-up B.S. For example, there was a story in the Inquirer that was published and then taken down, it was some Canadian group that said building 76 Place was a human rights violation. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘okay let’s just get it back on track here.’ Let’s talk about legitimate stuff. Let’s talk about parking. Let’s talk about where Drake’s gonna put his 20 trailers. Are people going to get on SEPTA? Is my dad going to get on the regional rail to go to a game after 40 years of driving to South Philly? But I think it’s been better over the last few months in terms of just focusing on things that actually matter.

Hilferty: And it gets back to the point, where the 76ers have their right to figure out what their best future is. That’s number one. And number two, you’re right, the (PIDC) studies will help inform government as they make a decision about what’s best for the city. What we’re trying to do is deal in facts. And deal in what we see. We’ve done a study as well, that says at best, there might be 15 additional shows. I think the traffic study will speak for itself. But government will make a decision. And the Sixers have said clearly that they’re not going to seek funding. Yet, from our perspective, it’s going to be very difficult without significant infrastructure funding to make that site work. But the studies will come out. The mayor and council will make a decision and we’ll see if they ever actually build the arena. But it is their right, and I want to be very clear about that. We’re gonna make sure, as everybody reviews the studies, we’ve got 50 years experience doing this. In the Ed Snider days, when Spectacor first combined with Comcast, the plan was to keep the Spectrum. And other than the last year, when every act wanted to play the Spectrum one last time, everybody realized that two arenas just don’t work. It’s a fact.

CB: Is it too early in the sports complex plans to know the split of public and private money?

Hilferty: When you look at a lot of the complaints about sports arenas, and obviously ours, it’s traffic patterns, the ability to get in and out efficiently. As I said, this was built on a 1971 grid. As some of my colleagues reminded me, no, this is the same grid that was here in 1826. And so let’s talk about it – SEPTA, we’re hoping to work with SEPTA around connecting the various neighborhoods. Broad Street Line, it stops right at the arena. I don’t know the water table, if they can continue. There’s gotta be an easier way to access this emerging, beautiful neighborhood that’s going to have apartment buildings and all sorts of other things in the Navy Yard and Bellwether District. So there’s a need for public transportation, anywhere. We would anticipate that government would be supportive and helpful in that regard. The second piece is, we need direct access to 95, both north and south, so a combination of getting people in and out of the Navy Yard faster and getting people in and out of the complex to the major highways. That includes 76, better access there. I would anticipate that whether it’s PennDOT, SEPTA, a lot of it would be SEPTA money unless it’s highway, and I don’t know that federal money would be involved. But infrastructure is where we would anticipate (public dollars being involved)… In terms of the development, the first announcement is going to be this music venue – all privately funded. Hotels – all privately funded. Living space, apartments – all privately funded. Other amenities, we’re looking at everything from the Philadelphia sports museum, hoping to pull that together, to other attractions – restaurants, entertainment space, privately funded. We’re looking to do that all private.

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Here’s the full interview: