The Indiana Pacers have roared, relative to their usual play, out to a 9-3 start to the 2011-12 season. They'll take on the Sacramento Kings out in California on Wednesday night, starting a run that will see the team play just three games at home over the next 17 days. Good thing, too, because we don't want these up and comers to get down on their chances in the East as they play to a litany of empty seats at home. The Pacers, despite taking 75 percent of their first dozen games, aren't exactly taking Indiana by storm.
Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star recently pointed out that the Pacers are 26th in the NBA in attendance as they average 14,682 a game. This is an increase over last season, when the Pacers ranked dead-last in attendance as they worked up a 13,538 average, but it's hardly a warming thought once you consider that the team not only has turned into a heavy winner straight out of the gate, but that the squad has turned into one that ranks as aesthetically pleasing as the fantastic home stadium they play in. This is a fun team to watch, working in perhaps the nicest arena in the NBA, and they still aren't pulling. Why?
Season ticket holder Scott Herbst, bashing away in the comments section or Wells' post, is as frustrated as the Pacers likely are:
As a season ticket holder, I have been to every game. I was a bit disappointed, as you were Mike, at the crowd last night. Celtics. Saturday night. Pacers playing well. Too many empty seats. Pacers are practically giving tickets away with their seemingly endless specials. Fans have no excuse anymore. No more thug excuse. No more "the team sucks" excuse. No more "I don't like JOB" excuse. These are great guys. George, Roy, Paul, Darren, Danny, Tyler, David. The only thing I can think of last night was the NFL playoff games. I know I wanted to stay home to watch, but I enjoy watching the Pacers too much.
The Celtics game did fly in the face of the vaunted matchup pairing Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos against the New England Patriots, but as football-mad as the Hoosier state is (and, take it from someone who lives here, football owns all), it's a little daunting that a second-round NFL playoff game is the main reason that scads of fans stayed home on a Saturday night instead of heading out to see their successful Pacers take on a high-profile team like the Boston Celtics. That's assuming that the Tebow vs. Tom Brady matchup was the main reason, an idea we're not entirely ready to fully embrace.
Other factors abound. Indiana, like just about every other state out there, is hurting. The Pacers boast a nice winning percentage, but the team is pretty low in star wattage; sparking up a "did you hear Paul George grew two inches during the lockout?" conversation at a bar will likely only result in either a pair of shrugged shoulders as to who the hell Paul George is, or a comment about the NBA's player "strike."
The bottom line is a little more frightening, though, and moves well beyond Indiana's issues.
As has been pointed out by us and others, for years, it's no picnic to take the family, a date, a friend, or your lonesome to an NBA game in person. It costs a ton, and … it costs a ton. There's no other thing to bring up beyond that. Even taking in a contest after receiving a free pair of ducats will set you back quite a bit, even if you don't gorge yourself on hot dogs and beer and officially licensed gear. Consider the fact that this nutter has made a lifetime out of acting as an over-the-top NBA fan, and yet I've never paid for an NBA ticket. And this has nothing to do with me being spoiled by press box seating.
To put that in perspective, understand that I've paid for dozens of tickets to watch the WNBA's Indiana Fever, the minor-league hockey stylings of the Indianapolis Ice, and several trips to the bleachers of Anderson Speedway. None of those are jokes. The NBA, even on a busman's holiday, has priced itself out of my life.
Imagine how a moderate Pacer fan feels.
The NBA may have priced fans out, but that hasn't stopped the Pacers (and, really, 29 other teams) from offering a litany of cheapo tickets and/or promotions. If you search around, there are heaps of deals to be had that can put you cheaply into seats whether you head out by yourself or with a group. The Pacers staff, and I say this not to make excuses, does a fantastic job in promoting the team and putting together a good night out for those who deign to show up. But there's only so much you can do.
This has little to do with the NBA's popularity, which is growing by leaps and bounds day after day in spite of the lockout or whatever the people in the comment section located directly below this post will have you believe. The point is that you don't have to wait a few months for that Pacers/Celtics game to show up on Netflix. It's on, at home, and the lighting and ambience is of your own design. The food, even if it isn't better, is most certainly cheaper. And you can drink beer during the fourth quarter.
The Pacers' attendance will improve as the NFL season ends and the Indianapolis area grows wise to how good a team this is. But between now and the NBA's next lockout -- and, as economic tides shift and fans settle into different habits, understand that there will be another lockout in a few years as the owners try to "recover" -- you're going to see plenty of columns like this wondering where all the fans have gone.
Followed, a day or two later, by another piece about the NBA's ever-increasing television ratings. There's a disconnect, there, and it relates to the idea that buying a ticket to a live NBA game has almost become an anachronism at this point.