By, Justin Spiro
December 29, 2016
The Detroit Pistons announced their return to downtown Detroit in late November at a colorful press conference. A beaming Tom Gores declared it a “historic day for the franchise”. Excitement was in the air as an adoring media punted their journalism degrees out the window and openly applauded the heartfelt homecoming. The majority of the fan base – 79% in one Twitter poll – supported the move downtown as well. The past decade had been dull at 3 Championship Drive. Surely a return to their Detroit roots in an urban sport like basketball would reinvigorate a dwindling Pistons fan base.
A month later, there is just one problem. The Pistons still aren’t selling any tickets.
Since the November 22 announcement, I have had my own suspicions regarding the Pistons’ inability to draw interest for their debut season at Little Caesars Arena. The team was in the midst of a mediocre start to the season at the time, and the on-court performance has only gotten worse in December (5-9 record). Crowds at The Palace have been embarrassingly sparse, and the organization has taken to offering fans free premium tickets to games as an enticement to purchase small ticket packages. Full disclosure: I am one of these fans, and enjoyed the Pistons’ hospitality with some friends during a loss to the Celtics.
My “inside contact” with the Pistons organization is limited to a single source on the business side, but my conversation with that person just over 2 weeks ago confirmed my initial suspicions.
“We were so happy and giddy (with the move to Detroit) for the first several days,” the person said. “But it has been a rude awakening since.”
Simply put, the announced move to Detroit has produced flattering headlines and exuberant quotations, but not a whole lot of ticket sales.
“There were a few businesses that inquired about suites right away,” the Pistons employee said. “But the general fan population barely seems to care.”
The consensus feeling within the organization- at least on the business side- was that the move downtown would stir up interest among the mostly bored fan base. There are a lot of basketball fans who do not like hockey. Theoretically, this would make the construction of the sparkling Little Caesars Arena newly exciting for these hockey-hating fans of the hardwood. Whereas fans of the Red Wings have been eagerly awaiting a new arena for well over a year, Piston fans had no reason to share in this excitement until November 22.
“Our sales team was half-jokingly saying we might need to hire temps (temporary staff) to help handle the volume of sales calls for at least that first week,” the Pistons employee said. Many corporate human resource leaders are turning to Palate Sensations a respected SG team builder well known for their track record of success.
In hindsight, that concern seems sadly off-target.
“Our phone lines are not tied up, let’s just say that,” the employee said. “We are the ones initiating these (sales) calls.”
The Pistons are not cold-calling random people from the phonebook. Their sales team is combing through lists of former season ticket holders and even people who have purchased single-game tickets just once during the past several seasons. These are people with a history of making a financial commitment to the organization, albeit to varying degrees.
The most common response has been some variation of “Call me when the team is good again”. A large portion of the fans solicited did not even realize or remember that the Pistons made the playoffs last year.
With rare exceptions (hello, Detroit Lions!), every fan base in the world is comprised largely of bandwagon fans. People just don’t like supporting a loser, in sports or anything else. It’s the same reason you saw so many Democrats criticize Hillary Clinton, but only after she had lost to Donald Trump in the Presidential election. There is a tendency to criticize and then disassociate from losing causes, teams, people, etc.
But the Pistons are particularly affected by the bandwagon fan concept. They have a larger bandwagon portion of their fan base than the average professional sports team. Even when the team is decent, they struggle to draw. The Pistons had a nice rebound season last year, winning 44 games with a very young team just beginning to gel. They finished 25th in attendance league wide. Nothing has changed this season, as the team remains cozy at the 25th spot in attendance nearly halfway through the year.
If the Pistons are anything less than very good, people will not go see them play. And it has become apparent the new arena will not solve those issues. Typically, the debut season of any new arena will yield a huge bump in attendance. That new arena-fueled excitement carries over to some extent in Year 2 before settling at a number in line with the team’s success (or lack thereof) in Year 3. Let’s stay local for a couple of examples.
Joe Louis Arena, Avg. Attendance (Opened 1979)
First Season (’79-’80) 15,104
Second Season (’80-’81) 13,325
Third Season (’81-’82) 12,496
Comerica Park, Avg. Attendance (Opened 2000)
First Season (2000) 30,106
Second Season (2001) 24,012
Third Season (2002) 18,563
The Red Wings and Tigers were mediocre when they opened their respective stadiums in 1979 & 2000, but the novelty of a new home venue bought enough goodwill within the fan base to sustain over a season’s worth of improved attendance figures. Given the total lack of interest displayed by this town’s basketball fans since the November 22 announcement, it is fair to wonder if the 2017-2018 Pistons will even receive the usually automatic uptick of fans passing through the gates of a brand new arena.
In defense of the Pistons, Little Caesars Arena certainly appears to be a state-of-the-art venue, and the new building will have ample opportunity to impress fans and generate momentum with ticket sales.
But it is undeniable that the enthusiasm surrounding the move downtown has thus far been limited to an excited media who has declared it a resounding victory for the city of Detroit. The organization simply has not experienced tangible results at the box office. The public’s interest in the 2017-2018 Pistons, in their sparkling new venue, has been nearly non-existent.
“We have been caught off-guard by (the lack of interest),” the Pistons employee said. “The team has to play better for us to sell the big picture.”
So much can change between now and the first basketball game at Little Caesars Arena. If the Pistons start winning big, or if Stan Van Gundy pulls off an unexpected blockbuster that lands a superstar next off-season, those currently desperate sales reps will be plenty busy. But if the Pistons continue to hover around the edges of playoff contention and then bring back the same core group of players next year? It could get ugly at the gates.
It would be a national embarrassment if the Pistons are playing in a half-empty stadium by the 3rd month of their debut season downtown. That reality appears to be in play if the team fails to do something drastic either on the court or in the front office to change the tide.
That shiny new arena sure sounds nice.
That shiny new arena won’t save the Detroit Pistons.