Strengthening the Sixers’ Franchise in the First State
By Michael Bradley
Chris Heck was in a sound, mid-December slumber when his wife, Mary Beth, decided she needed to provide some commentary on the Sixers’ loss earlier that night in Chicago. The Bulls had overcome an eight-point deficit in the final 3:49 to win their sixth straight. It was frustrating, to be sure, and Mary Beth wasn’t happy.
“She woke me up in the middle of the night to give me grief,” Heck says. “I said, “˜Please go back to sleep.'”
Heck, of Wilmington, is the president of the 76ers, and for the previous four seasons, he didn’t have to worry about middle-of-the-night questions about his team’s performance, because nobody expected the team to win. The Sixers were in the middle of “The Process,” a lose-on-purpose strategy designed to yield high draft choices and future prosperity, so a loss like they suffered in Chicago wouldn’t have upset Mary Beth or just about any other Process acolyte.
Things were different last year. Because players like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were healthy, and the front office had invested some assets in productive complementary players, fans’ expectations have grown. The team reached the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2012 and won its first-round series over Miami. The Sixers won 52 games, and since the Bulls didn’t qualify for the postseason, Mary Beth’s consternation at a loss to Chicago was somewhat warranted. And, except for being awakened in the deep of the night, Heck was OK with that. In fact, these days, he’s happy fans are paying extremely close attention to what’s happening on and off the court.
“No one can deny that we have two superstars in the making,” Heck says of Embiid and Simmons. “They are transformational players.”
Fans may not know much about Heck, but he is a star, too. As the Sixers move toward prosperity on the court, Heck is a big part of their good fortune off it. He has helped the team improve the breadth of its brand in the region, nation and even the world, and thanks to the new 140,000-square-foot Wilmington-based fieldhouse scheduled to open in December, he is guiding the franchise to a strong foothold in Delaware. Even though the Sixers’ offices and training complex are in Camden, New Jersey, the franchise believes that the First State market is significant-Heck reports more than 50,000 tickets were sold to Delaware fans in 2016-17-and is creating a space that will house the team’s G League franchise, rechristened the Blue Coats earlier this year, as well as accommodate athletes from all over Delaware.
“This state is a hidden treasure,” Heck says. “I think we have an obligation to make it even better. I want this to be an extension of the 76ers brand while serving youth and elite sports. We have a mentality with this to be aspirational.”
Although Heck grew up in the D.C. area as a Georgetown fan and lives in the Highlands area of Wilmington, his heart resides at Villanova University, from which he graduated with a degree in English-“of all things,” he says-in 1992. Heck has worked at ‘Nova. His son, Peyton, is a walk-on for Jay Wright’s basketball team, and his daughter, Madelyn, was admitted to the school last December for the class of 2022. One would imagine his seventh-grade son, Gavin, has Wildcat dreams, too.
“His ties to Villanova are strong,” says Vince Nicastro, VU’s athletic director from 2000 to 2015 and the current deputy commissioner and COO of the Big East Conference. “He is a proud alum.”
While a student at Good Counsel High School in Maryland, Heck watched his beloved Hoyas lose the 1985 national championship basketball game to Villanova, which shot 9-for-10 from the field in the second half. “That definitely put Villanova on my map,” he says. Heck originally wanted to go to law school, but he changed his mind and decided sales and marketing would be the right future for him. Instead of getting a business degree, he chose English, because he thought being able to speak and express himself well would allow him to pitch and close more deals. He had hoped to play lacrosse for the Wildcats but ended up on the rugby team for a couple years and participated in just about every intramural pursuit he could. “It was all sports, all the time,” Heck says.
After stints with the Eagles and Miami Heat franchises, Heck joined ISP Sports in 2000 to handle all of Villanova’s corporate partnerships. It was a unique relationship. Although Heck was an ISP employee, he was on-site at VU and had to manage the relationships between the school, his employer and the businesses that partnered with both.
“The best part was that Chris was a Villanova person, and he understood the nuances of our department and was totally integrated into our staff,” Nicastro says. “He became a valued member of our senior leadership team.”
While at Villanova, Heck showed off his creative side. Faced with a finite amount of space at the Wildcat basketball team’s Pavilion home arena, he established an area overlooking the corner of the court that functioned almost the same as hospitality tents do at golf and tennis tournaments. It provided another layer of benefit for corporate clients and helped increase revenue for ISP and Villanova.
Heck enjoyed working for his alma mater and was certainly doing a good job, but when former Wildcat classmate Scott O’Neil recruited him to join the NBA in 2004, Heck moved on after four years at ‘Nova. He served as senior VP in the league’s marketing and business operations area and counseled teams on matters of ticketing, corporate sponsorship and marketing. After learning about the world of sports on a relatively parochial level at Villanova, Heck expanded his knowledge exponentially with the NBA, which had become America’s most international league. Nicastro says Heck and O’Neil complemented each other well. O’Neil is a hard-charger with big ideas, while Heck is more measured, focused on disciplined execution and excels in developing good relationships with clients. That connection serves the Sixers well and is evident in the Delaware fieldhouse project. O’Neil dreams big, and Heck makes those dreams come true.
“The NBA was an incredible education,” he says. “It was like getting a master’s in sports business. Working for [former NBA commissioner] David Stern and [current commissioner] David Silver and Scott O’Neil-arguably three of the most accomplished and smartest people in the business-was great. I got to see the world. I got to run the business for USA Basketball, got to work with 30 NBA teams and helped build the league’s best practices unit.”
One of the most important parts of his seven years with the NBA involved its global scope. It was one thing to help Villanova court potential sponsors in the Delaware Valley and quite another to mingle with worldwide conglomerates on other continents. Heck’s experience in that area has helped him with the Sixers, who see themselves as much more than a team tied to the Philadelphia region.
After a two-year stint as president of business operations with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, Heck rejoined O’Neil in July 2013 as the Sixers chief revenue officer, responsible for corporate partnerships and ticket sales. His role has grown during his tenure there, and in September 2017 he was promoted to president. He is now charged with helping expand the team’s brand beyond the court. That means focusing on international opportunities-the Sixers played a game in London in January and will play two preseason games this month in China-as well as growing their profile in the region. Heck’s time with the Red Bulls exposed him to a sport that is truly global in its reach. He sees no reason why that can’t be the case for basketball and particularly the NBA.
Phase one of the Sixers’ program was “shining up” the brand and developing a strategy for long-term success. Step two involves developing a “stranglehold” on the region in terms of fan involvement and interest. And the next step turns the team’s vision beyond the tri-state area. Heck believes the Sixers are completing stage two and looking to the third portion of the program.
“We have this unusual formula of young players with strong personalities and a 10-year path to success in front of us,” Heck says. “Half of our team is international, so how do we capitalize on that and make the Philadelphia 76ers a global brand?”
As Heck and the Sixers business team expand the team’s profile to other continents, they are also keenly aware of the need to engage locally. Sure, just about all the tickets for last season were sold before the first game tipped off, and there is no indication that the ’18-19 campaign won’t include a similarly robust attendance pattern. But there is a need for sustained outreach, and that’s what the Wilmington fieldhouse is expected to do.
It will bring the Sixers’ G League developmental team from its current University of Delaware Carpenter Center home to a franchise-owned location. More importantly, it will serve as a “mecca” for basketball and other sports. Heck considers the Delaware hoops community “a powerhouse” and believes the fieldhouse-which will eventually be named for a corporate partner and house the Blue Coats-will help expand the visibility of players and teams alike.
“What we don’t have in Wilmington is a place that is suitable for large traffic and a lot of play,” he says. “We are thinking about this at an elite level, rather than as a rec center. We can do more.”
The Sixers truly believe they can do that-on and off the court. And should Heck continue to help the franchise grow, fans can count on a variety of successes all over the world.
And Heck can expect to sleep soundly.
This article originally appeared in Delaware Today