Missing Fans

Anyone who has been to a Milwaukee Bucks game during the past decade knows the Bradley Center isn’t exactly a hot bed for NBA talent, or passionate fan support. Since the 2000-2001 season, the Bucks have posted a record of 363-457 while drawing an average attendance of 15,938 fans per game. The Bradley Center holds a capacity of 18,717. While the Bucks have been stuck in mediocrity since their magical run to the Easter Conference Finals in the 2000-2001 campaign, the attendance has fallen closer and closer to the bottom of the league. Attendance has gotten so bad; in fact, the numbers for the 2011-2012 season are setting record lows.

Don Walker, a sports business analyst for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recently published a blog documenting the Bucks attendance woes this season. The Bucks are averaging 14,747 fans per game. That is the lowest per-game average the Bucks have experienced since moving to the Bradley Center in 1988. The number currently ranks 26th in the NBA out of a possible 30 teams. This second lowest per-game attendance average for the Bucks was during the 2009-2010 season; a year when the Bucks made a run to the Playoffs. The per-game average that season was 15,109.

So why aren’t fans going to the games? Casual Bucks fan Pedar Steinquist offers a simple answer.

“A lot of times I just go to watch the other team, to watch stars,” Steinquist says. “Tonight I went to watch Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (of the Oklahoma City Thunder) do work because I knew they would and they always do; unlike the Bucks who don’t always show up.”

Bob Wolfley, a columnist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, delves deeper into the issue. He believes the Milwaukee Bucks as an organization has not only given their fans plenty of losses, but they have left the fans confused about the direction in which they are headed.

“There’s some confusion post-trade of Andrew Bogut,” Wolfley explained, “I think that many fans assumed that he was a guy around which they were trying to put in pieces and they just traded him away. I’m not saying all Bucks fans were disappointed in that circumstance, but I have to believe that some were or at least confused about what it is they’re supposed to be signing on with.”

Don Walker agrees with the idea that confusion plays a big part in fans not attending the games, but he thinks the biggest reason is the NBA lockout that occurred during the offseason and caused the usual 82 game NBA schedule to be shortened into a condensed 66 game schedule. Walker mentioned that unnamed Bucks officials told him the new schedule really hurt the Bucks attendance. Officials talked about how out of the 33 home games, only 11 of them were played on weekend nights this year; which are typically the nights where the attendance numbers are highest. This number is incredibly low compared to a normal NBA season where the number is usually closer to 20.

Walker also pointed out that the cold Wisconsin weather could have played a role in the Bucks low attendance numbers this season.

“Think about it,” Walker explained, “Who really wants to go out to the Bradley Center on a Wednesday night, in the cold weather to watch the Bucks lose an important home game to a mediocre team? Only the diehards. And that’s not going to fill a NBA arena.”

Walker added to the point, pointing out the outrageous ticket prices at the Bradley Center.

“The ticket prices over there are out of whack,” he said. “Anyone who pays full price to see a game at the Bradley Center isn’t trying very hard because there has to be somewhere else to buy an affordable ticket.”

What about other teams in similar markets? Surly they must be experiencing some of the same problems the as the Bucks. This is not the case. I spoke with Washington Wizards Ticket Sales Representative, Matt Ruiz about how the Wizards; the owners of the second worst record in the NBA; are averaging roughly 2,000 more fans per game than the Bucks. Ruiz attributed a lot of the success to effective in-game advertising as well as a special USA basketball exhibition game coming to the Verizon Center (home of the Wizards).

“I think we do a good job advertising upcoming specials and deals during the games,” Ruiz said, “You know, all you can eat specials, family ticket packages with a hat or t-shirt, stuff like that. But I think the main thing is our special offer for the USA basketball exhibition game coming here this summer. Fans that renew their season tickets get dibs on the USA basketball game. That’s something that certainly grabs the attention of big basketball fans.”

Ruiz also went on to say that, unlike the Bucks, there is no confusion in the direction the Wizards are heading. “We’re building around John Wall,” he said. “There’s no question about that. He’s the guy we market to the fans. His jersey is the jersey that sells the most here at the team store. The fans know it will take time, and with a couple of good draft picks we can start building a pretty good team around here. That’s the idea at least.”

One reason for the low attendance at Bucks games that isn’t a factor in the Washington, DC area is the success the Brewers and Packers have been experiencing lately. Walker and Wolfley both agree that this may be a legitimate factor. Walker mentioned the Packers success late in the season possibly distracting fans from the Bucks season that started in January due to the lockout.

Wolfley adds onto this point, explaining that the success experienced by the Brewers and the Packers makes the Bucks seem like the ugly step child in the state of Wisconsin.

“The Brewers success and the Packers success puts into relief the dismal, non-performing pro sports franchise that we have in town called the Bucks,” Wolfley explained.

Bucks season ticket holder Matthew Trebby takes these views a step further. He has been attending games since the 1999-2000 season and he believes the NBA simply doesn’t work in Wisconsin.

“The NBA just doesn’t work in Milwaukee and people have that opinion in their mind.” Trebby explains. “The state is so obsessed with the Brewers and the Packers that the Bucks are never going to be a big deal.”

Trebby further explains into his theory, saying, “I think when Ray Allen got traded, that was the one day that basketball changed [in Wisconsin] because everyone thought he was going to stay here forever they were going to be good forever. Then when he got traded everyone was wondering what to believe in anymore. And since then, it hasn’t been the same.”

I also had a chance to speak with Kevin York, a season ticket account executive for the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats posted a record of 7-59, the worst single season winning percentage in the history of the NBA and they still managed to draw more fans per game than the Bucks. When I asked York for an explanation, he talked about the sense of direction for the team and addressed that Charlotte, unlike Milwaukee, simply loves its basketball.

“Well for one, the entire state of North Carolina is a basketball state,” York explained, “It’s more of a college basketball state than a pro basketball state, but when it comes down to it the fans truly love the game. I also think the fans understand that we’re in a rebuilding mode and patience is needed. We’re projected to get a very high draft pick this summer and I think the fans are excited about that.”

With all of this speculation about Bucks attendance, there is still the big elephant in the room: Are the Bucks safe in Milwaukee? What are the chances of the team relocating? Wolfley believes relocation is a serious possibility.

“There’s a risk for the team leaving,” he explains, “The only person who wasn’t going to let it happen is the person who happens to own the team [Kohl]. Everyone else sees it but the owner who owns the team. Unless there’s someone to take over as guardian of the team for this market, I don’t see how it happens.”

Walker agrees with Wolfley, but he doesn’t have such a morbid mindset. Instead he looks at the possibility of the team staying in Milwaukee and building a new arena.

“If I’m buying the team, I’m looking at two options,” Walker explains, “I either get a new arena or I’m leaving town.”

While the Bucks current situation may seem like gloom and doom to diehard Bucks fans, Bob Wolfley offers a key and simple solution.

“Well if they won more they’d get more support,” he says. Wolfley’s words of wisdom may remind many sports fans of the movie Field of Dreams where Ray Kinsella hears a voice telling him “If you build it, they will come.”