Two weeks ago in Minnesota you couldn't give away tickets to an NBA game. After a dispute over broadcast rights led to the blackout of a Timberwolves game in 180,000 homes, the team offered 5,000 free tickets to fans who had been affected. Only 1,178 were claimed.
In Memphis the sales staff is going door-to-door peddling booklets of coupons that include a two-for-one deal on Grizzlies tickets. In Cleveland crowds have been so sparse that during one December game, when a fan in the upper deck yelled, "Hey, Gary!" while the Sonics' Gary Payton was shooting free throws, Payton took his shot, looked up and responded, "What?" In New Jersey the defending Eastern Conference-champion Nets were averaging 14,644 fans at Continental Airlines Arena through Sunday. If a team that's 21-2 at home has almost 6,000 tickets regularly go begging, what hope is there for the Grizzlies and the Cavaliers?
Judging by the league's average attendance (which at 16,535 through Sunday was on pace to be the lowest since 1993-94), its stagnant TV ratings and the results of a recent poll commissioned by SI, people aren't as enthused about the NBA as they used to be. In the poll of 1,000 randomly selected Americans only 11.1% of those who identified themselves as NBA fans said they're more interested in the league than they were five seasons ago. Significantly, 40.1% said they are less interested in the NBA (and 48.4% said their interest has stayed the same).
According to the survey, many of the reasons behind the fans' disenchantment are beyond the NBA's control. By a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, respondents felt that the players are less charismatic than they used to be—something no Adam Sandler commercial or free T-shirt launched into the crowd can change—and by a similar margin they disliked the trend of high school players entering the league. The fans clearly believe that NBA players are less interested than other pro athletes in winning than in making money and that their conduct on and off the court is worse. Within the last three weeks the league suspended the Pacers' Ron Artest (four games), the Blazers' Rasheed Wallace (seven) and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan (seven) for bad conduct, but it can't control the players' attitudes.
Now the good news. Overall, 49.8% of the NBA fans polled said that the influx of international players has increased their interest, versus 24.1% who said it hasn't; among fans who said their interest in the NBA has grown over the past five years, 71.5% like the foreign invasion. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin fans believe that the players compete hard every night. Though the highly coveted 18-to 24-year-old fans make up the league's strongest demographic (49.7% said they're interested in the NBA), that age-group showed the second-greatest drop-off in interest (46.8% said they are less interested in the NBA than they were five years ago). They are also the most forgiving, with positive responses to every poll question but one: 73.3% disapprove of high schoolers joining the league.
Other trends pop out. African-Americans showed the greatest attraction to the league: Only 38.1% said they had no interest. Female fans generally had better impressions than males (63.3% of women said players compete hard, for example, compared with 54.1% of men). Among respondents in the 45-to-54 range, 41.4% said they were interested in the league, but this group most consistently disliked tattoos (28.8%) and was the one most likely to say that more white, U.S. stars would help the game (40.5%).
As for the reasons behind the drop in attendance, players have their own ideas. After the Magic drew its smallest-ever home crowd of 12,135 against the Knicks last month, Orlando All-Star Tracy McGrady surmised that maybe "everyone stayed home to watch that new show—Joe Millionaire."
1. How interested would you say you are right now in the NBA?
Very interested 7.7%
Somewhat interested 13.6%
A little bit interested 16.4%
Not at all interested 62.1%
Don't know .2%
The following questions were asked of the 37.7% who, in response to Question 1, expressed some interest in the NBA. (Respondents not accounted for had no opinion.)