Sports - April 2005

Lagging attendance gives Bobcats pause
By Chris Roush

Last November, 21-year-old UNC Chapel Hill student Ben Couch and some friends went to Charlotte to be part of a history-making event — the first game of the Queen City’s new National Basketball Association franchise. Couch, a senior public-relations major, shared that moment with 23,318 other fans.

He shares another distinction with many of them, including those who live nearby. He hasn’t been back to the Charlotte Coliseum since, nor has he watched the team on television. Through the Bobcats’ first 25 home games, attendance averaged 14,501, 26th in the 30-team NBA. That means the team has sold only 62% of its tickets — the lowest percentage in the league.

Look more closely at the numbers, they get worse. That first game was a sellout — the only one through early March. The team had just two other crowds of more than 20,000 — one for its second home game and one for a mid-February contest with the Miami Heat, featuring Shaquille O’Neal. Subtract those three crowds, and the average attendance falls to 13,462 fans per game.

Zoom in a bit more, it gets even worse. The NBA counts attendance as the number of tickets sold for a game rather than the actual number of people who show up. The official number in Charlotte often exceeds the turnstile count by more than 3,000. By some estimates, fewer than 7,000 fans were actually in seats for the Feb. 14 game with Portland, which had an announced crowd of 9,213. That would mean more than 2,000 of about 9,000 season-ticket holders didn’t bother to come.

The numbers raise serious questions about the team’s marketing strategy. “They clearly have not been putting all of their marketing eggs into this season,” says Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp, a marketing consulting firm. “They are clearly focused on next year on being their ‘first’ season when the new arena opens.”

The team’s on-the-court struggles were expected. Rather than fill the roster with overpriced veterans, Bobcats management selected young, low-paid players to maintain flexibility under the salary cap. The result: one name player, rookie Emeka Okafor, and only 11 wins in the team’s first 50 games. But even the worst expansion teams usually have a honeymoon with fans.

Before the Bobcats, the NBA last expanded in 1995-96, with new teams in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Toronto. The results don’t bode well for Charlotte. Vancouver averaged 17,183 in its first season, though it won only 15 games. Attendance declined every year but one after that, and the team moved to Memphis for the 2001-02 season. Toronto won 21 games and averaged 23,179. Still, attendance fell nearly 30% by the team’s third season.

The Bobcats, of course, also must deal with the legacy of the Hornets, Charlotte’s first NBA franchise. The Hornets began play in 1988-89 and won only 20 times while averaging 23,172 fans a game. The team would average more than 23,000 fans its first 10 years in the league. Then a series of off-the-court transgressions by owner George Shinn and some players, Shinn’s inability to reach an agreement with the city on financing a new arena and other factors led to the team moving to New Orleans after the 2001-02 season.

Once Shinn left, city leaders decided to build the arena, which was the key to the NBA granting Charlotte a new franchise so quickly. But the downtown arena won’t open until this fall. Some, including team President Ed Tapscott, contend that’s the reason behind the Bobcats’ poor attendance. “Clearly, the old building has proven to be an issue,” he says. “There are some folks who did not want to return to the old building and all of the old memories that are part of it. And there are some who are just anticipating the building. We believe that next year will be very different.”

One difference will be ticket prices. The team hopes to boost ticket revenue 30% next season. Courtside seats will cost $275 per game — up from $115. The cheapest ticket will rise from $10 to $15. Despite those and other hikes, Tapscott insists that the average ticket price will increase just 7% to $39.12, well below the current NBA average of $45.28. He is confident attendance will increase but says it’s too early to discuss sales of season tickets or the arena’s 60 luxury suites. It can’t be good, though, that the team came out March 1 with a “money-back” guarantee for season-ticket holders for next season. Under the deal, they can get refunds if they aren’t satisfied after the first five home games. But it does not apply to purchases of luxury boxes or premium seats.

Max Muhleman, a Charlotte-based sports-marketing consultant, calls the new prices “a big shock.” He also believes that the team may have miscalculated the interest in NBA basketball by televising most of its games on a regional sports network available only in pricey cable-television packages. “If nobody is seeing them, they’re out of mind. That is a very risky thing.”

The regional network, C-SET, is the brainchild of Bobcats owner Bob Johnson. It’s available only to digital-cable customers. Time Warner Cable, one of C-SET’s carriers, has 2.7 million subscribers in the Carolinas, but only 600,000 have digital cable. Comporium Communications, which operates in Rock Hill and elsewhere in South Carolina, is the other C-SET carrier, adding 100,000 homes. That means the only opportunities most viewers have to see the Bobcats are the 15 games televised by a local station. “The question is, what’s most important to promote — a new sports franchise or a regional sports network?” Muhleman says.

The team, meanwhile, seems to be putting most of its promotional work into the arena. In February, it unveiled some features of the $265 million structure, including a massive scoreboard topped by a 3-D city skyline.

The team still needs to find a company to buy naming rights for the arena. Charlotte-based Bank of America and Wachovia already have their names attached to other sports venues. The most lucrative deal for an NBA-only arena is the $101 million over 20 years paid by Philips, the Netherlands-based electronics maker, to the Atlanta Hawks. “We are hopeful we will have something by the opening of the building,” Tapscott says.

The Bobcats compete for fans not only with other professional sports but with college basketball. Fans such as Couch say they prefer the college game over what they feel is an inferior NBA show. “It was only OK basketball,” he says. Still, he left the door open to coming back. “I wish the new arena had been built. It feels as if it’s a transition period until they’re in their new arena.”