November 18, 2008
I had to cringe last weekend when I read Phil Mushnick's column about the attendance problems that some NBA teams are having. He reports that at a recent New York-Memphis game in Tennessee, an eyewitness said there were only about 4,000 people in the stands to see the two teams play. Mushnick also believes that by next spring we will be hearing/seeing stories about how some NBA (and NHL) teams are close to suspending operations because of larger financial troubles.
I wish I could refute his thinking, but, I actually agree with him.
I have watched NBA games throughout my entire life and I don't ever remember seeing this many empty seats in arenas all over the league. I've covered several games in Orlando during the early part of the season, and there are always plenty of good seats to be had. What surprises me more than anything, though, is the general lack of enthusiasm from some of the crowds. For the most part, the crowds I've seen at Magic games are flatter than a pancake. Sure, there are some exciting moments, and, if asked, the fans are usually willing to get out of their seats and cheer. But, if it wasn't for the noise blaring from the speaker system, you would be able to hear Stan Van Gundy barking out orders on almost every possession.
The scary part for David Stern and company is that Orlando has a booming fan-base compared to that of the Sixers and Grizzlies. Those teams rank 28th and 30th, respectively, on the NBA's attendance list. The Grizzlies have been bad for several years now, but the Sixers have a young team, that added Elton Brand in the off-season, so why are they struggling so badly to draw a crowd?
The financial crisis has had an impact on all professional sports teams in some way, but it sure feels like the NBA may have been hit harder than anyone over the last couple of years. Just two seasons ago, the league broke its own attendance record ... now you read stuff like Mushnick's column.
When you look at the attendance figures one thing is clear: fans want to see a winner. The Magic (ranked 20th, after six home dates) are the only team in the bottom third of the chart that has a winning record. Winning would cure a lot of teams' concerns, but I don't think that is the overriding problem.
I just think the NBA game has gotten stale in a lot of markets.
When I go to games, even ones that are packed in other cities, I don't see a lot of fans decked out in their team's gear, I see a lot of yuppie businessmen who have decided that the NBA game is the place to be seen. They could care less what happens on the court, as long as they can glad-hand the rest of the "important" people.
David Stern's not an idiot, he can see all of this. That's why if I were the commish, I would do exactly what Jerry Colangelo did when he was trying to figure out how to re-create the U.S.A. basketball team. The former Suns' executive rounded up a panel of basketball legends to brainstorm ideas on how to turn the national program around. The foundation of the Americans gold medal winning performance in Beijing was laid at that meeting.
While Stern would certainly face a much larger task, the input from a panel of NBA experts: players, coaches, marketing people, etc. couldn't hurt. The league has got to find a way to get more fans interested in the game, because if they don't, a few thousand empty seats are going to become the least of its worries.