Double dribble: Downtown move a mixed bag for Pistons
Detroit — Eight months ago, Little Caesars Arena opened downtown, amid pomp and circumstance, as the crown jewel of the District Detroit, a new entertainment district. The Pistons joined in partnership with the Red Wings and Ilitch Holdings, and those franchises ushered in a new era in Detroit sports as the home for both teams, just blocks away from the Tigers at Comerica Park and the Lions at Ford Field.
At a cost of $863 million, the arena was hailed as a technological marvel and template for future sports venues. Nestled north of the other major sports facilities, LCA added a new vibe to the downtown area, with restaurants and pedestrian-friendly outdoor areas, even on non-event days.
“Overall, the first season at LCA and the move downtown was beyond our expectations. We’re extremely pleased,” Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem told The Detroit News. “Being downtown and being a part of the action made it more exciting for our fans and the community.”
Although there were plenty of positives, there were some areas for improvement that emerged during the Pistons’ first season downtown.
Here’s a look at some of the positives and negatives from the first season at Little Caesars Arena:
ARENA DESIGN AND SETUP
LCA has one of the largest center-hung scoreboards in the world and boasts more than 1,300 television monitors around the arena.
Because of the timing of the Pistons’ announcement in moving downtown, much of the construction was done with only the Red Wings in mind, but there will be more Pistons statues and paraphernalia in the future.
“I would like for Little Caesars to feel more like the Pistons’ home, not merely an afterthought,” said Pistons fan Nick Jones, 37, of Detroit.
The Red Wings’ practice facility — which also doubles as the home ice for amateur teams — is a nice touch. The Pistons are constructing their own practice facility in Midtown, but that won’t be ready until summer 2019.
The design and setup of the arena made it a must-see for many fans, and as a concert venue, it already is among the most favorably reviewed in the country. Among sports venues, LCA is one of six finalists for the SportsBusiness Journal’s award for Sports Facility of the Year, which will be announced May 23.
Pistons owner Tom Gores hinted for years that he wanted to move the team downtown and, in November 2016, announced his intention to partner with the Red Wings. Although the Pistons had The Palace — still a quality venue — Gores was determined to head downtown.
The Pistons had a built-in fan base in northern Oakland County and the move meant a change to accommodate Detroiters and fans in the Downriver and Wayne County areas. LCA is in the old Cass Corridor, a blight-filled area that is being transformed into the District Detroit.
“I live in Detroit, so it’s definitely a pleasure,” said Shanea Ashley, 35, about going to Pistons games at LCA. “I went to Cass Tech High School, so I am well aware of the transformation that has taken place. I believe it is going to continue to be a domino effect and the clean-up efforts will spread even further out.
“It is great for the city. Visitors usually wouldn’t wander to much in that area. It has a much safer feeling, but you still have to be aware of your surroundings.”
The move downtown resulted in a modest increase in paid attendance — about 1,500 more fans per game.
In the final season at The Palace, the Pistons averaged 15,979 fans, ranking 25th in the 30-team NBA. In the first season at LCA, the Pistons averaged 17,413 and climbed to 19th in the NBA.
Both franchises like to cater to their season-ticketholder base and provide an excellent fan experience. They succeeded in some ways at LCA, but not across the board. The suites and areas for season-ticketholders were in the lower bowl and provided some good sight lines, but the service lacked, as they didn’t provide seat service until late in the season.
“It was different at The Palace and the treatment for the season-ticketholders was night and day,” said Tony Burnett, 53, a season-ticketholder at The Palace who went to about 10-15 Pistons games this season at LCA. “Fans who buy $200 seats got spoiled at The Palace; (at Little Caesars Arena), they didn’t have a clue (about VIP service).
“(At The Palace) it felt like an event; here, it seems low-budget and they squeeze fans into the environment. The seats are tighter and it just wasn’t VIP treatment. When I buy tickets, it’s part to see the game and part to be treated nicely. I didn’t get that. I know it was the first year, but it wasn’t a good experience.”
THE RED SEATS
Because the Red Wings were the primary tenant, they handled most of the original design choices, including the red seats all over the arena. That became one of the biggest stories of the first season at the arena, as those bright red seats showed prominently on television, highlighting the struggles of getting those seats filled.
Most of the red seats in the lower bowl are club seats, which brought higher prices, but the residual impact was that many of those fans ended up in the many clubs in the arena, rather than in their seats watching the games.
The Pistons had come from the neutral-colored grey seats at The Palace and even in their leanest years, didn’t have similar issues throughout the season with the attention for not selling out the lower bowl. Toward the end of the season, the Pistons negotiated a deal with Art Van Furniture to add branded black seat covers to the red seats in the lower bowl, which helped with the visual aesthetic.
The Palace had its own parking lot, which accommodated all the fans for games. Downtown, however, parking became a problem.
“Parking was the biggest issue we heard from fans. It did get better by the end of the season,” Tellem said. “We have ideas of how to improve it and we’re discussing those with Olympia Entertainment. It’s still the No. 1 issue.”
The lots closest to the arena cost as much as $40 and still involve a bit of walking to get to LCA. More parking structures are still in construction, so parking should improve. But congestion still is a major stumbling block that some fans said prevents them from wanting to go to games at all.
“Sometimes coming from work, I’d miss the whole first quarter looking for a parking spot,” said Stephanie Bagnik, 30, of Clinton Township.
MORE LOSING, MORE COST
With the Pistons and Red Wings both missing the playoffs in 2016-17, there was some optimism that a new arena would attract fans in droves. There was some early intrigue in the new venue, but even early in the season, empty seats were abundant.
The Pistons had a 14-6 start to the season and were one of the surprise teams in the NBA, but that momentum fizzled. Both teams ended up missing the postseason again, but both teams had respectable attendance figures.
Adding Blake Griffin at the end of January brought some additional fan buzz, but as the Pistons dipped to mediocrity, the optimism fizzled.
As expected, getting a new arena meant ticket prices would increase.
“I found ticket prices to be a bit steeper than The Palace, something I don’t really like, but in 2018, there are different ways to buy tickets, which make it better,” said Philip Shaw, of Dresden, Ontario. “My fan experience at LCA is good, but not really any better than The Palace.”
The Pistons’ attendance the last five seasons at The Palace and the first season at Little Caesars Arena:
2012-13: 14,782 / 28th in NBA (29-53 record)
2013-14: 15,005 / 26th (29-53)
2014-15: 15,266 / 26th (32-50)
2015-16: 16,515 / 25th (44-38)
2016-17: 15,979 / 25th (37-45)
LITTLE CAESARS ARENA
2017-18: 17,413 / 19th (39-43)
Where they rank
The Pistons were 19th in the NBA in 2017-18 in average attendance at Little Caesars Arena with 17,413.
1. Chicago — 20,776
2. Cleveland — 20,562
3. Philadelphia — 20,329
4. Toronto — 19,839
5. Dallas — 19,791
6. Miami — 19,631
7. Golden State — 19,596
8. Portland — 19,398
9. New York — 19,331
10. L.A. Lakers — 18,934
11. Boston — 18,624
12. San Antonio — 18,403
13. Oklahoma City — 18,203
14. Washington — 17,973
15. Utah — 17,922
16. Houston — 17,900
17. Orlando — 17,893
18. Sacramento — 17,555
19. Detroit — 17,413
20. Denver — 17,141
21. Minnesota — 17,056
22. L.A. Clippers — 17,019
23. Phoenix — 16,866
24. Milwaukee — 16,714
25. New Orleans — 16,437
26. Charlotte — 16,375
27. Indiana — 16,051
28. Memphis — 15,947
29. Brooklyn — 15,556
30. Atlanta — 14,409