NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - This week's playoffs between the New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Hornets is a contest between the right way and the wrong way to deal with attendance woes.
Both teams had more than their shares of empty seats this season, and both went in search of new homes.
But the Nets built fan support by understanding that the quality of the team -- not the arena or the broadcast contract -- is the key to winning fans. The Hornets, whose search for a new home city drove away loyal fans, didn't get the message.
It took a while -- but it worked
One of the biggest hurdles for the Nets has been their status as the No. 2 team in the region. The New York Knicks maintained their string of sellouts every night, even though the team's poor performance left 100 percent of Madison Square Garden's seats empty once the playoffs started.
"Tradition is not something you erase overnight," Lou Lamoriello, CEO of both the Nets and the National Hockey League New Jersey Devils, told me this week.
Despite one of the best turnarounds in NBA history that took the Nets to the best record in the league's Eastern Conference, the team ended up with marginally lower attendance. An average of 13,761 bought seats during the regular season versus 13,807 last year. That's about two-thirds of Continental Airlines Arena's capacity.
Still, as the Nets' record improved, the fans began to turn out. Of seven regular-season sellouts, four occurred in the last 10 games of the season. And the average attendance for those last 10 games was 81 percent higher than for the first 10 home games of the season.
While team officials argued for and eventually got state assistance for a new arena in Newark, they didn't spend a lot of time blaming the current suburban facility for the poor turnout. Instead, they spent time trying to draw attention to a vastly improved team, and eventually the fans started to catch on.
"There's no question there are some hang-ups due to the arena -- it's one of the oldest buildings in the league, and there's no mass transit," Lamoriello said. "But we made gains in the second half -- all we had to do is keep winning."
Hornets squandered natural advantages
Meanwhile, the Hornets had as many things going for them as the Nets had going against them -- and they squandered that advantage.
The team plays in North Carolina, a state where basketball is a near religion, with few other professional teams competing for attention. As a result, the Hornets were a perennial league leader in attendance in the 1990s.
But the team's owners insisted they needed a taxpayer-supported arena to keep the franchise viable, and that if they didn't get one in Charlotte they would look elsewhere. The argument helped to drive a wedge between the Hornets and their fans.
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As team executives visited other cities in search of stadium largesse, fans stopped visiting the Charlotte Coliseum, and the team fell to last place in attendance, drawing an average of 11,286 a night, or less than half of what it used to draw when selling out every night as recently as the 1996-97 season. Thursday's playoff game drew only 11,363 fans.
Mike Burch, the team's vice president of marketing, said it's an oversimplification to say that the decision to move is what drove away fans. He points to the 1998 lockout as hurting fan support, and said there are other issues than the move hitting fan loyalty. "Generally time and money are the two reasons for staying home," said Burch.
But a 25 percent decline in attendance from the previous season despite roughly the same record says otherwise.
Charlotte received the go-ahead Friday to leave one of the better basketball markets in the nation for New Orleans, which has already seen another NBA team fail and flee, and is in danger of losing its only other major sports team, the National Football League's Saints.
Meanwhile the Nets got a deal for a new state-financed home this week, now planned for the 2005-06 season. But they haven't put all their eggs in that basket.
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If the team can build a winning tradition, they'll have something more valuable than any new home -- a strong base of support in the largest market in the nation. If they can't keep winning, the new home won't be enough to put fans in the seats.
The Hornets' pursuit of public tax dollars for a new arena so angered public officials and fans in North Carolina that the team drove away fan support and ended up forcing the team to move out of one of the most basketball crazy regions of the country.