Pistons see bump in ticket sales despite empty seats

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
The Pistons are averaging about 17,139 fans this season at Little Caesars Arena, which is 19th in the NBA. Last season, the Pistons ranked 25th in the NBA in attendance with an average of 15,979 a game at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Detroit — Toney Moore sat perched on the front row in the stands behind the baseline at Little Caesars Arena on Monday. An avid basketball fan, Moore, 60, has been a regular at Pistons games and now has a shorter drive to get to them, after the move downtown from The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Moore, 60, a retiree from Detroit, is emblematic of what the Pistons had hoped to see after the move, to help spur ticket sales: fans who made the move with them.

“When I heard they were moving to Detroit, I jumped right on it,” Moore said.

Moore said he was a season-ticket holder at The Palace but when the prices jumped from about $55,000 to about $75,000 for his tickets, he decided not to renew. Instead, he purchased tickets for individual games.

On Wednesday, his seats were in the front row on the floor. It’s not the same seat every game for Moore and it likely will end up costing more for Moore in the end.

In the end, it’s all a change.

Change is gradual and the first part is always the hardest.

That’s an easy way to describe the Pistons’ season-ticket situation in their first season after the move downtown to Little Caesars Arena. In many ways, ticket sales have been better than expected, Pistons officials say.

One of their key measures, full-season equivalents — combinations of full-season, half-season and 10-game packs — increased by 3,500, a jump that ranked third in the NBA this season. Group-ticket sales have increased 52 percent over last year, a rise that ranks second in the league.

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Those numbers are encouraging signs of an impending uptick, but they belie the eye test of the scores of empty seats during Pistons home games, which have been highlighted on nationally televised games because of the bright red seats.

This week, the Pistons, in a corporate partnership with Art Van Furniture, added black seat-back covers to thousands of seats in the lower bowl, easing the visual impact of having empty seats during games, but it still doesn’t fill those seats with fans.

Attendance at Pistons games is a complex issue, tied to building a winning team maybe even more so than the move to the $863-million new arena in a partnership with the Red Wings. As many fans and pundits argue that the Pistons are having trouble selling out the new arena, the reality is that it’s not a new issue.

The Pistons have had five sellouts at Little Caesars Arena this season compared to two last season at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Last season, the Pistons ranked 25th in the NBA in attendance, with a total of 655,141 fans in 41 home games. That’s an average of 15,979 per game — or about 72.1 percent of available tickets. That percentage ranked last in the league last season.

The numbers this year are a bit more encouraging. The attendance figures have jumped to 531,316 total, ranking 19th in the league, averaging about 17,139 in 31 home games. They have five sellouts this season — compared to two all of last season — and have an 80-percent renewal rate of season-ticket holders from The Palace.

That’s where fans like Moore play such an important role.

“If you look at The Palace versus (LCA), year over year, we’re up 30 percent of people in the building,” Brad Lott, senior vice president of sales for the Pistons, told The Detroit News. “That’s an amazing stat. We’ve been excited by what we’re seeing.”

The Pistons’ increases in attendance rank are among the best in the NBA, jumping from 25th to 19th — behind the Philadelphia 76ers (rose from 18th to third) and Denver Nuggets (30th to 21st). Location has helped, going to a more-populated downtown center. Gameday ticket sales are up 55 percent over last season, attributed to more fans who make impromptu decisions to attend games, shown in walk-up ticket sales increasing between three and four times the 2016-17 numbers.

With only 10 more regular-season games remaining, the Pistons likely will beat their attendance mark from last season, but they’re still looking for bigger increases in season-ticket sales, which are the lifeblood of an organization.

“Season tickets, that’s where we’re going to see (a jump). Based on what we’re seeing right now and very early on, we could match what we did last year in new season tickets,” Lott said. “We anticipate another 3,000-plus new season-tickets next year.

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“If we do that, we’re on to something and starting to get back in the 12,000 season-ticket range — and if you get into that range, you start selling out every night. That’s what we’re hoping for and driving toward.”

For season-ticket holders such as Ozie Pye IV, the amenities such as the Players Club, which includes food and beverages in the package, the upgrades at Little Caesars Arena made the move to Detroit worth it. Pye, who has had season tickets for five years, enjoys the ambiance and atmosphere, where he’s able to network and meet other fans — in addition to watching the game.

“It’s just an awesome experience,” Pye said. “I enjoy it on account of what it is. Even if the team is losing, it’s not going to make me reconsider coming. It’s still fun with all the things and people.”

Blake effect

The Pistons and their fan base got a jolt with the addition of Blake Griffin on Jan. 29 in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, adding star power to a roster that’s lacked a superstar name for decades.

Griffin’s arrival hasn’t translated to an immediate spike in tickets sales, though. Pistons owner Tom Gores said acquiring Griffin could have a residual effect but that wasn’t the push to get Griffin.

“I didn’t really concentrate on that. Additional buzz and excitement is always good for an organization,” Gores said. “I did consider the buzz it would bring to our players and our organization; I didn’t think for a second about filling the stadium — that would be very short-term — if it didn’t work, we’d have fans vanishing.

In Griffin’s first game with the Pistons, against the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday, Feb. 1, the Pistons drew 17,481. The next matchup, a Saturday win over the Miami Heat, generated 18,747 and the following game, against the Portland Trail Blazers, on Monday, was 13,810.

The Pistons were on a five-game win streak in the week after getting Griffin but the attendance numbers fluctuated. Even in the matchup against superstar Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, the crowd was just 14,453.

Some of the numbers have to do with days of the games. Weekends are generally best, but because the Pistons don’t have any control over their schedule, they have to work harder to overcome obstacles like getting Davis on a Monday night.

“Mondays (are hardest), hands down — it doesn’t matter which year or opponent — nothing will skew that; they are always our lowest-attended games both in usage rate (tickets sold) and sales,” Lott said. “Saturdays are always our best: Saturday, Friday, Sunday, Thursday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Monday.”

No matter the day, the Pistons are looking to get to the playoffs, where they could see bigger revenues from the extra dates — and with it, a greater demand for tickets, with a winning product.

It’s a numbers game, but the Pistons will keep pushing — on and off the court — to try to keep building.


Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard