NBA Teams Struggle to Fill Arenas, Even When ‘Cheap Seats’ Are $1 – or Free

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Allen Einstein / NBAE / Getty Images

General view of the arena as cheerleaders perform during the game between the Detroit Pistons and the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 1, 2013 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

If you’re in the market for a quiet evening on the town with minimal excitement and lots of room to relax and spread out, an NBA game in Detroit or Charlotte might be just the ticket.

The Detroit News recently ran a story about how the hometown Pistons are second-to-last in the NBA in terms of average league attendance. Only the Sacramento Kings, which are expected to leave northern California for Seattle after the season ends, attract fewer fans per game.

According to ESPN statistics, the Pistons are averaging 13,272 tickets sold per home game, and they play in the 21,000-seat Palace arena. Some of these “sold” tickets are given away free, and many more ticketholders simply don’t show up. The net result is a sea of unoccupied seats in the Palace, as fans who watch the games on TV can attest.

Essentially the same scene is being played out at several NBA arenas this season. The Pistons are hardly the only team finding it difficult to attract fans. To boost attendance, the Milwaukee Bucks (fourth-worst in league attendance) have been hosting promotions like “Buck Night,” when tickets for kids 14 and under are $1, and hot dogs sell for just $1 as well. (Naturally, the event took place when the Bucks were playing the Pistons.)

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The Charlotte Bobcats, which are owned by all-time great Michael Jordan and ended last season with the worst record in the NBA (7-59 during the shortened season), have struggled to fill seats for quite some time now. On secondary ticket-sales markets like StubHub—where tickets to Nets games cost 11¢ a couple seasons back—seats at Bobcats’ home games are currently going for as little as $1 (versus the Washington Wizards and, yet again, the Pistons) plus fees.

There have been plenty of discounts on officially sold Bobcat tickets as well. Toward the end of last season, the Charlotte Bobcats offered an entire season’s worth of tickets for as little as $1 apiece. To try to boost fan interest after a dismal season, the Bobcats got creative, offering 500 upper-deck season tickets at very special prices. Normally, these seats go for $8 each, or $344 for the season. But with a “Pay-the-Pick” promotion, fans agreed to pay $1 per ticket if the Bobcats got the No. 1 pick in the NBA lottery ($43 total for the season), $2 each with the No. 2 pick, and so on, up to $4 apiece with the No. 4 pick. The 500 customers who opted in wound up paying $2 each, when the Bobcats received the No. 2 overall pick.

Charlotte also ran a Kmart-like buy one, get one free season ticket deal, in which seats for the 2013-2014 were included at no charge for customers buying 2012-2013 season tickets in certain sections.

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Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns demonstrated a different kind of creativity to boost ticket sales earlier this season. For a game against the Dallas Mavericks in early December, the Suns offered a money-back guarantee on tickets, promising that fans could get a refund if they weren’t satisfied with the team’s performance, or even if the beer in the arena was flat.

As for the Pistons, team ownership is stating that it is trying to avoid giving away as many free tickets as it has in the past. Dennis Mannion, president of the company that oversees the Pistons, told the Detroit News:

“We still give out free tickets, but mainly strategically, to those who help other people … There’s a dramatic difference between the way business had been done and the way we’re doing it now, and one aspect of that is a lot fewer free tickets.”

When teams give away tickets, you see, the no-show rate is very high. What do they care when they’ve paid $0 out of pocket? Fans who do show up with complimentary tickets tend to arrive late, leave early, and spend little on parking and concessions.

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Instead of handing out loads of freebies, the Pistons have kept ticket prices flat, and thrown in free parking and discounts on concessions with season ticket packages. They’ve included perks on certain ticket packages too, including access to golf outings with former players and coaches.

Maybe the strategies will help, maybe not. The comment of one Pistons fan explains why any ticket promotion can only do so much:

Mostly, the team has a bad record and people don’t want to see a bad team.

23 comments
meestermouse
meestermouse

It's mostly a black person's game anymore. They need to market tickets more heavily in black communities.

NorCal916
NorCal916

For the record, the Sacramento Kings are not "expected" to leave. There is a loose deal with an ownership group in Seattle, however David Stern has invited Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to join in the bidding process as well, and if anyone has a clue about the Maloofs they would know the Maloofs' word means nothing. And FWIW, the Kings' attendance may be down now, but it wasn't for most of the 27 year's they've been in Sacramento. 


JulieWilcotsColbert
JulieWilcotsColbert

Who wants to pay $$$ to see losing teams?  Some of these teams should have folded years ago (hello Charlotte Bobcats, Wash Wizards, ) -- which are loser East Coast teams (ex. Miami, NY, Bos)  Of course this writer is East Coast so that's all he knows.  The Western Conference is rockin' with several teams a few games seperating them. 

highaltitudes
highaltitudes

Why go to an NBA game when you can stay home and watch a myriad of college basketball games that are much better to watch?  

zero
zero

This is what happens when you let players decide where they want to go. New York , Los Angeles , Chicago and Miami. 

NandaLinnAung
NandaLinnAung

that's pretty sad thing.. players getting paid massive money, fans can't even feel like spending on some teams, coastal teams are getting big. in land teams are almost dead.. too bad.

nanguneri
nanguneri

It is available online via the internet at my home with my family. Why should I go shopping outside, let alone the weather, safety, driving, parking and all the associated costs and then come back after having cheered a losing team? Do not understand the logic. I would be happy to invest the money that I would have otherwise invested and donate and sponsor a few children for this low price if they are interested I suppose.

nanguneri
nanguneri

Whoever said that it it not whether you win or lose but how one played. Well if one plays to lose at 7-59, nobody would want to associate with that performance I suppose.

IanGarrett
IanGarrett

I have zero interest in the NBA. Not sure why. I used to love it, may back when the Lakers and Celtics went at it, or when Jordan and Bulls were a force of nature. Now? No thanks.  I actually think it's the actual game itself that is boring, may some rule changes need to be put in place. Or maybe I'm becoming less of a sports fan, and nothing would increase my interest.  I don't live anywhere near an NBA franchise either, but I see what people are saying, expensive parking, expensive concessions, it adds up, and for most of the middle class, this is a luxury many of us can't afford anymore.

BrianOdom
BrianOdom

Another reason to not show up?  Parking.  Bad teams aren't worth the cost of parking and my time.  A $1 ticket coupled with $25 event parking and wear and tear on my car, isn't worth my time.  If it's not worth my time to watch it on TV, then it's definitely not worth it for me to go.  And then you have some strict ushers.  If my ticket is in the nosebleeds, but the lower level is mostly empty, let me go down and get a closer view.

Wootings
Wootings

Living in a big metro area with thriving football, baseball, basketball and hockey (not to mention WNBA and even professional lacrosse, and probably soccer not that I care to check), I can say that basketball simply isn't fun enough to watch to justify me buying tickets, driving into town, parking, paying arena prices for food, so on and so forth.  It just isn't.

I look forward to one or two baseball games a year, a couple hockey games a year, and maybe a football game if I'm lucky.  But I only go to a basketball game when I have friends visiting who insist on "doing something."

Boring.

JimmyJames
JimmyJames

The big problem with the Pistons is location of the arena.   Most people don't want to drive upwards of an hour to go the Northern suburbs to watch a game.   If they had a better location, more people would go.  

thewindhasblown
thewindhasblown

I would have to paid to sit through an NBA game. Over paid boring primadonnas. Stick a fork in this game.

sammyboy8408
sammyboy8408

no talent league. most teams are filled with subpar players and no namers with uninspiring talent

bibleverse1
bibleverse1

Bad teams will have trouble filling seats until they creat an atmosphere that highlights other aspects of the game or arena or players.

Anonemous
Anonemous

@nanguneri there's a difference between being a fan from the couch and being a fan at the game. Ever wonder why there's a condition called home court advantage?

nanguneri
nanguneri

@BrianOdom I will give it a first quarter and link with RSS feeds to get alerts and if it gets interesting, I may come back and watch, however, not ball-by-ball if my home team is losing badly.

nanguneri
nanguneri

@JimmyJames Location change is going to change the performance of the players in a given game. I would really like to see whether that would have any effect. The games are always played with a notion that you win some and lose some, however with a less than 10 % chance to win, do you really think that fans would shell money, time, efforts, and show up to be excited about a > 90 % chance losing and a < 10 % chance to win (throw in nasty weather), think NOT. The benefit of a $ 1 ticket surpasses all the locational advantages. Even then they struggle to sell tickets at this rate.

jmpiork
jmpiork

@thewindhasblownAs opposed to the other leagues filled with underpaid players that have minuscule egos?

nanguneri
nanguneri

@Anonemous Yes of course there is a condition called home court advantage - which is when a weaker team plays a team that is favored and wins a game on its home turf. 


So let us do a 101 on home court advantage - With a stats of 7-59, they have a home court only if they played: 

[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_advantage]

a - 7 out of the 66 games won were played at home - probably true

b - None of the games they played which they lost were played at home - probably false

c - Games they played and won at home were against teams that were favored to win - probably false

d - Games they played away were all loses - hard to say

e - This combination of stats qualifies them for a home court advantage - Definitely false

How would you convince anyone that this team has a home court advantage, let alone deserves it?

They need a better game with that kind of a record, don't you think?