Dustin Senella looked out over the floor of Staples Center during a recent Lakers game and didn't like what he heard.


"I could stand up and shout and be heard over that entire crowd," said the 24-year-old fan from Simi Valley. "The decibel level has fallen dramatically."


Sure, Jack Nicholson is back, but that's one of the few courtside constants. As the Lakers start the year without the glamour of Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal, and with Kobe Bryant laboring under the taint of last year's rape charge, the season could well turn into a watershed not just for the team, but for five-year-old Staples itself.


The center is already dealing with the fallout from a labor dispute between the National Hockey League and its players that has led to a lockout, perhaps at the cost of the season. Also in the mix is the comparitively weaker draw of the Clippers.


"As soon as Shaq left, L.A. lost its spirit," Senella said. "Los Angeles is very capricious about their teams. When they're winning, (fans) are on their wagon."


Perhaps, but the Lakers have nevertheless sold out their first three home games at Staples as the team tries to match last season's 39 of 41 home game sellouts.


"(The fans) understand we have a young nucleus here," Bryant said after defeating the Atlanta Hawks last week. "But at the same time, they know there is the dedication and commitment that's something special. So I think everybody's excited. They're looking forward to this new season and to this new era."


If the full house at a recent Sunday evening Lakers game was a quiet one, the crowd the next night watching the long-suffering Clippers was anything but. And while that energy may have been due to the excitement of a double-overtime loss to the World Champion Detroit Pistons, the team still only drew 15,866 fans to the 19,060-seat arena.


If anyone is in a position to sense the different vibe at Staples, it may be forward Lamar Odom, a former Clipper who joined the Lakers in the trade that sent O'Neal to Miami over the summer.
Clipper fans, Odom said, are more rambunctious because they are hungrier for a winning team. The Clippers have posted one winning record since moving to L.A. before the 1984-85 season. "With the Clipper fans, they are fighting for their pride so they come out maybe a little more rowdy," he said. "You've got different personalities."


L.A. fans have been known to be fickle, but the Lakers had a 96 percent renewal rate on season ticket sales, said John Black, a team spokesman. Black would not say how many season tickets had been sold.


Still, former mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff, president of Playa Vista and a season ticket holder for both teams, said he saw lots of unfamiliar faces in his section during a recent Lakers game.


"I believe that every Lakers game is going to sell out," he said. "But the variable is how many games that the season ticket holders go to versus giving them away or selling. What I saw going to the Lakers game was that the owners of the tickets were not there."


Soboroff said he and his wife attended at least 35 of the Lakers home games last season. If the team turns out to be mediocre, they will see only about half the home games. Lakers fans, he said, want to relive the glory days.


"Shaq was such a personality," said Soboroff. "The positive and negative tension between these great personalities Shaq, Kobe and Phil Jackson is missing. I would have gone just to watch them sit around. I wouldn't have cared if they played. Now you've got to substitute that with a winning team."


The expectations of Clippers fans are lower, he said, noting, "The Clipper fans have one goal and that is to have a better record than the Lakers."


The Lakers account for about 60 percent of merchandise sales at Staples Center, the Kings 18 percent and the Clippers 15 percent, with the balance going to the Sparks and Avengers.


Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the majority of the arena and runs its merchandise outlets, is expecting the hockey lockout to be a big drag on sales. Already, Kings gear is being replaced with Dodgers, Angels and USC merchandise from the company's 4,000-square-foot store at Universal City Walk.


"To be realistic, it won't come close," said Alan Fey, vice president of merchandise for AEG, of the revenues for substitute clothing. "When you have 18,000 Kings fans dedicated to that brand, obviously you can't replace that."


It's too early to tell if the loss of O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Peyton will hurt Lakers merchandise sales, but moving Odom and Vlade Divac jerseys is likely to prove a challenge.
Still, Fey holds out hope.


"If they play well and things stay exciting, there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to maintain the growth we've had in Lakers sales over the last five years," he said. "Even in years when we didn't win the championship, our sales grew 10 percent to 20 percent from the previous year. (But) if the team under-performs, then the people who were on the bandwagon will jump off. This will be a real performance-based year for us."

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