Detroit Pistons Attendance Woes Are A Warning For All Cities

With the 2017-18 NBA season in full swing, the Detroit Pistons are experiencing an unexpected run of success.  Currently they boast a winning record and are in position to make the playoffs, and are doing all this in a beautiful new $863 million downtown arena adjacent to the new Q-Line Streetcar off of Woodward Street, the center of Detroit’s downtown revival.

But nationally, the Pistons are receiving a tremendous amount of attention for something different… lack of fan attendance at home games. Outlets throughout the country have cited ownership and performance factors, as well as a lack of superstar power on the court (Cleveland’s LeBron James for example, is the type of player who can raise attendance, even on the road).   Whatever the reason, home game attendance is up only slightly despite a lavish new arena in a quickly growing downtown with a possible playoff-bound team.  With an average attendance ranking of 19th out of 30 teams and a 27th ranked capacity percentage (actual attendance compared to capacity) the main reason for this mediocre picture is likely more demographic and socioeconomic than anything. Detroit has declined significantly in ten years when they were perennially the most attended NBA franchise in the league.

After visiting Detroit late last year, I talked about a city who’s downtown is flourishing in spite of a surrounding urban ring of neighborhoods that continue to experience some of the most devastating poverty rates in the country (35.7% in 2016).  A large percentage of this impoverished or near-poverty population is African American, and unfortunately the new downtown amenities don’t do much to connect with this demographic.  New downtown housing, restaurants, bars and retail are predominantly “high-end” establishments catering to the tourist and the more well-to-do Detroit population.

The Q-Line streetcar, which runs a north-south route along Woodward Street, the center of Detroit’s downtown economic resurgence, serves this area almost exclusively, doing little to connect it to other neighborhoods.enlight106While it can be a wonderful tool for getting around downtown, it does not provide transit in the sense that it connects different neighborhoods, populations and demographics in a tremendously diverse city.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that a growing percentage of blacks are leaving cities like Detroit for urban centers in the southwest that offer more manufacturing job opportunities and affordable housing.  Detroit’s population as a whole has decreased over 25% in the last decade.

OK, let’s apply these factors to attendance at Piston’s games.  The NBA has the largest percentage of African American fans of any major US sport.  Forty-five percent of NBA TV viewers are black, a percentage that is three times higher than the NFL.  Speaking of the NFL, the Detroit Lions have seen extremely positive attendance over the last several seasons in contrast to attendance levels Piston’s games.

In a city who’s downtown is, frankly, experiencing a resurgence that caters to a wealthy and thus predominantly white population, the Piston’s new Little Ceasar’s Arena downtown now exists in an area that could not be farther, both physically and socioeconomically, from a major component of basketball’s fan base.   Furthermore, the push for more of a fan “experience,” with bars, restaurants and fan centers that are within and adjacent to the arena, is increasingly “higher-end.”IMG_5064IMG_5098IMG_5324IMG_5326The entertainment budget of the average NBA fan may not be able absorb these amenities like the more robust wallets of the average football, baseball or even hockey fan (would you believe hockey fans are the richest of any major sport?).

Speaking of entertainment budgets, let’s go back to those well-attended Detroit Lions games.  As entertainment budgets of populations fluctuate, many economists believe that the top entertainment options will always be relatively “safe.”  With the NFL being one of the most popular entertainment machines in the United States, it is unlikely that attendance at games will fluctuate dramatically, even in a city like Detroit that has lost a significant percentage of its population.  What may happen in times of economic struggle is a decline in the attendance of some second and third-tier entertainment options, in this case, the Pistons.  A stronger economy means that the budget of the average citizen will support a more diverse sea of entertainment choices.  A weaker economy will still support entertainment destinations, just fewer of them.

So let’s look at the Pistons from a big picture perspective.  A large percentage of their audience (African Americans) is still struggling despite a surging downtown built around wealth and high-end investment.   The new arena was placed at the center of this wealth, which has little connectivity to the surrounding areas that represent a key percentage of the Piston’s fan base.  Detroit’s revival has yet to include all demographics, and may actually be furthering the socioeconomic divide and alienation between wealthy and poor within the city.  In essence, the Pistons of the NBA, which has the youngest, poorest and highest black viewership of any of the “Big 3” sports, moved to a downtown that is increasingly being developed for wealthy white people and tourists.  This disconnect is likely a significant factor in the lack of attendance at Piston’s games despite solid play and a new arena.

If this is the case, it is a clear warning to cities across our nation.  Building our downtowns around wealth and tourism without connectivity, both physically and socioeconomically, to the surrounding areas can have pronounced consequences.  Furthermore, when placing entertainment options, we must understand large-scale demographics and shifting realities within our urban areas.  Is the placement and cost representative of those who will (or won’t) support it?  Will placing something in an area send a message of exclusion to an audience who might otherwise support the venture?  And finally, in a city with some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates, is the average household entertainment budget robust enough to support a diverse set of entertainment options, or just the most popular ones?

Echoing a piece I launched yesterday, simply placing a lavish, state of the art entertainment draw in our downtowns isn’t enough to create economic stability, vibrancy and sustainability.  A myriad of demographic, socioeconomic and even psychological factors have to be considered as we grow our cities.  The data needed to make these critical choices is available now more than ever, encouraging us all to put aside the hype for real world information on what works and perhaps more importantly, what does not.