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How the 76ers went from the bottom to championship contenders in just two years

  • The Philadelphia 76ers went from the worst team in the NBA to championship contenders.
  • Between the Eagles, 76ers and Villanova, Philly sports are on fire in 2018.
  • Wall Street analytics strategies are paying off on the court.

It may be the most surprising turnaround in all of sports. Two years ago the Philadelphia 76ers won just 10 out of 82 games, and had the worst four-year stretch in league history. Today, the Sixers are on a 17-game winning streak and true championship contenders.

But it's not just about the wins: It's also meant a huge uptick in business. Fans and sponsors are excited and willing to spend a lot more money on the upstart Sixers.

"We, of course, are seeing an incredible uptick," CEO Scott O'Neil told CNBC. "Our local ratings are up 70 percent, we have a 10,000 person waiting list, we have sold out for next year already. We are number one for merchandise."

Data from online retailer Fanatics confirms that. The company says the Sixers are the top-selling NBA team since March 1, and the team has seen a 160 percent spike in the past 10 days compared to the previous 10.

For the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers play every home game, the additional playoff games could mean millions in incremental revenue. That comes from things like parking and concessions.

And it's not just the Sixers. All of Philadelphia sports seem to be on fire. The Eagles won their first ever Super Bowl in February, and just a few weeks ago local college Villanova won its second NCAA title in the last three years.

"It's a great time to be a sports fan and the players feed off that energy," said 76ers General Manager Bryan Colangelo.

"It's amazing," star shooting guard J.J. Redick told CNBC the morning of their Game 2 playoff matchup against the Miami Heat. "To see so much success from our home teams, we have felt that buzz. It creates an electric atmosphere for us."

Wall Street rules on the floor

Led by private equity executives Joshua Harris of Apollo and David Blitzer of Blackstone, the Sixers ownership group has brought their Wall Street approach to basketball. Its long-term investing concept has required true patience. The strategy has had some terrible seasons along the way, but now other teams have started to copy it. Some of the day-to-day basketball tactics have been imported from Wall Street as well.

"Analytics has played a larger part of what we do," says Colangelo. "Decisions are … now backed up by an evidence-based thought process. That's important in the financial sector and it's important in our business as well."

Redick is in his first year with the 76ers, after several seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. He described the difference in ownership styles, coming from a team owned by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

JJ Redick #17 of the Philadelphia 76ers dunks the ball during the game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York last month.
Nathaniel S. Butler | NBAE | Getty Images
JJ Redick #17 of the Philadelphia 76ers dunks the ball during the game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York last month.

"Steve became more and more hands on. He wanted to learn the ins and outs, whether that was salary cap rules, team chemistry, he was constantly picking people's minds," Redick told CNBC. "Josh and Dave and their group are hands-on as well. They have created a synergy on what the coach staff is after. Everyone is on the same page and have been for the last five years since the process started."

The growth of the league has become so obvious to Redick that he hopes to get a piece of the action some day.

"I would love to own an NBA team. If I ever had the opportunity I would jump on the chance," he said. "I think the NBA and basketball is the greatest spectator sport. The league is in a great place financially, talent wise the league is as good as its been, and we have an incredible depth of talent."