Detroit Pistons scoring big in this impressive category

Detroit News

Detroit — Little Caesars Arena has seen its fair share of Pistons losses this season, but the seats remain filled, as fans show up in droves to watch their team compete on a nightly basis, even if the result doesn’t yield a victory.

At 15-43, Detroit is at the bottom of the NBA standings, and despite being a young team that lacks its best player, Cade Cunningham — who is out for the season because of a leg injury — attendance numbers show a significant amount of interest through an injury-plagued season.

There’s a league-wide spike in attendance this season, and the NBA is on pace to break multiple attendance records, according to Sports Business Journal. The Pistons rank 12th in the league in attendance, pulling in an average of 18,445 fans; the Philadelphia 76ers are first, averaging 20,275.

The Pistons’ average attendance number is 16 fewer than the Los Angeles Lakers’ Crypto.com Arena, which recently played host to one of the most-anticipated record-breaking moments in NBA history, as LeBron James became the league’s all-time leading scorer. It’s also a higher ranking than the defending-champion Golden State Warriors’ showing at Chase Center, and larger than title contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns.

Of Detroit’s 27 home games at Little Caesars Arena, seven contests have been sellouts — crowds of 20,190. The Pistons technically have 28 home games and eight sellouts, given that the 2023 NBA Paris Game was considered a home game, although Accor Arena in Paris has a lower maximum capacity of 15,885.

The majority of Detroit’s sellouts came against high-profile opponents: Oct. 31 against Stephen Curry’s Warriors; Nov. 12 vs. Jayson Tatum’s Boston Celtics; Dec. 4 vs. Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies; Dec. 11 vs. James’ Lakers. The other three include the season-opener against the Orlando Magic, and two games after the Christmas holiday (Dec. 26 vs. the L.A. Clippers and Dec. 28 vs. the Magic).

“We’ve been so enthusiastic about the response the fans have,” said Pistons chief revenue officer Dan Lefton. “I think a lot of that starts with the excitement of us getting Cade last year, then adding the pieces we have with (Jaden) Ivey and (Jalen) Duren.

“There’s a lot of different variables, but I think the way we’ve been active in the community, the city of Detroit really feels a part of this team. That’s an emphasis by ownership; it’s really being intentional from a community-relations standpoint, and all of that adds to the enthusiasm, in terms of the young nucleus that we have on the floor.”

Whether it’s the brash jeers when opposing teams are shooting free throws, the sporadic “wave” that breaks out towards the end of games, or the many fan-engagement activities, such as the “Dance Cam,” the “Ice Cam” or “Boss-Up Cam,” attendees can remain engaged for two-and-a-half hours or so until the final buzzer.

“Win or lose, I’m a Pistons fan,” said Loyner Storrs, a season-ticket holder since 1988. “You’re going to have those good years. You’re going to have those bad years, but the atmosphere in LCA is still electric. I think that has a lot to do with the team being in the city.”

In 2017, the Pistons moved from The Palace of Auburn Hills — which had been their home since 1988 — to downtown Detroit to co-occupy Little Caesars Arena with the Red Wings. The transition of both the basketball and business operations to the city was made in an effort for the team to be closer to the community.

Troy Weaver was named the general manager of the Pistons in 2020, and he’s seen Little Caesars Arena at its emptiest, when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out NBA arenas across the country.

Now that fans are back and continue to show up despite the losses, Weaver notices that the support is at an all-time high since his arrival.

“It just shows the heart of Detroit,” Weaver told The Detroit News recently. “We couldn’t be more thankful and grateful for the support that they show, especially when we’re restoring. They’ve shown patience with us, through the ups and downs and injuries. These things aren’t easy, and the energy and the support they bring and show us goes a long way. Hopefully, in the near future, we’ll be able to repay them for staying with us, staying patient and bringing great energy night in and night out.”

Storrs’ seats are in the lower level of section 119, right behind John Beilein, Pistons senior advisor of player development. The two chat every now and then, when Beilein isn’t jotting down observations in his notepad, which makes Storrs feel closer to the team.

Storrs, 71, has been a Pistons fan dating back to the franchise’s two championship runs in 1989 and 1990, along with the 2004 title. As a season-ticket holder, he was gifted a replica of the team’s 1989 championship ring. He also has a bobblehead collection that was created from the team’s giveaways over the years.

Inconsistent could be a term used to describe the Pistons’ 2022-23 season. There have been more than 21 different starting lineups, due to injuries and up-and-down play. The team has only won consecutive games once. Storrs attributes that to the team’s inexperience.

“I see the fight, then I don’t see the fight — but I know it’s growing pains within a new team and its younger guys,” Storrs said. “My motivation (to keep attending) is that I see the Pistons have a pretty talented team and I think as they mature, and as (Pistons coach Dwane) Casey works with them, I can only see them getting better. I don’t see them getting worse.”

Crowd control

Sue DePlonty, 68, is in her 26th season as a crowd manager for Pistons games. She worked 20 years in that role when the team was at The Palace, and she has her fair share of fan stories.

Her primary responsibilities include guiding fans to their seats and managing crowd flow on the floor.

“It’s probably the hardest job during a basketball game because we’re dealing with premium season-ticket holders,” DePlonty said. “Everybody wants to be down here for autographs. It’s our job to toe the line between people (in the lower level section) wanting to come down to the floor.”

DePlonty also has to stay alert in case a fan attempts to sneak on the court or if a stray basketball flies in the direction of the crowd.

“You never know what someone is going to do,” she said. “People are unpredictable and people have done strange things like run across the court, so you have to really be on guard about what’s going on down here. If you’re really doing your job, your head’s on a swivel at all times.”

A longtime Pistons fan at heart, DePlonty is also a season-ticket holder. She has a grasp on how much it means to fans to receive an autograph or picture with their favorite player. Before the Pistons’ game against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 28, DePlonty spotted a couple dressed in Purdue gear in the stands hoping to get Ivey’s attention as he warmed up.

“(It was their) first Pistons game and they wanted to see Jaden,” DePlonty said. “They came down here and they were yelling his name. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’m going to let you come over here and stand. If you can get his attention and hold up a Sharpie, maybe he’ll sign your jersey.’”

“They got his attention, but he said, ‘Wait a minute,’ since he was shooting. He did his thing on the court but he went into the locker room.”

At halftime, DePlonty took the couple to the other end of the court to try and get Ivey’s attention again.

“Now, he’s seen them and he knows that they’re Purdue fans,” DePlonty said. “So, at the very last second, when he was getting ready to come off the floor, he came over and signed her jersey. I was so happy for them because when you can make that happen for somebody, that’s everything. Being able to connect some of the fans with the players sometimes is priceless.”

Bang for your buck

The cost of a Pistons game at Little Caesars Arena is significantly lower in comparison to other NBA arenas.

Lower-level tickets for Pistons games range anywhere from $35 to $175, depending on the opponent, while mezzanine tickets are from $25 to $75, and 200-level tickets are as low as $20.

According to a study by Betway, the NBA fan experience for a Pistons fan (tickets, jerseys, refreshments, parking, etc.) was just $193.42 during the 2021-22 season. That ranks as the fourth-lowest in the league. The chart ranked the New York Knicks ($369.84), Warriors ($331.93) and Lakers ($300.27) at the top of the NBA in fan-experience cost.

The forecasted gameday price for a Pistons game during the 2024-25 season will only be increased by 2% from the current cost at an average of $196.31.

For fans looking to splurge and sit courtside, Row 1 is sold out for this season, but tickets in Rows 2 and 3 range from $300-$1,000 per seat.

The Pistons unveiled a new and exclusive seating and dining area this season, the new BetRivers club suites, which are worth $115,000 for a one-year lease, according to BetVictor.com. The Pistons are to make up to an estimated $7.5 million from courtside income this season, on top of their $1.8 million from the new BetRivers backcourt club, according to BetVictor.com.

“It’s all about amplifying the game experience and I think there’s a lot of attention to that,” Lefton said.

Even after the game is finished, fans are invited to come to the court to shoot a postgame free throw. The line of waiting fans stretches from the court to the stands, but once fans are on the floor, they’re elated to show off their basketball skills, or sometimes lack thereof.

Each NBA team’s arena experience is different, but it appears that the Pistons strive to make game nights at Little Caesars Arena unique to the identity of Detroit.

Next up: a winning product

The Pistons haven’t produced a playoff team since the Blake Griffin-led group in 2018-19. Going farther back, they haven’t had a playoff win since the 2007-08 season.

Chevrolet Plaza, just outside of Little Caesars Arena, houses a massive LED screen that can display video and graphics. It’s an ideal setup and atmosphere for the elusive postseason success that the Pistons are striving to reclaim.

“This crowd right here is unbelievable,” Casey said. “Once they have something to cheer for, when they see you playing hard and competing — even with the young mistakes that we’re making — the crowd has been fantastic. I’m sure the players feel the energy, the juice from the crowd. We have a very sophisticated crowd. They know what winning basketball looks like.”

The Pistons just shook up their young core with a four-team trade that sent fan-favorite Saddiq Bey and Kevin Knox II to the Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, in exchange for former Warriors center James Wiseman.

It was a move that received mixed reactions from fans and NBA analysts, but Weaver is banking on Wiseman’s size and potential to help the team take a leap next season. Year 4 of the rebuild is poised to be a pivotal step in the team’s restoration process. Cunningham should be fully healed from his season-ending shin surgery, the team is likely to have another top-five pick in this summer’s draft and they have more than $40 million in cap space to use in free agency.

There are a lot of other variables that still need to be worked out before the team starts contending for the playoffs, but Weaver just wants the fanbase to remain loyal until that day arrives.

“Everybody wants it right now. We want it right now too, but we have to remain patient, stick with the process, fight through the injuries, get everybody healthy and we’ll come out on the other side,” Weaver told The News.

“The day is gonna come when it’s full every night and we’ve got a great team on the floor to reciprocate what they’re showing us right now.

mcurtis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @MikeACurtis2

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