PHILADELPHIA – Overlooking construction of an entertainment development on the former site of the Spectrum, Ed Snider has a clear view of what he believes is the next great destination in the Philadelphia sports complex.
From his corner office at the Wells Fargo Center, Snider has his eyes on the birth of the first great gathering site for scores of sports fans before or after a game from one of the complex’s four professional sports teams. For decades, the area was mostly barren, except one sports bar down the street, and fans simply went home or maybe downtown to celebrate a late-night victory—or drink away the despair from a crushing defeat.
On time and on budget, Philly Live! will open April.
“It’s going to be fun,” said Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectactor. “It’s exciting to see what’s ahead.”
The same goes for fans of the team he still runs, the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, and the one he’s about to surrender control of, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
By the end of the month, Comcast-Spectactor should be out of the basketball business when the NBA is expected to approve the sale of the team to buyout specialist Joshua Harris. Snider inherited one of the worst teams in the league in 1996 and had the Sixers in the NBA finals in 2001. The Sixers were mired in mediocrity for most of the last decade, and sagging crowds and massive financial losses led Comcast-Spectactor to pitch a “for sale” sign and strike a tentative deal to sell in July.
“It was mostly economics,” Snider said of the decision.
“A lot,” Snider said, declining specifics. “We felt that we had given it our best shot and it was time for someone else to take over.”
The deal did not include ownership of their building, the Wells Fargo Center. Harris is one of three founders of Apollo Global Management, a publicly listed alternative investment manager. The new ownership also includes David Blitzer, a senior managing director of The Blackstone Group, along with other members of the investor group Art Wrubel and Jason Levien.
“There were rumours that we were for sale, so people kept coming to us,” Snider said. “Once someone was real serious, we sort of looked at it and got serious. I think we left the team in good hands. Good ownership, really good ownership.”
The deal was stuck with the league in the midst of a lockout. The start of the 2011-12 season in October is in jeopardy.
Arguably Philly’s most influential sports figure of the last five decades, Snider long fought the perception he cared more about the Flyers than the Sixers. Snider, who founded the Flyers, was in control when the Broad Street Bullies won a pair of championships in 1974 and 1975. Under Snider’s reign, the Sixers hitched their title aspirations to Allen Iverson and gave fans a thrilling seven-year stretch of basketball before falling down the standings.
“I was spending as much time working with the Sixers as with the Flyers, maybe even more because we needed more,” Snider said. “I love basketball. I think that we’ve left the franchise in fairly good shape with a lot of nice young talent.”
Comcast-Spectacor COO Peter Luukko said the Sixers were on the market because the sports and entertainment company decided to re-allocate its capital and focus on expanding its facility management, food services, and ticketing subsidiary endeavours.
“It’s not like teams are big moneymakers these days,” Luukko said. “At the end of the day, it’s not like we’re losing the team because we still have the team on a long-term lease. It’s the best of both worlds. It gives somebody an opportunity to be an owner and put their stamp on the team. For us, we’d love to have them as a tenant.”
Because of the nasty lockout, no one is sure when training camp will open.
Though he remains a fan, the outcome is no longer part of Snider’s day-to-day business.
Winning a Stanley Cup is priority No. 1.
Like watching the Spectrum turned into a sports bar, the Flyers underwent their own massive facelift. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards—their leading goal scorer and team captain—were the centrepieces of two stunning trades. Snider pitched for No. 1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Even Snider was surprised when Holmgren told him former Pittsburgh Penguin Jaromir Jagr was coming to Philadelphia.
Snider said the Flyers were “fortunate” to even make the playoffs two years ago when they clinched a spot on the last day of the season before going all the way to a Game 6 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals. They followed up with one of the best starts in team history before it was forgotten thanks to a second-half fade that culminated with a second-round exit in the playoffs.
“We weren’t going to kid ourselves,” Snider said. “We had to take a strong look at ourselves and say, hey, we’re not a consistent team. We’re not growing. That’s part of what went into the thinking.”
He insisted Richards and Carter’s active nightlife played no role in the decisions.
“I keep hearing all that stuff,” Snider said. “I mean, what do you expect of young, single guys? Obviously they’re going socialize and party and have fun.”
The pair will miss out on the biggest hockey party to hit Philadelphia outside the Stanley Cup. While the NHL has yet to formally announce the Winter Classic, the worst kept secret in sports has the Flyers playing against the New York Rangers in the marquee game on Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park. HBO’s “24/7” crew has already met with team officials and an announcement could come as early—or really, really late depending on your point of view—as Monday when the Rangers are in Philadelphia for a pre-season game.
“It’s very prestigious. It’s wonderful for our fans, for our city,” Snider said. “It’ll be an economic boon for our city over a couple of days. It showcases Philadelphia and we’re just proud to be the host.”
His real pride comes from the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. The foundation teamed up with the city on a US$13 million effort to improve five public skating rinks in the city. The foundation promotes life skills and hockey through after-school, recreational, and supplemental educational activities for children and families in Philadelphia.
“I really want it,” he said, “to be my legacy.”