Last week, the Los Angeles Clippers hosted their in-house rivals the Lakers at the Staples Center, and 20,039 fans came out to cheer in a game that the world champion "visitors" won comfortably, 98-83. Two nights later, the Clippers played in the same arena against the Golden State Warriors in front of 10,130 fans. The Clippers did, however, win the game.
In their second season at Staples, the Clippers have attracted some attention for putting together a very young team and aggressively marketing it. Owner Donald Sterling, not known for his free-spending ways, authorized a blanketing of the airwaves, featuring players like second-year star Lamar Odom and 19-year-old rookie Darius Miles in stark, black-and-white ads extolling the virtues of teamwork and discipline. Newspaper and bus ads have been omnipresent as well.
But a quarter of the way through the team's home schedule, attendance has fallen from last year's franchise record average of 13,562 to 12,240, a drop of 10 percent. That reflects tickets sold, not turnstile attendance, so the numbers could be even lower due to no-shows.
Clearly, something isn't working, starting with the fact that Clippers are off to another mediocre start, with a record of 5-11 through last Nov. 30. This after finishing 15-67 last year (exactly the opposite of the Lakers' record).
"You have a hard time marketing a franchise that's only winning 33 percent of their games," said David Carter, principal consultant with the L.A.-based Sports Marketing Group. "The marketing of the young players was a good story, but now that story is being replaced by the reality of another losing season."
Clippers officials are playing down the attendance figures so early in the season, while maintaining that attendance will improve.
"We don't openly discuss attendance issues while the season's going on," said Joseph Safety, vice president for communications. "I don't know if it's a matter you can just sweep around and make conclusions. You have to watch these things over a period of time. We had record attendance last year and we intend to improve on that this year."
Last year's attendance jump was probably at least partly due to the excitement surrounding the opening of the state-of-the-art Staples Center. For 15 years before that, the Clippers, who have enjoyed only one winning season since moving to Los Angeles from San Diego in 1984, played in the Sports Arena, which did not have the same amenities that grace Staples Center. In their final three years at the Sports Arena, the team averaged 10,263, 9,968 and 9,772 fans a game, respectively. A year into the new arena, the bloom may be off the rose somewhat.
Then too, paying to watch basketball at Staples is much more expensive than watching it at the old Sports Arena. The average ticket price last year for a Clippers seat during the inaugural year at Staples Center jumped 38 percent to $43.89 from $31.75 at the Sports Arena, according to Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. This year, prices have nudged up just a touch, to $44.81. But a look at Team Marketing's fan cost index which details the overall cost for a family of four to buy tickets, pay for parking, and grab some food, drink and memorabilia shows a mild drop, to $265.73 from $275.55, as the team dropped prices on some souvenirs. By comparison, a similar package for a Lakers home game rose 4.5 percent to $446.74, the second most expensive deal in the NBA.
"(Clippers) caps were $20 last year, this year they're $12," said Team Marketing Report editor Matt Freedman. "Programs were $10, now they're $8. Any and all of the above can contribute to the fan cost index declining."
Team Marketing also puts together a frugal fan index, detailing the cost for four people to buy the cheapest tickets available, and buy food and drink but no souvenirs. Using that guide, four people can go to a Clippers game for as little as $77.
But unlike the Lakers, the Clippers go out of their way to try and accommodate their fans. Capacity seating at Staples for a Clippers game is 18,964. (The Lakers seat 18,997 due to a slightly different seating arrangement, and have sold out seven of their eight home games.) But the Clippers sell another 1,500 or so standing-room-only tickets for $10 apiece, which helps boost the box office when the Lakers and their bandwagon drop by.
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