At the Pistons’ New Home, Empty Seats and Hockey Statues

Written by | Sports

After you have spent a very pleasant evening in a shiny new sports arena in a spruced-up neighbourhood in a once-decaying city, it feels unduly means pirited to mention that the place feels kind of empty. But that has been the vexing situation lately in Detroit, where the enormous fanfare that greeted the opening of the Little Caesars Arena in September has been followed by a succession of not-so-enormous basketball crowds.

Though the Detroit Pistons’ first home game was announced as a near sellout, with 20,491 seats sold, many of the people who supposedly paid for the seats appeared not to be sitting in them during the actual game. The Pistons were 21st in the N.B.A. in home attendance through Tuesday, with an average of 16,576 for their first five games at the new arena.

Local news organizations and sports websites have been quick to notice. “Do you blame the Pistons or their fans for empty seats at Little Caesars Arena?” Scott DeCamp asked on the MLive news site.

On PistonPowered, a fan site, Duncan Smith said: “If you do enjoy watching the Pistons, many people prefer the viewing experience from home.”

People have different explanations, starting with the fact that the Pistons have not been the world’s most thrilling team in recent years.

“It’s the Pistons, man — they never win,” said Daniel Bronston, 29, a cook who was at a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves late last month. (He was exaggerating. The team is 8-3, and it handily beat Minnesota that evening, 122-101. But it is fair to say that the Pistons’ performance in recent years has been anemic.)

Then there is the area itself. Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ coach, said that Little Caesars and the surrounding neighborhood were too full of distractingly fun stuff to do, so that fans would be lured into wandering outside and would not return to their seats to watch the game.

“They build these great restaurants, and everybody goes and eats,” he said recently. “The first half of the third quarter, there’s no one in the building.”

For almost 30 years, the Pistons played at The Palace at Auburn Hills, in a Detroit suburb that hosted the franchise’s Bad Boys-era title teams of 1989 and ’90 and also its less pugnacious championship squad of 2004.

Suburban fans who came to the game against the Timberwolves last month said they were having to adjust not only to the new location — a hard thing for fans who like old routines — but also to the new breed of visitors.

“Ten years ago, nobody wanted to live downtown, and now everybody does, especially young professionals and ‘hipsters,’ as they call them,” said Dustin Kosnik, 26, an engineer in the auto industry. “Hipsters want to do everything before it’s cool.”

Charlie Metzger, the Pistons’ chief revenue and marketing officer, said the team was pleased with how things had gone so far. More than 80 percent of last year’s season-ticket holders came back, he said, and the team added 3,000 new ones.

“There’s an adjustment period,” he said, “but over all the reaction we’ve gotten has been very, very positive. In addition to its being a brand-new building, the excitement is in being part of what’s happening in the city.”

Sure, there are fans who feel aggrieved about what they see as a hockey-centric atmosphere, reflected in the steeply graded seats and in what seems to be a disproportionate array of Red Wings memorabilia scattered about the ground-floor concourse. The arena is full of statues of hockey players like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, while famous Pistons like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars have to settle mostly for appearing in photographs suspended from the ceiling.

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