Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Baby Come Back

It's amazing how certain topics develop a gravity of their own suddenly. The hot topic right now seems to be "What, if anything, will bring the fans back to the Garden?" Predictably, folks have divided into two camps, loosely defined as "more winning" and "better character/less embarassment". As usual, both sides are right...and wrong.

Those who would support winning as the only sinecure point out the rabid following the team had during its 20+ year playoff run and the dismal attendance since. It's a compelling argument circumstantially, and I don't think anyone would argue that winning is a near fail-safe recipe for attendance success. But evidence points to Portland being a particular case which, if not exactly an exception to that rule, at least modifies it somewhat.

Attendance figures are always a tricky thing. Teams control their own data. They release figures that reflect tickets sold rather than turnstiles cranked. Furthermore "sold" is a loose concept, since teams often count tickets given away (to charities and the like) in this figure. Therefore the final attendance number may or may not reflect the actual number of people who went to the game.

Nevertheless, the figures available (from ESPN.com) look like this, by Year, Record, and Average Attendance per Game:

2002-03 Rec: 50-32 Att: 19,420
2003-04 Rec: 41-41 Att: 16,585
2004-05 Rec: 27-55 Att: 16,594
2005-06 Rec: 21-61 Att: 15,053

Technically speaking attendance dropped with record, but the most significant drop came in 2003-04. This followed an '02-'03 campaign that was successful in the regular season and provided arguably the most exciting playoff series since the 2000 Western Conference Finals (7 games with Dallas). The '03-'04 season should have been one of optimism. The record that season wasn't bad either. You can say we missed the playoffs, but only by two games. And that fate wasn't evident until the last few games of the season...hardly enough to influence overall attedance averages. Blazer fans had remained loyal through many such seasons in the previous two decades. There's nothing in the numbers that would explain the sudden drop.

So what happened to kill the attendance? As every Blazer fan knows, 2002-04 were the prime years of the "Jailblazer" era. Some of the key figures predate those years, of course, but that period brought the media explosion and attendant public scrutiny. And despite the acceptable level of winning and the possibility of another playoff trip, the fans left.

Granted, you'll never sell out a season with a team that wins 20 games. But only a serious championship run would provide enough raw winning to get people to overlook glaring warts on a team that's provided a non-stop buffet of them since the turn of the century. 41-41 just won't do it. Because of the level of success required, saying, "We just need to win to bring people back" is about the same as saying, "This team would be a whole lot better if we could just get Michael Jordan on it." Yeah, that would work...but good luck there, Sparky.

On the other side of the coin you have those who would highlight the small-town nature of the fans' relationship with the Blazers. They paint a picture of naïveté...the fans as Little Red Riding Hood who have been set upon by the Big Bad Whitsitt/Allen/Vulcan/Sheed/Whoever. History doesn't bear this out either. Fans knew who Ruben was when we got him. They came and they cheered. Fans began to doubt Sheed's mental state in the 41 technical year. They came and they cheered. Isaiah Rider, Bonzi Wells, Darius Miles...whatever issues fans had with them, when they got on the court and scored or dunked, the fans still cheered. In fact if memory serves, for the most part fans only really turned on players when the character issues showed evidence in declining performance between the lines. We may have character qualms, but they don't necessarily trump our lust for victories, or at least a good play.

This year was relatively clean character-wise. The fans weren't back. Nor do I expect them back next season, which should be even cleaner, but still bring an enormous amount of losses. Winning alone may not provide a solution, but the statement "If they just clean up their act we'll come back" doesn't tell the whole story either.

Because I know many devoted fans that stretch back clear to our expansion year, I tend to err more on the side of "we just want a team that won't embarrass us" than "we have to win to get support". After the sell-out streak, Blazermania, and all that, I think we owe the fans that much credit until proven otherwise. But clearly winning and a solid team are both necessary at some point.

I think part of the problem in this argument is that people assume that all fans share their outlook, which in turn is largely a product of demographics and/or cultural priorities. I HATE to over-generalize and I know there are plenty of exceptions (including maybe me), but I would guess that there are a group of 18-35 year old males out there who just want to see the team win, whatever it takes. There are also senior citizen former season-ticket holders who say, "I don't care how much they win if they don't behave acceptably." (Then there are corporate sponsors who need to see both, but that's another story...) But there aren't enough 18-35 year old guys with sufficient money and interest to fill the Rose Garden every night. Neither are there enough seniors. Most fans lie in the middle somewhere, which is why you have to have both. You need some level of character to keep broad-based fan support, but how will the average fan know how much character you've got unless you win a little first to get them interested?

In the end all of this is just an extension of the old chestnut of "character vs. talent". Acquiring character without talent will lead us nowhere. But then again we just tried the talent without character approach and it didn't work either. (Unless, of course, you consider 41 wins "working". And if you're putting up all this fuss for the ultimate goal of a .500 record and a first-round playoff bounce I feel sad for you.) Pitting character against talent/victories is a false dichotomy, on the court and in the stands. Forcing an either-or choice between the two is simply asking which way you prefer to lose. The only way to succeed, especially in this market, is to insist on both.

--Dave

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