Empty seats for Pistons, Wings games draw questions
Detroit — The Red Wings say they have sold out all of the home games in Little Caesars Arena, and the Pistons tout their brisker sales after leaving The Palace of Auburn Hills.
And yet, a sea of red seats lie empty while they play.
A combination of factors, including the performances of the two teams and trends in sport, are making the inauguration of the new arena appear like a bit of a bust.
Both teams say spectators are on the concourse, where food and drink are available on the equivalent of a public square, and large screens display the games.
And throughout large blocks of seats in the lower bowl, straddling either center ice or center court, fans have easy access to clubs directly under the stands.
There, the spreads are lavish, the bars well-stocked and the games shown on big screens.
Meanwhile, with seasons just beginning and neither the Red Wings nor the Pistons at their best in recent years, the number of no-show ticket-holders is unclear.
And the teams play in a building that offers brand-new experiences.
“That kind of explains why there is milling around and watching the arena, not the game that is being played,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who studies the business of sport.
“Particularly early in the season, particularly when you don’t have an exciting club, it’s not atypical to have ticket sales way above turnstile count — the people who actually show up at the arena.
“It’s not unusual for there to be a discount of even 20 or 30 percent, in that regard.”
The Red Wings reported sellouts of 19,515 for each of their five home games. But periods begin with seats looking about half to two-thirds full, with many fans still on the concourse.
By the middle of periods, as fans filter back to their seats, it appears that the big bowl attains about 75 percent to 80 percent of capacity. And then, toward the end of play, an increasing number of fans leave for the concourse, again.
“I like that the ushers don’t let you back to your seats unless there is a whistle; it’s a good policy,” said Joey Giordano of Clinton Township. “It keeps the aisles clear.
“But, man, you can get caught out here,” he said, motioning to the grand concourse with a full beer in each hand. “I kind of mistimed this run.
“But I’m not alone. I think people start watching the TVs and just like hanging out.”
‘We’re very happy’
The Wings say they are still evaluating why seats are empty, including the rate of no-shows. They do not release the number of no-shows.
Some ameliorative initiatives have begun, like routinely announcing when periods are about to begin.
The Pistons have 976 more seats, at courtside, for a capacity of 20,491. They report an average attendance of 16,576 through five games, including one sellout.
Pistons officials say they are pleased because 3,000 new season-ticket customers more than offset the loss of 20 percent in the move from The Palace.
“When you make a move, a renewal rate is something you have to keep an eye on,” said Charlie Metzger, the Pistons’ chief revenue and operating officer. “We’re thrilled with the move downtown.
“The building is brand new, so a lot of people are exploring things. But we’re very happy with where we are.”
Metzger said walk-up sales have increased 50 percent moving to Woodward from Oakland County.
Once the fans come, there is a lot to do other than watch the game.
The concourse, with new menus to peruse, is like a big club for fans without club seats.
And then there is the club seating.
To enter what is essentially a private sports bar, fans simply stand up, move to the aisle and walk up a few steps and through an entryway.
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It is all more than a little different from Joe Louis Arena, which the city built in great haste in 1979 to keep the Red Wings in town. And it is different even from The Palace, despite it once being state of the art.
“One of the things we’ve talked about a lot is that people are enjoying the events in different ways than they did before,” said Tom Wilson, president of Olympia Entertainment, who has directed the development and operation of Little Caesars Arena and The Palace.
“It’s evolved from where it’s the game, the game, the game, or the concert, the concert, the concert, to where the game is the central reason I’m coming, or the concert’s the central reason, but I’m down here for social time.
“I want to have dinner before the game or the concert, I want to walk the streets afterward or I want to socialize and see people.”
What results is fewer people in the seats, and the vivid, deep Red Wings’ red of the upholstery heralding the vacancy.
“I haven’t been to the new stadium yet, but when the Wings are on TV, it is very noticeable — the empty seats,” said Bob Weltman of Huntington Woods. “I realize those seats are season ticket-holders, but they have not been resold on the website that makes them available.
“The product on the ice has to get a lot better to fill those expensive seats as the uniqueness of the new stadium starts to wear off.”
Contributing, especially for the Red Wings, is an undetermined number of no-shows.
After 25 seasons in the playoffs, six trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and four of the franchise’s 11 Cups during the run, the Wings’ roster is in flux.
The Pistons made the playoffs in the 2015-16 season for the first time in seven years. The last time they won the championship was 2004.
“Unless somebody is doing surveys, we can’t know why purchased seats are empty,” said Rodney Fort, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan.
“Listing possibilities is easy.”
Among them, Fort said, the Wings’ and Pistons’ seasons have just started, people time their commutes with new routes and places to park, “a pretty great World Series” that just ended and some warmer-than-usual weather in October.
It clearly is not the best look on regional, national and international broadcasts.
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The unoccupied space also utterly defeats, at least for now, the Red Wings’ plan for a spectator bowl that intimidates opponents.
Coaches and players noticed it from the first night.
“That’s one of the challenges of a great building with so much to offer, especially with a new building where they’re checking things out,” Coach Jeff Blashill said.
“And we need them in the stands.
“It’s a loud building. So it will be a huge home ice advantage when they’re in the stands.”
Plenty of distractions
The phenomenon is occurring at other new venues, too. Both Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in Atlanta, and Rogers Place in Edmonton have empty seats attributed to fans roaming.
Some sports business executives and experts say it is a product of two broad trends.
All sports now grapple with evolving viewing habits and shorter attention spans. Meanwhile, franchises pack attractions into their venues to lure and accommodate fans.
In Joe Louis Arena, never did the socializing or experiences beyond the game come so easily or extravagantly.
Fans watching games televised at The Joe noted the empty seats low in the bowl as play progressed. Higher, most of the seats were full.
After the periods started and play progressed, eventually, the lower seats would mostly fill in, also.
Some season-ticket holders and companies that use games to entertain customers and clients and rewarding employees were more lax about attending.
Joe Louis Arena existed for hockey, with enough refreshment and entertainment to make it through the game and leave.
But Little Caesars Arena, built at a cost of $869 million, exists to provide an evening on the town, in one venue.
While there is some spillover on the streets of downtown Detroit and portions of the Cass Corridor and Virginia Park are renewed, the concourse itself is the main street of the operation.
Wilson said that while the building is new, the ancillary attraction is likely to be greater. But it will never fade entirely.
Nor is the willingness of fans to focus solely on the games likely to be renewed until both teams play better.
“Eventually the game or the concert is going to bring you back, and when you’ve experienced the building for seven or eight times, you’ll spend more time in the seats enjoying the game,” Wilson said.
FILLING THE SEATS
Attendance figures so far for the Red Wings and Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.
Oct. 5: Minnesota: 19,515
Oct. 16: Tampa Bay: 19,515
Oct. 20: Washington: 19,515
Oct. 22: Vancouver: 19,515
Oct. 31: Arizona: 19,515
Oct. 18: Charlotte: 20,491
Oct. 23: Philadelphia: 13,709
Oct. 25: Minnesota: 13,790
Nov. 3: Milwaukee: 17,207
Nov. 4: Sacramento: 17,683