December 04, 2008
How does the old saying go? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make it a sound? After attending the Grizzlies/Hawks game last night in Atlanta, I feel like I've come up with the basketball equivalent to that phrase: If an NBA game is played, but there is nobody there to see it, does it really count?
I knew the NBA was having attendance problems, but seeing last night's crowd at Philips Arena, or lack thereof, makes me believe that the NBA's issues are more severe than I originally thought.
There couldn't have been more than 6,000 people at the game last night, and that is being generous. At tip-off you could have counted the number of people in the lower bowl, and it wouldn't have taken very long. Granted, an Atlanta/Memphis showdown doesn't exactly get the juices flowing; The Grizzlies came into the game with a six game losing skid, but the Hawks came in to the contest having won four of six.
The crowd was never into the game. I felt like I was watching a scrimmage between two college teams. The loudest cheers of the night came during a time-out, when Kiss-Cam appeared on the JumboTron.
The Hawks, and other teams who are having trouble at the gate, are in a tough spot. They see the empty seats, and they're running all kinds of ticket specials trying to get fans in the door, but they can't drastically reduce the price of their best seats, because they'll run the risk of alienating all the season ticket holders who pay full price for every game.
After last night's contest came to its merciful conclusion, I asked Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni if the players and coaches even noticed small crowds. "Oh yeah, you notice small crowds," he admitted. "It's weird."
Not only is Iavaroni right, I think there is a deeper meaning to his message, although he wouldn't say it. In my opinion, the lack of support in the stands actually hurts the product on the floor. The players looked like they were just going through the motions last night, they had no energy to feed off of. I can hear you now: But they make millions of dollars, they shouldn't need fan support to make them play harder ...
Fine. But when you have played all your life in front of thousands of screaming fans, and then you start playing in front of a few thousand people who don't seem to care what happens, I'm sure it would make some sort of impact on your game.
The bottom line is that the league must figure out some way to get more people out to games, because the attendance problems have reached a critical level. If the league made all upper-level seating general admission, and charged ten dollars in struggling markets, like Atlanta and Memphis, they would at least give more fans the chance to see a game.
Does anybody else have another idea?
UPDATE: Jon Greenberg, an executive editor at Team Marketing Report, does Fan Cost Index surveys, and he says, via e-mail, that teams do have a good amount of $10 inventory available:
Every team is supposed to have 500 $10 seats for every game. This season the Hawks had just under 1,000 $10 seats available for season purchase, and from talking to them in previous years, they definitely have some bargains on a regular basis as well.
The problems are, of course, beyond pricing. It's not like there are 5,000 fans saying, "If upper deck seats were $10 instead of $20, I'd be there in a heartbeat." The Hawks' woeful recent history coupled with Atlanta's historically poor sports fan environment make them a very tough sell.