Two weeks ago in Minnesota you couldn't give away tickets to an
NBA game. After a dispute over broadcast rights led to the
blackout of a Timberwolves game in 180,000 homes, the team
offered 5,000 free tickets to fans who had been affected. Only
1,178 were claimed.
In Memphis the sales staff is going door-to-door peddling
booklets of coupons that include a two-for-one deal on Grizzlies
tickets. In Cleveland crowds have been so sparse that during one
December game, when a fan in the upper deck yelled, "Hey, Gary!"
while the Sonics' Gary Payton was shooting free throws, Payton
took his shot, looked up and responded, "What?" In New Jersey the
defending Eastern Conference--champion Nets were averaging 14,644
fans at Continental Airlines Arena through Sunday. If a team
that's 21--2 at home has almost 6,000 tickets regularly go
begging, what hope is there for the Grizzlies and the Cavaliers?
Judging by the league's average attendance (which at 16,535
through Sunday was on pace to be the lowest since 1993--94), its
stagnant TV ratings and the results of a recent poll commissioned
by SI, people aren't as enthused about the NBA as they used to
be. In the poll of 1,000 randomly selected Americans only 11.1%
of those who identified themselves as NBA fans said they're more
interested in the league than they were five seasons ago.
Significantly, 40.1% said they are less interested in the NBA
(and 48.4% said their interest has stayed the same).
According to the survey, many of the reasons behind the fans'
disenchantment are beyond the NBA's control. By a nearly 2-to-1
ratio, respondents felt that the players are less charismatic
than they used to be--something no Adam Sandler commercial or
free T-shirt launched into the crowd can change--and by a similar
margin they disliked the trend of high school players entering
the league. The fans clearly believe that NBA players are less
interested than other pro athletes in winning than in making
money and that their conduct on and off the court is worse.
Within the last three weeks the league suspended the Pacers' Ron
Artest (four games), the Blazers' Rasheed Wallace (seven) and
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan (seven) for bad conduct, but it can't
control the players' attitudes.
Now the good news. Overall, 49.8% of the NBA fans polled said
that the influx of international players has increased their
interest, versus 24.1% who said it hasn't; among fans who said
their interest in the NBA has grown over the past five years,
71.5% like the foreign invasion. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin fans
believe that the players compete hard every night. Though the
highly coveted 18-to 24-year-old fans make up the league's
strongest demographic (49.7% said they're interested in the NBA),
that age-group showed the second-greatest drop-off in interest
(46.8% said they are less interested in the NBA than they were
five years ago). They are also the most forgiving, with positive
responses to every poll question but one: 73.3% disapprove of
high schoolers joining the league.
Other trends pop out. African-Americans showed the greatest
attraction to the league: Only 38.1% said they had no interest.
Female fans generally had better impressions than males (63.3% of
women said players compete hard, for example, compared with 54.1%
of men). Among respondents in the 45-to-54 range, 41.4% said they
were interested in the league, but this group most consistently
disliked tattoos (28.8%) and was the one most likely to say that
more white, U.S. stars would help the game (40.5%).
As for the reasons behind the drop in attendance, players have
their own ideas. After the Magic drew its smallest-ever home
crowd of 12,135 against the Knicks last month, Orlando All-Star
Tracy McGrady surmised that maybe "everyone stayed home to watch
that new show--Joe Millionaire." --C.B.
1. How interested would you say you are right now in the NBA?
Very interested 7.7%
Somewhat interested 13.6%
A little bit interested 16.4%
Not at all interested 62.1%
Don't know .2%
The following questions were asked of the 37.7% who, in response
to Question 1, expressed some interest in the NBA. (Respondents
not accounted for had no opinion.)
2. How much has your interest in the NBA changed since the
1997--98 season, when Michael Jordan left the Bulls?
Stayed the same 48.4%
Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
3. Most NBA players play hard every night.
4. The emerging NBA stars are less charismatic or likable than
the previous generation of stars.
5. Compared with players in other major professional sports, NBA
players are less interested in winning and more interested in
6. The conduct of NBA players on and off the court is better than
that of players in other professional sports.
7. There is not enough passing and ball movement in the NBA game.
8. The increase in the number of international players has made
the NBA more interesting to me.
9. Overall, the increasing number of high school players going
directly to the NBA is a good thing for the league.
10. The NBA would be more popular if it had more white,
U.S.--born stars like Larry Bird and John Stockton.
11. I'd like the NBA more if it had fewer players with tattoos.
To register your own answers to these questions, go to
These responses are from 1,000 randomly selected Americans (18
years and older) polled for SI by International Communications
Research between Jan. 17 and Jan. 21. (The margin of error for
Question 1 is ¬±3.1%; for the rest of the questions it is