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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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.)

(MORE: NHL Lockout Is Over! Guess Who’s Happier Than Fans or Players?)

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.

(MORE: The NBA New Year: A Tale of Two Sad Sacks)

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.

(MORE: When Professional Sporting Event Tickets Cost a Penny)

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.