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Tough to find selling points

Fans don't flock to NBA exhibition games. Economy gets some of the blame, but many simply can't afford the regular-season prices.

October 15, 2008|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Amid the bright lights of America's most sinfully extravagant city, the NBA's glitziest team filled slightly more than half an arena last weekend.

It was a bit colder than usual around these parts, but even the Lakers were feeling the chill of the economy.

The Lakers secured an impressive 99% renewal for season-ticket holders, but their exhibition games this month have been played in front of surprisingly sparse crowds in venues outside Los Angeles.

A game in Anaheim against Utah was filled to two-thirds capacity, if that. A game in Fresno against the Clippers would have been lucky to be that well-attended. Plenty of tickets were available for the Lakers' annual trip to Vegas, where an announced crowd of 11,090 looked thin in an arena with room for more than 18,500.

Such games used to be less-expensive causes of celebration for Lakers followers who eagerly awaited Kobe and Shaq in cities such as Bakersfield, Albuquerque and Little Rock.

Now, despite the franchise's return to relevancy and the presence of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, preseason games are being viewed by some as a mandatory eight-game sentence before the real deal begins Oct. 28 against Portland.

The financial downturn has trickled down to the Lakers, at least for two more weeks.

"You have to attribute some of it to the economy, given that we're all kind of counting pennies right now," said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw sports marketing center at the University of Oregon. "People are saying, 'The circus is coming to town, but I guess I'm going to skip it this year.' People usually have plenty of options. Maybe their best option is to stay home."

When teams play at their arenas, they charge regular-season prices for exhibitions. Sometimes the fans get a break. Courtside seats for the Lakers-Charlotte game next week in San Diego are "only" $300, well off the $2,600 cost for a regular-season game at Staples Center.

When the Lakers were rolling in the success of three consecutive championships earlier this decade, their exhibition games packed a punch -- and so did some of their players. In one example, Rick Fox and Sacramento's Doug Christie fought during an exhibition in 2002 at Staples Center.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who owns nine NBA championship rings, recently reminisced about the way things used to be in October, reaching back into history when asked if he ever considered the importance of winning exhibition games.

"I suppose when I first coached, we were trying to get something established," he said. "Plus, we were playing in places like the Superdome in New Orleans in front of 30,000 people. The games had a real crowd sense of meaning."

These days, perhaps only two things put fans in seats for preseason games -- gimmickry and giddiness.

A full house of 16,236 braved chilly weather and windy conditions to see Phoenix and Denver play on an outdoor tennis court last weekend at Indian Wells, an event billed by the league as "NBA Outdoors!"

Portland fans have flocked to the Trail Blazers' first three exhibitions to get early looks at heralded center Greg Oden, who sat out last season because of a knee injury. Average announced attendance for those games: 19,049.

Other than that, the main things exhibited have been a lot of empty seats.

Fans in a half-full Tulsa arena witnessed Kevin Durant's 26-point effort in Oklahoma City's first game in its new state.

Former USC star O.J. Mayo also had 26 points and drilled six three-pointers in a preseason game in Memphis, Tenn., where his new team resides. The announced attendance was 7,793, but one observer put it closer to half that number.

"In a lot of domestic markets, you're going to have to be pretty creative to get people to come and watch," Swangard said. "It's hard to see an NBA product when it's not the full meal deal."

Other teams might really feel the pinch when the regular season begins, but don't feel too sorry for the Lakers.

The NBA recently laid off about 9% of its U.S. workforce because of what Commissioner David Stern called a "wobbly" economy, but the low-attendance trend is not expected to continue for the Lakers during the regular season given that the team is expected to contend for a championship.

The Lakers were a noteworthy 20% above the league average for season-ticket renewals, which, for the Lakers, included tickets for two exhibition games taking place this weekend at Staples Center.

The team has three more exhibitions after that, in San Diego, Anaheim and Ontario.

Then they can count on packed arenas in at least one place -- their own backyard.

"It's kind of a painful process you have to go through in this sport," Jackson said of the month-long exhibition season. "We'd just assume have a week and then get into it. But this is part of the process that has been designated for us, so we go through this and we do it to the best of our ability with a grin on our face."


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