Beyond the Patch: The Philadelphia 76ers and StubHub

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Joel Embiid, one of the 76ers budding young stars, is seen sporting the StubHub jersey patch in-game. (Photo provided by Lara Toscani Weems-Philadelphia 76ers )

The jersey patch initiative within the NBA has paid dividends for the teams that have ventured to utilize it. Increased media exposure, heightened brand synergy, and the ability to tap into broader demographics are just a few ways that the jersey patch has helped to revolutionize sponsorship within the industry.

So how can a partnership further separate itself within a sector of the sports industry that’s already so forward-thinking?

Look no further than the relationship between the Philadelphia 76ers and StubHub. In talking to Chris Heck, the President of Philadelphia 76ers Business Operations, and Akshay Khanna, Head of NFL, NBA and NHL Partnerships at StubHub, one can see that this partnership has truly been solidified behind years of development and implementation.

For Heck, the concept of the jersey patch sponsorship stemmed from his time working in the NBA league office.

“I worked in the league office from 2004-2011,” says Heck. “Much of that [time] was spent working with Scott O’Neil (CEO, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment) and Katie O’Reilly (CMO, Philadelphia 76ers). A main project of ours was to explore utilizing the patch sponsorship. As we were working for Commissioner David Stern at the time, it was a period of extreme forward thinking that we were working within. We did our due diligence. For three years, we examined how the jersey patch sponsorship could be integrated within all 30 NBA teams.”

Fast forward to when Heck joined the 76ers in 2013. Even back then, three years before the jersey patch initiative would even begin to make waves throughout the league, Heck had a vision of who the team should partner with for it.

“I knew back then that if the patch deal ever came up, StubHub would be the first to engage in talks with us for the patch. The talks would be exclusive. We wanted to work together with them,” says Heck. StubHub President Scott Cutler echoed Heck’s mindset. Cutler discussed with Heck the vision of, “using the new platform to help revolutionize the sponsorship industry.”

The partnership has helped to thrust the 76ers, and StubHub, closer to the spotlight of the NBA.

“Despite what our record has been over the years, we are now a team featured on Christmas Day, we are playing in Europe,” said Heck. “Hopefully, we are able to play in China in the near future.”

While the patch has benefited both organizations in the amount of exposure received, it has gone even deeper by helping to change the fabric of the 76ers’ ticket sales strategy.

In 2016, StubHub and the 76ers announced the launch of a new ticketing platform that helped to seamlessly integrate the two companies together. The platform included offerings of real-time market data to help optimize pricing, mobile optimization that aided to making the mobile ticket purchasing process more efficient, and recommendations that analyzed buyer preferences that best fit their search criteria. This element of the partnership has helped to unify the two organizations as 76ers fans direct all buyers to its team-branded experience on StubHub.

“Both parties benefit financially from the partnership,” says Heck. “By integrating StubHub into all of our ticketing platforms, we have risen to the top of everything related to ticket sales within the NBA. Four years ago, we had the lowest attendance in the NBA. We only had 3,600 full season ticket holders. Now, we have the largest ticket staff in the league. We have to cap our ticket base at roughly 14,300 people with a waiting list of over 5,000 on the waiting list.”

The true measure of success for this partnership has been the amount of trust and buy-in between the two organizations.

“We’ve had a good relationship from the beginning,” says Heck. “We have faith in each other. StubHub is buying the vision. They are buying the passion of what the future can and will be. It’s fun to see that vision come to life. They are extremely resourceful. Their real advantage is their willingness to share data. For example, 40 percent of our season ticket holders come from the data that’s built into our ticketing platform and fan surveying that they facilitate.”

“To put it simply, we accomplish nothing without them,” says Heck.

The feelings of success for the partnership is mutually shared on the StubHub side. It’s easy to see the full magnitude of the partnership when you have someone that has “played for both sides.” Akshay Khanna served as Vice President of Strategy for the 76ers for over a year before moving over to StubHub. Working alongside Heck to help facilitate the jersey patch sponsorship, Khanna appreciates the dedication that goes into the partnership from both sides.

“During my time with the 76ers, I noticed that StubHub had a talented group on their side,” said Khanna. “They shared our (76ers’) emphasis on being first, being unique. They were the right partner;  the best philosophical fit. They embrace the same ideas that we do. I knew StubHub was great when I was with the 76ers. It’s been reinforced further now that I’m with StubHub.”

“For me, the transition from the team to the brand side was easy. Our two organizations share similar DNA. Both put fans first. Both want to do things better than they’ve ever been done before. Our organizations are people driven and we are both aligned with the notion that innovation is important.”

Now being on the brand side of the partnership, Khanna is able to utilize his knowledge of the 76ers’ vision and goals in order to help facilitate movement on the activation side.

“We have activated the partnership in a variety of unique ways. When we launched, the jersey patch unveil took place on the steps of the Art Museum and was supported by an international media blitz, as well as by 76ers’ players who very active in showing off their jerseys in real time and on social media.”

With the partnership being the first of its kind in the history of the big four American sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL), one of Khanna’s responsibilities is to help keep the partnership fresh and exciting.

“This partnership is about more than just the first push and the first unveil,” says Khanna. “We want to be omnipresent. We work with the 76ers to span multiple channels and multiple platforms. We are always looking at ways that we can provide spontaneous offerings in our effort to target our fans. We will show more and more diverse ways to develop the partnership as it matures. But, our mindset is more than just ‘logo slapping’ and being activated at 76ers’ games. We are proud to be integrated into the 76ers’ interface and game day experience.”

Khanna shares a similar mindset to Heck when it comes to how important the relationship is between the two organizations.

“This level of intimacy that we share is one of a kind,” says Khanna. “It is industry leading. It is industry defining. We are so in sync and intertwined with the 76ers that when people think of the 76ers, they think of StubHub. And when they think of StubHub, they think of the 76ers. We both double down on the perspective of things that matter. We both share a willingness to get things done. If you hear the phrase ‘it’s always been done this way before,’ a bell should be ringing in your head. We want to challenge the status quo.”

For his favorite part of the partnership, Khanna relates back to his time with the 76ers and how his work on the jersey patch project has come full-circle.

“The partnership is exciting as it gives me another chance to root for the 76ers,” says Khanna. “We are encouraged to help think about how we will be different. We are always looking at making a real difference and at changing how business is done. That’s what gets me excited in the morning.”

For both Heck and Khanna, the excitement that the share for the partnership is genuine and built to last. As these two were on the front lines of forging this deal, the first of its kind within the sports industry, their shared vision, mindset and aspirations of the partnership will help to keep them on the forefront of discussion for how to revolutionize the business of sports.