MARK GULLETT says he had been to one NHL game before he landed a job as the vice president of marketing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He stayed nine seasons, helping to market the Lightning all the way to a Stanley Cup.
"My first year, year-and-a-half, they didn't win 20 games," recalled Gullett, the new vice president of marketing for the 76ers. "That was a tough situation when I started, but they had 4 years in the playoffs. Even after the lockout, they were drawing 16,000-17,000 in losing seasons.
"I believe if you build relationships, give the fans a great experience, enhance the value of their experience, the fans will stick with you."
Gullett says he had been to only one NBA game before accepting the job with the Sixers.
"Orlando and the Sixers, in Orlando a couple of years ago," he said recently. "When I go to an event, I look at everything, top to bottom. I think about what to tweak, what I think I can make better. I've become a student of the game and of the Sixers organization and history. I walk around with a little notebook, writing down suggestions, thoughts, things to take a look at."
You could make a case that Gullett has the toughest job in sports in the city. Tougher than Charlie Manuel managing 25 Phillies at a time. Tougher than Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, trying to make the fans totally believe in them. Tougher than Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, dealing with an injured starting goalie and a new coach.
Pat Croce once unofficially had Gullett's job. Croce was the team president and part owner, but his passion quickly spread wings.
He admitted he knew little about pro basketball, but he worked tirelessly with aide de camp Dave Coskey to change everything else. He hired people to develop a house band and a classy dance team. He met nightly with the security staff and ushers, giving them rousing pep talks, reminding them how important their jobs were. He was out on the concourse with Sonny Hill and World B. Free before games, listening to compliments, responding to criticism and concerns, posing for photos with fans. Croce was a tornado in a situation that desperately needed one.
In concert with Larry Brown and Allen Iverson, he took the city on a remarkable 5-year ride, culminating in a trip to the 2001 Finals, the Sixers' first appearance in the championship series since 1983.
These Sixers have been at or near the bottom in NBA attendance, with an average of 12,852 through 10 games, a drop of 3,000 per game from last season's 41-game average. They are playing in front of less than 65 percent capacity, the lowest percentage in the league. They are without the injured Lou Williams and Marreese Speights. They are searching for ways to get the most out of the comebacking Elton Brand. But don't try to make a case for the signing of Allen Iverson making it easier for the marketing department.
"Really, it doesn't change anything," said Gullett, standing in the back of the Hall of Fame Room in the Wachovia Center last week, soaking in an emotional, almost riveting Iverson as he was being reintroduced to the media.
He might change his mind as he begins to see more and more fans wearing Iverson jerseys. The Sixers had their first sellout of the season for Iverson's debut Monday night with 20,664 fans, but the crowd for Wednesday night's game dropped to 12,136.
"There's not one magic bullet to hit to fill the building," he said. "I believe if you consistently mind the details, watch the little things, a lot will take care of itself."
He believes that good marketing techniques will work as long as you have the product to go with it. Ed Stefanski and Eddie Jordan are working on that aspect, but the team is 5-17 and has lost its last 11, entering tonight's home game against Houston. They need to give Gullett more to work with; giving the fans another helping of Iverson should be a good start.
Gullett shrugged at a recent op-ed piece in the Daily News, questioning whether this is really a pro basketball city.
"Pro basketball has been here since the 1940s," he said. "I don't think the game can be here 60-70 years and you can say it's not a pro basketball city."
The Sixers' introductory news release about his hiring described Gullett as "a visionary." So when he looks out at the stands, what does he envision?
"An exciting product, passionate, screaming fans, everybody just having a great night, a great experience. I don't think we're going to [regularly] fill the building right away, but I think in time it will [be full]."
Gullett is a glass-is-half-full guy. He doesn't see, say, one overriding stumbling block in his job of building the Sixers' image back up.
"It's probably an accumulation of things," he said. "There's not one huge, glaring factor. I wouldn't say it's the economy, because we have a very affordable product, with tickets as low as $10. We have an ownership that is committed to the team, and we have passionate fans. That should make for a great run."
He believed he had had a great run with the Lightning, only to discover that he was being laid off.
As down as he was, he was buoyed by his 14-year-old son Ben, who produced a YouTube video, complete with music and props, telling the world his dad needed a job.
"We obviously knew he was working on it," Mark Gullett said, smiling. "I thought it was pretty cool. But once I saw it in the context of getting laid off it was much more touching, meant a lot more.
"I knew he was working on it, but the next thing I knew we had NBC national news, 'Good Morning America,' the 'Today' show knocking on our door. I'm told the video was huge in South America, where I guess kids don't say 'I love you' very much.
"The video was originally supposed to be something like a goodbye to our staff, our friends and family. Seven months later, I'm here with the Sixers."
Gullett has been in town before, working at WIOQ from 1991 to '94. He didn't pay much attention to the sad aftermath of the Charles Barkley era, and remembers "being immersed" in radio. But his son was born here; his family enjoyed it here.
"I looked at a bunch of job opportunities after I got laid off by the Lightning," he said. "I didn't apply for any of them, and it was driving my wife crazy. This is the only one I applied for in 7 months.
"I want to be here a long time. I was with the Lightning for 9 years; I hope to be here 14, 15, 20 years. This is a place I really wanted to be. It felt right. It just felt right."