Toby Kemp lives within walking distance of Gainbridge Fieldhouse. He’s a lifetime Pacers fan. But he won’t be going to a game any time soon.
When he grew up, he could watch all of their games on WTTV-WB4 (now CBS). Then, the games started being shown on cable. He liked going to his grandmother’s house to watch the games, but it was a 15-minute drive. So he went from watching all of the team’s games to some of them.
When he got older, he purchased cable on his own. Now, he still can’t watch the team.
“I get the message loud and clear — the Pacers don’t want fans,” he said. “So this is me signing off for myself, and for my children. No sense in them being (affected) by the never-ending grift of paying to watch your local basketball team.”
In the Pacers' defense, the ongoing issues with their games not being available on many streaming services is due to a battle between Sinclair Broadcast Group and the streaming services.
Through six home games, the Pacers have the second-lowest attendance in the NBA by total attendees (12,396, Pistons are averaging 12,299) and are second-to-last by percentage of capacity (69.2%, Pistons are at 60.5%). The Pacers are down 25.0% in attendance from before the pandemic (the 2019-2020 season), the largest drop-off in the NBA through Monday.
The team is averaging 12,396 fans through five games — and the home opener drew 17,147. By comparison, the first six home games of the 2019-2020 season drew an average of 16,438 fans.
There were just 10,227 fans in attendance for the team’s game against the Spurs on Nov. 1, the lowest attendance figure for a Pacers game since March 30, 2011.
“For us, this isn't out of the ordinary,” Danny Lopez, Pacers vice president of external affairs, told IndyStar. “We recognize that we're in a little bit of a different environment than before. You still have a segment of the population that is not necessarily comfortable going back to big events. You have some people that are not downtown that typically are downtown. It's an intersection of all these different things. We're fully expecting that we'll see the same pattern that we've seen every year, which is a gradual ramp up.”
Data from the 2019-2020 season show consistent attendance at Pacers games from the beginning of the season to the end. The team drew an average 16,245 fans during the first half of its home schedule for the 2019-2020 season from Oct. 23-Dec. 23. During the second half of its home schedule, until March 10 (when the schedule was paused due to COVID), attendance increased by just 3%, to 16,855 fans.
There are myriad potential explanations for the issue — a pandemic that lingers, lack of crowds downtown, a lack of TV access causing fans to lose interest and a team with a lack of individual star power. All of the factors come together to create a problem, albeit one that the Pacers hope will resolve itself sooner than later.
'It's difficult for people to watch the team'
IndyStar heard from several fans, like Kemp, who said that their interest in the team was lessened due to their inability to watch games on television. Fans have been unable to watch Pacers games on streaming services such as Hulu, Fubo, Sling and YouTubeTV due to a dispute between Sinclair-owned Bally Sports and the streaming providers.
“I am still not sure if I will go to a Pacers game this year,” Connor Miller said on Twitter. “I have YouTube TV and due to the contract issues I haven’t been able to watch a (non-nationally televised) Pacers game in a long time. If it’s difficult for people to watch the team, they won’t follow the team.”
Jon Gullion said on Twitter that because he can’t watch the team on TV, he has “lost (a) lot (of) interest in attending games as I just have less exposure to them.”
The TV streaming issue isn’t unique to the Pacers. Other teams are dealing with the same problem. But for a team that doesn’t get much national exposure on television — the Pacers will be featured just once on TNT this season, and zero times on ESPN — it becomes a problem with big consequences.
“Obviously we'd love to see that resolved, because we want our fans to be able to watch us however they consume that content,” Lopez said. “The truth is that the challenges of the RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) that Bally is having is not different from most of the other markets. That's just kind of the reality right now.”
A fan named Nick told IndyStar that his 12-year-old son is a big NBA fan — but not a Pacers fan.
“We have the NBA League Pass so he can watch any game he wants. Unfortunately for the Pacers, he’s more interested in other teams and players. It pains me as a lifelong Pacers fan, but I just bought him a Steph Curry jersey for Christmas. I should be buying him a Sabonis jersey,” Nick said. “I may take him to a Pacers game, but it will be to see a player on a different team. The Pacers are really losing young fans by not having their games on TV.”
For at least one fan, though, the lack of television exposure means he will make sure to come to Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
“I very much want to go to some games, regardless of how the team is doing," Tyler Brooke said. “Big reason for that is that I'm unable to watch any games on Bally Sports due to their absence on online streaming services like YouTube TV. It makes it harder to follow and enjoy the team at home!”
'We don't have a true superstar to rally around'
Another common refrain from Pacers fans? The team just isn’t exciting enough to warrant spending money on tickets. The team finished 34-38 last season and out of the playoffs in Nate Bjorkgren's only season as coach -- ending a five-year playoff streak, though without getting out of the first round.
According to Barry’s Tickets, the average price for a Pacers ticket this season is $141, which ranks among the bottom-third of the league in terms of cost.
“I’m hoping to get to a few Pacers games this year, but with the Pacers getting Rick Carlisle as head coach, the front office didn’t do too much to help him out,” Michael Stickle said. “We don’t have a true superstar to rally around and with other things going on in Indy, the Pacers are not going to be on people’s minds. ... I hope to see some improvement from the Pacers till I spend my hard-earned money for tickets.”
Adam Disque said he would like to come to some games this season with his son, but it’s hard to justify the cost.
“It is just hard with what a teacher makes to spend $80-$90 a ticket to watch an opponent that has someone great he wants to see (other than Sabonis, who is his favorite)," Disque said. "We got lucky and saw Giannis before they went up too much. We still might try to do it but it is hard with prices where they are.”
Sam Sinclair said he’s been a Pacers fan since Danny Granger was on the team. But he lives an hour away from Indianapolis, and he’s not sure it’s worth the time or money to make the trip.
“I know the Pacers won’t be competitive in the NBA so I don’t see a purpose to spend money and go watch them,” he said.
Zane Clodfelter finds himself in a similar situation. Despite living in Evansville, he said he’s tried to make it to at least one game per year.
“This winter, there’s no motivation to do so unless friends want to,” he said.
Experience at home opener leaves some fans frustrated
Multiple fans reached out to IndyStar about issues they experienced while attending games at Gainbridge Fieldhouse this season.
Jon Blankenship attended the team's home opener, and called it "the worst game day experience of our lives."
He mentioned a lengthy wait to get into the fieldhouse, and said he and his friends missed the entire first quarter waiting in line for concessions. He said they were out of beer, hot dogs and pretzels.
"The were very few vendors in the stands so we left in the third quarter after realizing we could get served better, and have better food at Kilroys," he said. "I felt it was pretty embarrassing for them. I thought that this must be what going to a Euro league game in Eastern Europe must be like. Given the team’s current trajectory and our opening night experience, I will not go back."
Colin Clayton expressed similar frustrations.
"I went to the home opener and then spent the entire first half waiting in line to grab a beer and some food," he said. "When I made it up to the front of the line to order, the very pleasant but visibly frustrated attendant informed me that they were out of beer and 90% of the food. So, when I go again, I'm eating beforehand and foregoing and brew so I can catch more of the game."
Lopez said the feedback the team has received regarding fans' gameday experience has been "extremely positive." He acknowledged that "we're asking people to be a little bit patient, because we are an active construction site."
"It's not insignificant," he said. "But that said, all the fans that come through that we talked to are having a great experience."
'As the team gets better, people are going to be more excited'
Despite the issues of access and excitement, some fans are still excited to cheer on the Pacers in person. IndyStar conducted a poll on Twitter asking if fans had attended, or were planning to attend, a game this season. Of 221 voters, 58% said yes.
Tony Donohue said that he “absolutely will be buying tickets to more games this year.”
“They still have great players,” he said. “Nothing beats going to a game and hopefully this team gets 100% healthy and will make the playoffs.”
Colin Clayton said that “it is a great value and a fun way to do something out of the ordinary on a weekday for my wife and I.”
Chris Phillips said that it’s a way for him and his son to bond.
“It’s a must go at least once a year, every year!”
Luke Roach has already been to a game this season, and says he will be back. Danny Redden bought a 10-game ticket pack for him and his wife, and said they’re “still excited to go to our 10 games and maybe a few extra!”
The Pacers hope this attitude is the norm for fans. But that excitement will likely hinge on the team improving after its 4-7 start.
“We’ve got a young team that people are excited about,” Lopez said. “People are excited about the team being healthy. We know the numbers are going to pick back up. As the team gets better, people are going to be more excited about the product.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers have worst attendance in NBA due to Bally Sports, lack of stars