N.O. isn't only struggling NBA market
Losing teams seeing fans' interest wane
Thursday, February 14, 2008
By John Reid
As the national media turns its attention to New Orleans for All-Star Weekend, the spotlight has been focused on the Hornets' attendance problems.
Although the Hornets have struggled to fill the New Orleans Arena in their first full season back from a two-year Hurricane Katrina-forced exile to Oklahoma City, they aren't the only NBA team with attendance issues.
New Orleans, Philadelphia and Indiana are among the eight teams that are averaging fewer than 15,000 fans per game as the league enters its All-Star break. The other teams are Charlotte (14,577), Minnesota (14,400), Sacramento (13,898), Seattle (13,375), and Memphis (12,758). But the Hornets are the only team with a winning record.
However, with the Hornets pushing near the top of the Western Conference standings and having Chris Paul and David West participating in Sunday's All-Star Game and Hornets Coach Byron Scott coaching the West team, the team has experienced a slight attendance spike.
Hornets spokesman Harold Kaufman said the team has averaged 15,150 in the past five home games, which includes a sellout against the low-wattage Memphis Grizzlies last Saturday.
The team's attendance has attracted more scrutiny lately because of the amended lease agreement the franchise signed with the state last month that calls for the team to average 14,735 fans through next season to prevent an opt-out clause from kicking in.
"We are focusing in on what we're trying to achieve here and our level of success," Hornets President Hugh Weber said this week. "Even before our agreement with the state came out, we've been very consistent that getting attendance and fans engaged with our team was important."
Hornets owner George Shinn has stressed that if the Hornets don't meet that criteria, he would push to renegotiate with the state, not move the franchise. If Shinn was to exercise the opt-out option, he would have to buy out minority partner Gary Chouest's 25 percent and pay back inducements he's received from the state and other penalties. The total cost of leaving New Orleans could be near $100 million.
Overall the Hornets rank 29th in attendance with a 12,645 per game average at the Arena. That's a significant drop from the 17,830 they averaged last season in Oklahoma City.
Last month Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban spoke out about the Hornets' attendance woes. Cuban said he did not think Shinn was making a concerted effort to get 16,000 to 17,000 to the Arena on a regular basis. When Cuban was asked in an e-mail to respond about some of the other franchises having attendance problems, he declined comment but said he wants stability across the league.
"It's so annoying and frustrating because we have people busting their tails, and there are people who haven't spent any time here and do not understand this market or the circumstances that start telling us how to run our franchise or how to rebuild our city," Shinn said last week. "A lot of us have to look beyond all that stuff and quit letting other people pull us down."
The Pacers, traditionally one of the league's top teams, rank last among the league's 30 teams with a 12,260 per-game average. They are drawing 3,099 fewer fans than they did last season when they averaged 15,359 per game and ranked 28th.
"We feel our numbers will come up, we have a rich basketball history, and we think the style we're playing, up-tempo, will help bring people back," said Larry Mago, the Pacers' senior vice president of marketing. "It's not just our record, these are not great economic times right now in north-central Indiana. But we view this as a slight bump rather than a long-term problem."
With the best record in the league at 40-9, the Boston Celtics have regularly played before near-capacity crowds. One of the exceptions, though, came when Boston went to Indianapolis in November. Instead of a sellout, they played before just 12,143 fans in the 18,345-seat Canseco Fieldhouse.
Since that game, crowds in Indianapolis have not increased even when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant or the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James have come to town. In Bryant's only visit to Indiana on Nov. 20, the announced crowd was 11,577. Five days later when James arrived, only 11,603 showed.
"No. 1 the Pacers are not winning, and No. 2 it's their personnel, some of their players have been in trouble with the law off and on, doing stupid things and they should know better," said Frank Ricks, a Pacers fan who works at the Benjamin Harrison YMCA in Indianapolis. "We used to be a winning franchise, and we're not winning any more, and that has turned some people away."
In Memphis, the Grizzlies are struggling to attract a fan base after having two consecutive losing seasons. They are drawing less than the University of Memphis men's basketball team, which is averaging 17,404 through 14 home games.
In Seattle, owner Clay Bennett has already filed relocation papers for Oklahoma City. When the Hornets played in Seattle, one of the lone ticket-takers at KeyArena was reading a book in the booth because of the inactivity. The next day, only 11,968 attended the game.
"I think the biggest failure is continuing to believe in the thinking that's what happened in the past will continue to make them successful," said Lee Igel, an assistant professor in sports management at New York University. "The NBA has not transcended its marketing plans since Michael Jordan. It's very much a team sport, but they continue to market mostly their individual stars."
From the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, a number of franchises are attempting to get their fan base engaged, but are struggling to make it happen. When the Hornets played the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 11 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, there were entire sections of empty seats in the upper level. The announced crowd that night was 10,014, the smallest crowd the Hornets have played before on the road this season.
In 2003-04, Philadelphia ranked fourth in the league in attendance, averaging 19,222 per game. During that season, the fans would get so loud that former Hornets coach Tim Floyd would have to shout during every timeout so his players could hear him. It was the same way the previous season, when Philadelphia ranked fourth and eliminated the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs.
Now the 76ers players are lucky to hear anything. The franchise -- which traded longtime star Allen Iverson last season -- is averaging 13,178 per game. On an average, the Wachovia Center is being filled to 64 percent capacity, which ranks last in the league.
"Teams that are not winning are going through the life cycle of events that all franchises have, that they get bad and their payrolls go down, their season-ticket base falls off and their attendance drops, but as the draft comes it replenishes them," NBA Commissioner David Stern said Wednesday. "We'll see, it does takes a few years."
Former coach and star player Doug Collins, an analyst for TNT, said Philadelphia is among the three teams that are vital in ensuring the league's success. The Celtics and New York Knicks are the other two, he said. The Knicks have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference at 15-36, but they are averaging 18,978, the 11th best in the league.
"These are the most storied franchises and the greatest players ever to play," said Collins, who played for the 76ers. "When no one talks about them, that hurts the NBA because we need those teams to be good. We need those cities, those feel-good teams, because of what they've done in the history of the NBA."
Similar to Philadelphia, Sacramento was once the model of consistency for sellout crowds. From Nov. 26, 1999 to Nov. 7, 2007, they had 354 consecutive sellouts at Arco Arena. The streak ended at this season's opener in November when 14,908 showed up to see the Kings play the defending champion San Antonio Spurs at the 17,317-seat Arena.
"If I lived in Sacramento and the (Kings) were playing the way they are playing (now), I would drive down to Golden State and go see (the Warriors play)," TNT studio analyst Kenny Smith said Tuesday.
"If I lived in Indiana and (the Pacers) were playing the way they are playing, I would drive over to Indiana U and see Eric Gordon play. If I'm a basketball fan, I'll go find good basketball. I'm not going to pay my money and see guys who aren't playing well. When you're a good team, you don't have to worry about people coming to see you."