"Someone had to take the hit." - Scott O'Neil 👹
The new book from Yaron Weitzman about The Process is called Tanking To The Top and is available tomorrow! Preorder it now, right here at this location (you should buy it there from Powell's in Portland or your local book store instead of Amazon. Amazon is... the worst.).
Both Spike and Mike enjoyed the book (and the full chapter about the Ricky in it). They had Yaron on the pod a week ago to talk about it. Listen to that here.
While reading the book, you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll think, "they were 1-30?!" The chapter about Sam Hinkie's ousting will make you throw up. Below is an exclusive excerpt from that chapter.
One evening in the fall of 2015, Scott O’Neil, the cocksure CEO of the 76ers, walked into an upscale San Francisco seafood restaurant overlooking the bay. His dark hair was slicked back, as always, and he carried with him pitch material: customized Sixers jerseys with the StubHub logo stitched to the top and pictures illustrating how the logo would pop on TV.
For years, O’Neil had pushed the NBA to relax its restriction on jersey sponsorships. He believed it to be an untapped revenue source. The NBA, like many major men’s American professional sports leagues, had long rejected such proposals, out of fear of offending traditionalists, but O’Neil knew that would soon change and desperately wanted to be first. He called his friend Scott Cutler, the recently hired president of StubHub. Cutler was intrigued. Soon after, O’Neil, Chris Heck, his longtime friend and the Sixers’ chief revenue officer, and Jake Reynolds, his brother-in-law and the Sixers’ vice president of sales and service, were boarding a flight to San Francisco.
At dinner that night, O’Neil pitched Cutler on his vision. He illustrated how he had taken over the Sixers a few years earlier and “how the Sixers had to take things down to the studs to rebuild it back up,” Cutler recalled. O’Neil explained how the Sixers were accumulating draft picks and building around promising young players. He described how they were selling this strategy to their fan base. Any concerns Cutler might have had about attaching his company to a team that had become synonymous with losing were quickly dispelled. Changes governing the rules on jersey sponsorships, O’Neil pointed out, wouldn’t be instituted until the 2017–2018 season.
“By that time,” he told Cutler, “we think we’re going to have one of the most exciting teams in the league.”
The pitch and its timeline was never run by Hinkie. He might not have known it, but his time with the Sixers was coming to an end.
* * *
The relationship between O’Neil and Hinkie was tenuous from the start. Hinkie preferred to keep his inner circle tight. O’Neil, meanwhile, held aspirations of being more than just a marketing guru. “He wanted to be the guy that could run both basketball and the business side,” said a well-connected NBA insider. In his previous job, as president of Madison Square Garden Sports, he helped draw up the Knicks’ 2010 free agency pitches to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh (which were unsuccessful), and a year later pushed MSG chairman James Dolan to trade for Carmelo Anthony. He was comfortable enough around the basketball side that he could often be found on the practice court in shorts and a T-shirt, “kicking the shit, fouling and knocking the hell out of some of our players,” said Donnie Walsh, the Knicks’ president of basketball operations from 2008 to 2011.
O’Neil broke into the business in the early 1990s, as a marketing assistant for the New Jersey Nets. He was around twenty-four at the time and a few months into the job when Jon Spoelstra, the Nets’ president, spotted him trying to repair a paper jam in a Xerox machine.
“Why are you fixing that?” Spoelstra asked.
“Because it’s broken,” O’Neil responded.
Spoelstra called O’Neil into his office. O’Neil thought he was getting fired. “You ever sell sponsorships?” Spoelstra asked. The Nets were a dull team playing in an insipid arena planted on top of a Jersey swamp. “The sponsorship staff was beaten down from all that failure,” Spoelstra recalled. He had noticed O’Neil, who’d recently graduated from Villanova University with a marketing degree, around the office.
“I needed someone who had some chutzpah,” Spoelstra said.
He promoted O’Neil, giving him an office and additional responsibility, but O’Neil craved more. “I wanted to be the boss since I was three years old,” he once told The Villanovan. He took a job with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1994, then received an MBA from Harvard Business School, then returned to the Eagles, then linked up with a nascent apparel company called AND1 before joining the NBA and climbing to senior vice president of marketing and business operations. He developed a reputation for being “intelligent, intense, and curious,” said Peter Feigin, the president of the Milwaukee Bucks and former vice president of marketing and business development for MSG Sports. “He has the ability to be abrasive at times, but he’s all about growth. His expectation is that things be done extremely well and focused. He keeps that intensity and expects it from everyone around him.”
MSG hired O’Neil in 2008 to help the company rehabilitate in the wake of a $11.5 million sexual harassment and discrimination law- suit brought against them and former GM and coach Isiah Thomas. O’Neil secured million-dollar deals with marquee brands like JPMorgan Chase, Delta Airlines, and Coca-Cola before clashing with the temperamental Dolan and leaving in 2012. A year later the Sixers hired him to replace co-owner Adam Aron as CEO.
“One of Scott’s mantras back then was, ‘Make sure you’re ready for when you do have that 50-win team,’” said Fred Whitfield, a longtime friend of O’Neil’s and the chief operating officer, team president, and a minority owner of the Charlotte Hornets. “When you’re running business operations in the NBA, you don’t really have control over what happens on the court, but your goal should be to get your stuff in a position so that when you do have a 50-win team, you’re able to maximize every opportunity that comes with it.”
O’Neil froze ticket prices. He bolstered the sales staff, making it one of the largest, and youngest, in the NBA. “He invested in a ton of human capital to get through the tough times,” Feigin said. The group adored O’Neil, who emphasized culture, community service, and work-life balance. His staff was tireless, energetic, and creative. Sales of season ticket packages were celebrated in the office with a ringing of a bell and a quick dance party. The sales staff would vote on all sorts of awards, and then pass around totems like a Brett Brown– signed hard hat and championship belt.
Recognizing the difficulty of marketing a last-place team, the group got creative. Season ticket holders were invited to meet-and-greets, with both players and Brown. On-court experiences, like high-fiving players as they came out of the tunnel, were dangled. The tactics helped the Sixers increase their season ticket sales from around 4,600 during the 2013–2014 season to 7,100 in 2015–2016, with a 90 percent renewal rate. O’Neil put himself on the front lines of the battle. Whitfield recalled coming to Philadelphia for games and accompanying O’Neil on visits to some Wells Fargo Center suites. “The fans there weren’t very pleasant,” Whitfield said. “They were really saying nasty things about what was going on and how painful it was to continue spending well- earned dollars on a losing product.” O’Neil would channel Hinkie. “Be patient with this,” he’d say. “We do have a plan in place and we’re going to turn the corner.” But behind the scenes his patience was wearing thin.
Forbes had ranked the Sixers one of the least valuable teams in the NBA. They averaged a measly 13,940 fans per game in 2014–2015, the league’s lowest mark, and just 14,881 the following season, the NBA’s third-worst figure. And the TV ratings were even worse: an average of 23,000 viewers per game during 2014–2015, a number more suited for a late-night infomercial than an NBA game. O’Neil’s job was getting more difficult and he was growing frustrated by Hinkie’s insistence on keeping him at arm’s length.
In February 2015, O’Neil was ready to launch a new marketing campaign. The tagline This Starts Now would replace the current slogan of Together We Build. The words would be splayed across a photograph of three of the team’s lottery picks: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Michael Carter-Williams. The campaign was introduced on the afternoon of February 17. Two days later, Hinkie traded Carter Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks for a future first-round pick. O’Neil was embarrassed. Furious too. Whatever semblance of a relationship that had once existed between him and Hinkie was now broken. O’Neil began voicing his displeasure—to Harris, but also to the NBA. He’d known Adam Silver for years, both from his time in the league office and as part of a small group of team executives (called the Team Advisory Committee) who reported to the NBA’s Board of Governors. He also left Hinkie out of his pitches to potential business partners, never even mentioning his name.
“Sam did it to himself,” O’Neil said. “Someone had to take the hit.”
2. O’Neil never did agree to an interview for this book. I did, however, introduce myself to him in October 2018 outside the visitors’ locker room in Detroit. I told him I was writing a book on The Process and that I found it funny he had sort of become the bogeyman to Hinkie loyalists. His response was the quote above. The words “off the record” were never muttered and I had clearly identified myself as a reporter.
Excerpted from Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports by Yaron Weitzman. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.