Minnesota Timberwolves attendance lowest since 2003-2004 season
MINNEAPOLIS -- During some lackluster games at Target Center this season, the crowd's crescendo hasn't hinged on the Minnesota Timberwolves winning or losing. The fever pitch has come when a free frozen yogurt is on the line.In the fourth quarter...
MINNEAPOLIS - During some lackluster games at Target Center this season, the crowd’s crescendo hasn’t hinged on the Minnesota Timberwolves winning or losing. The fever pitch has come when a free frozen yogurt is on the line.
In the fourth quarter, the arena’s announcer will say, “It’s Cherry Berry time!” when an opponent steps to the free-throw line. If the player misses both shots, the few fans in attendance cheer their good fortune: a gratis gelato or yogurt.
Despite having consecutive No. 1 draft picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves have seen a decrease of 300 fans per game this season. Their average home attendance (14,229) is the franchise’s lowest mark since 2003-04 and ranks 29th among 30 NBA teams.
“I always think it’s a process, and hope springs eternal,” Wolves President Chris Wright said. “When you have some incredible pieces like we have, the market is going to still play a game of wait and see.”
On the attendance decrease, Wright pointed to ending discounted tickets in the upper deck. More importantly, Wright watches “two leading indicators” of increasing interest in the Wolves.
First, the Wolves say single-game tickets are up 50 percent over last season, though Wright declined to share hard numbers.
Second, TV ratings on Fox Sports North are up 28 percent across the first 23 home games compared with last year, the station said. The age 25-49 demographic is up 155 percent over last season, and viewership among millennials (ages 18-34) is up 49 percent.
“If those two, from a historical standpoint, hold up, then we think the path forward is a very strong one,” Wright said.
The bottom line, however, is that winning games cranks the turnstiles, and the Wolves (14-32) have the fourth-worst record in the league. They are on pace to miss the playoffs for a 12th straight season, which would tie Golden State (1995-2006) for the longest playoff drought since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984.
Since Minnesota last made the playoffs, a run that extended to the Western Conference finals in 2003-04, the Wolves’ attendance has dropped 15 percent. The Wolves were 11th in the league with an average of 17,635 fans per game when Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell led the franchise to heights unseen before or since.
After Garnett was traded to Boston in July 2007, attendance bottomed out at 14,476 in 2007-08.
When Ricky Rubio dazzled in his rookie year and the Wolves flirted with .500 in 2011-12, attendance shot back above 17,000. Then turnout has slid in each of the following four years.
Although attendance has ebbed, flowed and ebbed since 2003-04, the Wolves have had the 12th-worst drop in home attendance across the 122 franchises in the four major sports, according to the financial news company 24/7 Wall St. Franchises that moved into new stadiums or arenas were not included in the study.
Douglas McIntyre, editor-in-chief of 24/7 Wall St., said a player or two such as Wiggins and Towns won’t produce an immediate windfall at the box office.
“I think the issue of whether you’ve acquired one player may not be enough to move the needle by 100,000 people - unless they bring Babe Ruth back,” McIntyre said.
Although Towns and Wiggins probably won’t reach the mythical heights of baseball’s Sultan of Swat, their early returns have been very promising. Wiggins won NBA rookie of the year last season, and Towns took home Western Conference rookie of the month honors for October/November and December.
Last summer, first impressions made it look as if Wolves fans would come out in droves this season.
When the NBA draft party at Target Center was in full swing last June, about 8,000 fans roared when the Wolves selected the dynamic Towns with the franchise’s first-ever top pick.
In July, a massive line of fans snaked for blocks through Minneapolis skyways to get into the arena and watch Towns, Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Tyus Jones in a free scrimmage. The turnout was estimated at 15,000.
Lifelong Wolves fan Adam Webb saw the buzz around the team last summer and bought a 15-game package. In years past, Webb often scooped up tickets to 10 to 20 games for less than face value on the secondary market.
“This year, I thought the tickets might not be below face value because I thought the Wolves were going to be decent, so I decided to buy a package,” Webb said laughing. “I was mistaken.”
Webb said the Wolves’ sales reps have taken good care of him. They’ve hooked him up with free tickets to additional games as well as other perks.
“I do think they do a good job with the fan experience there,” said Webb, who runs the Two Man Wolf Pack podcast.
Webb does have one gripe, though. The Wolves ditched all paper tickets in favor of digital this season. Fans now download Flash Seats software and show the app on their smartphone to the arena’s ticket taker, who then prints off a stub for fans to get in. The Lynx and Wolves were the first two pro teams to go to 100 percent digital tickets, Wright said.
Webb said the system works well when he uses the tickets, but his critique is when he has twice tried to sell tickets to games he can’t attend. Webb said Flash Seats and the Wolves have set a price floor at 75 percent of face value.
“So I can’t sell them for lower than that, and I think it’s a ridiculous policy,” Webb said.
Webb said the market value for his seats on the upper edges of the lower bowl can be lower than 75 percent, especially for midweek games against mediocre or bad teams.
“What happened is Flash Seats limits the secondary market, so my guess is a lot of the tickets go unused,” Webb said.
At some Wolves games this season, half of the lower bowl has been empty. The arena can get so quiet fans can hear interim coach Sam Mitchell yell at the officials, and fans can be heard yelling at Mitchell and the refs.
And then there are games such as Saturday night’s 106-101 victory over Memphis, when the lower bowl is almost full and very lively as the game went down to the final possessions.