By Spike Eskin
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – When you say it out loud, it does sound pretty crazy. “The owners of the Sixers are purchasing the New Jersey Devils. And Scott O’Neil, the CEO of the Sixers will also be the CEO of the Devils.” Sure, it’s not the first time one ownership group has owned teams in different markets. But the Devils are one of the Flyers biggest rivals, so this is new territory.
It’s especially interesting considering that the ownership group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer has only owned the Sixers for a couple of years, and new CEO Scott O’Neil has only been here for a month or so. It seems like a lot at once. The timing, if it would ever be ‘right,’ doesn’t seem so right now.
So why the Devils? And why now?
“Both Josh and David are big fans of hockey. And so they’ve looked at a couple of different situations. And both have an emotional connection, David grew up in New Jersey,” O’Neil said. “Josh’s mom was from Philly, and his dad was from Newark, for him it’s a real emotional thing. For Blitzer, the same thing. The timing was right. These [the Sixers and Devils] are crown jewels, and they don’t become available too often. If you look at how many teams are on the block, if you look at the Flyers for example, they’ve been in Ed’s hands from the beginning. So when you have something that’s an emotional connection that becomes available, you’ve got to grab it.”
Forgetting about the rivalry, there is the concern that the attention of Harris, Blitzer and O’Neil will now be split between the two franchises. The Sixers are entering a lengthy rebuilding stage, and will need all the attention they can get. O’Neil remains confident that they will get what they need.
“It’s people, people, people,” O’Neil said. “If you look at any business, any national business or large business that you know people have multiple jobs and multiple offices. You look to recruit, attain and attract the best people in the world. That’s what we’re about. I’m really fortunate to have people at the Sixers like Andy Speiser (Sixers senior VP of finance] and Lara Price [Sixers senior VP of operations], Andy’s been around for 22 years and Lara for 18 they’re fixtures in the city and they give you comfort. This is not their first rodeo, these guys know how to operate. They’re smart, they’re fun and they’ll tackle it. I come in and give strategic direction and block for them so that they can have the opportunity to do great work.”
For all of the talk about Harris and Blitzer not being “sports guys,” O’Neil certainly has a different resume. He was a VP of sales for the Eagles, as well as overseeing the Knicks, Rangers and Liberty. He was even mentioned as a potential replacement for David Stern as NBA commissioner. He certainly understands the initial gut feeling a Philadelphia fan may have about purchasing a rival team.
“I would say judge us by our body of work,” O’Neil said. “And if you’ve been happy with what we did on draft night, what Sam [Hinkie] accomplished. If you’ve been happy with the decision to get Brett Brown in here as coach. I think those are indications as to the kind of commitment and plan that we have in place. We asked to be judged to by our body of work, and our commitment to make the Sixers a very competitive team with sustained excellence for many years. And if we do that, they should be very happy.”
There has been speculation that the purchase of the Devils is an indication that the ownership group intends to move the Sixers to Trenton, or even a location like Seattle, who is without an NBA franchise.
“Ludicrous,” O’Neil said emphatically. “Absolutely ludicrous. Just think about it practically. You have the fourth largest market in the country, that’s a basketball city, with history and tradition like the 76ers. You wouldn’t even consider it. It’s not even an ounce of truth. And it’s downright ridiculous or considerate to think about.”
O’Neil has his work cut out for him in two places now, but he sounds up for the challenge. And it sounds like those two places will remain Philadelphia and Trenton both.