By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – Go to a Pistons game at the glitzy Palace of Auburn Hills and you will be treated to dramatic introductions, laser-light shows, dunk contests with trampolines, half-naked dancers and continuous clips of high-energy rap and hip-hop songs.
Go to a Red Wings game at old-school Joe Louis Arena, and the entertainment consists of an occasional pee-wee hockey game at intermission and classic rock intermittently over the loudspeakers.
Let’s just say the experiences of attending an NBA game and an NHL game could not be more different, particularly in Detroit.
Despite the on-court hoopla, Yahoo Sports is reporting the NBA is having an “enthusiasm gap” while there’s suddenly an “unprecedented level of enthusiasm,” for NHL games.
In 2013-14, 15 NHL markets, including Detroit, are at or above 100 percent capacity on average. Thanks to Winter Classic, when more than 105,000 people crammed into the Big House in freezing temperatures to watch a puck from a million miles away, the Wings’ lead the NHL with 118 percent capacity.
The NBA on the other hand has only eight markets averaging 100 percent capacity — and the Pistons aren’t one of them.
It’s not for lack of trying on the Pistons’ part. So, what’s happening?
The fan demographics of the sports differ vastly, and the demographics of Detroit and its surrounding county match much more closely with those of NBA fans, which would seem to boost attendance for the sport — at least as much as the laser light shows.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 82.7 percent of Detroit’s 707,475 residents are African-American. Broadening the Detroit fan base to all Wayne County, 40.1 percent of the 1,792, 365 residents are African-American.
And According to Sports Business Daily, indexed with the U.S. population, an avid NBA fan – say, the type that might spend money and time to attend a game – is 2.48 times more likely to be African-American.
Hockey, on the other hand, has a fan base that is 86 percent white, according to another article of Sports Business Daily.
By demographics, if basketball can outdraw hockey anywhere in the country, Detroit should be that place.
So why, by the numbers, is hockey more popular even in a city like Detroit?
Certainly, the first answer that comes to mind is that the Pistons (14-22) have struggled this season after several years of languishing in the bottom of their division, while the Red Wings (19-14-10) have been to the playoffs 22 straight years and are still in the hunt this season.
Not everyone abandons a team because it is performing poorly, of course. Money is an issue when deciding whether to attend a game or just watch it on television. Right now, though, particularly in Detroit, basketball fans can attend Pistons games for about as much as they might pay to go see a movie.
Even from the team’s website, fans can buy tickets for as little as $10 each. Red Wings fans looking to purchase tickets from the team could be looking at $60 for even some of the least expensive seating sections. On StubHub, a secondary ticket market website, fans can get Pistons tickets for single-digit dollar amounts, which would make the $10 parking more expensive than admission. Even on StubHub, Red Wings tickets rarely fall below $30.
The Pistons, conversely, do not even rank in the top 20 of NBA teams in average attendance, despite all the spectacular sideshows that entertain fans throughout the game and sometimes outshine the actual basketball.
At one Pistons game attended by this reporter – a rare Detroit win, at that – the moment that drew probably more cheers than any other involved a dance-off between a random youth in the crowd and the so-called “dancing usher,” who is in fact employed by the organization primarily as an entertainer.
At a Red Wings game attended by this reporter, the crowd stayed loud and involved for much of the game. Cheers echoed around the arena, widely characterized as out-of-date but kind of charming in a throwback sort of way.
It appears that, demographics and cost aside, people are largely losing interest in the product of the NBA. At the very least, fewer fans are bothering to spend their time and money to see their teams live and in person.
Sports fans on Twitter offered a variety of reasons for gap in popularity between the NHL and the NBA.
Whether fans are staying away from NBA games because of the perceived lack of defense, “super teams” that collude various superstars on just a few teams, or any other number of factors, it seems clear that the league is not what it used to be in terms of popularity – in Detroit or anywhere else.