"Thanks, Kobe."


That was the message Hollywood Billiards posted on its marquee two weeks ago after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs for only the fourth time since the team came to Los Angeles in 1960.


The All-Star guard has taken the blame from fans and the media for driving center Shaquille O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson out of town, but the decline in business resulting from the team's poor showing is what really upset sports bar's owner Jeff Bey.


"It's been devastating to (our) numbers," he said. "You could hide bodies in this place."


The days of attracting 500 customers for a Lakers NBA Finals game and up to 200 for a regular season game are already a distant memory.


For a game last week against the Phoenix Suns, who have replaced the Lakers atop the Western Conference, Bey drew a crowd of 20 to 30 fewer than the 40 television sets and big screens lining its walls.


Bey isn't the only business owner crying in his beer.


With the Clippers also struggling and the National Hockey League's lockout wiping out the Kings' season, sports bars, sportswear retailers and restaurants across Los Angeles have had a slow winter.


Steel Pit Sports Grill in Tujunga will lose as much as $70,000 from the postseason alone without the Lakers playing, according to owner Erik Demchesen, who entertained crowds of more than 100 people per Laker playoff game last spring.


During this past regular season, Demchesen watched in dismay as the numbers fell from 20 to 40 per game at the start of the season to as few as five now.


"We lost our big Laker crowd almost at the beginning of the season. And then it got worse. They don't even tell us to put the game on anymore," he said.


The lack of demand for Lakers jerseys stings local retailers who stock more local team clothes than that of their rivals.


Sports Classic of Inglewood had weekly sales of at least 40 authentic jerseys, mostly Lakers, costing as much as $200 each last season. This season, sales dropped so drastically that the store stopped ordering the items around Christmas. In fact, store salesman Linell Smith said he sells far more of Shaq's Miami Heat jerseys than Kobe Bryant's Laker jerseys.


"(Sales) are rock bottom right now," he said. "Nobody even comes around looking for Lakers stuff anymore. It's been like that ever since they traded Shaq."


Staples Center officials refuse to divulge their merchandise sales, although league officials said the Lakers remain NBA's No. 1 merchandise-selling team because this year's bad news hasn't registered at the cashiers yet.


"Over the course of time, some teams may do well and other teams are not going to do well," said Matt Bourne, an NBA spokesman.


Fewer fans during the regular season and the absence of the playoffs is also hurting downtown businesses. The Palm Restaurant, located a block from Staples Center, hosted around 350 patrons before each Lakers game this season, down about 50 from last year.


The losses would have been more substantial for the three-year-old eatery had it not been for the influx of new residents into the downtown area. "Whenever there are fewer superstars and the performance of the team doesn't seem to be dynamic, fewer people come in," said Caroline Dyal, co-manager of the Palm.


About the only entity that continues to do well is the Lakers team, thought it will also lose revenue due to the failure to make it into the post season.


Lakers merchandise may be off, but all revenues from official merchandise is pooled and divided evenly among the 30 basketball teams.


The Lakers' slight dip in attendance has likely been made up by a 3 percent increase in the average ticket price, announced after the departure of other popular players Karl Malone, Gary Payton, and Rick Fox.


The Lakers charged an average $77.66 per seat, far above the Clippers who kept their core lineup intact and did not increase their far lower $45.28 average ticket price, according to Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based sports consulting group. (Forbes still ranks the Lakers as having the highest value in the NBA, at $510 million.)


"Obviously it's been a disappointing season for the fans and the team," said John Black, spokesman for the Lakers. "(But) there are just a lot of loyal Lakers fans out there. We have been a real good franchise for over 40 years in Los Angeles and I think that means something to a lot of people."


The Lakers averaged 18,802 fans per game, selling out 28 of 39 games compared with an average of 18,970 fans per game last year when 39 of 41 games sold out. With television contracts already in place, the only real losses for the Lakers will come from the postseason games at the Staples Center that undoubtedly would have sold out.


Last year, regular season tickets cost $10 to $1,900 each, increasingly incrementally for each playoff round, with fans paying $18 to $2,800 per seat during the NBA Finals.


Becky Wallace, executive editor of the Team Marketing Report, said the Lakers' high ticket prices usually result in strong returns.


"Obviously," she said, "this season has not been indicative of their regular encore performances."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.