2017-11-09 13:54:02
At the Pistons’ New Home, Empty Seats and Hockey Statues

13:54, November 09 183 0

DETROIT — After you have spent a very pleasant evening in a shiny new sports arena in a spruced-up neighborhood in a once-decaying city, it feels unduly meanspirited to mention that the place feels kind of empty.

But that has been the vexing situation lately in Detroit, where the enormous fanfare that greeted the opening of the Little Caesars Arena in September has been followed by a succession of not-so-enormous basketball crowds.

Though the Detroit Pistons’ first home game was announced as a near sellout, with 20,491 seats sold, many of the people who supposedly paid for the seats appeared not to be sitting in them during the actual game. The Pistons were 21st in the N.B.A. in home attendance through Tuesday, with an average of 16,576 for their first five games at the new arena.

Local news organizations and sports websites have been quick to notice. “Do you blame the Pistons or their fans for empty seats at Little Caesars Arena?” Scott DeCamp asked on the MLive news site.

On PistonPowered, a fan site, Duncan Smith said: “If you do enjoy watching the Pistons, many people prefer the viewing experience from home.”

People have different explanations, starting with the fact that the Pistons have not been the world’s most thrilling team in recent years.

“It’s the Pistons, man — they never win,” said Daniel Bronston, 29, a cook who was at a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves late last month. (He was exaggerating. The team is 8-3, and it handily beat Minnesota that evening, 122-101. But it is fair to say that the Pistons’ performance in recent years has been anemic.)

Then there is the area itself. Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ coach, said that Little Caesars and the surrounding neighborhood were too full of distractingly fun stuff to do, so that fans would be lured into wandering outside and would not return to their seats to watch the game.

“They build these great restaurants, and everybody goes and eats,” he said recently. “The first half of the third quarter, there’s no one in the building.”

For almost 30 years, the Pistons played at The Palace at Auburn Hills, in a Detroit suburb that hosted the franchise’s Bad Boys-era title teams of 1989 and ’90 and also its less pugnacious championship squad of 2004.

Suburban fans who came to the game against the Timberwolves last month said they were having to adjust not only to the new location — a hard thing for fans who like old routines — but also to the new breed of visitors.

“Ten years ago, nobody wanted to live downtown, and now everybody does, especially young professionals and ‘hipsters,’ as they call them,” said Dustin Kosnik, 26, an engineer in the auto industry. “Hipsters want to do everything before it’s cool.”

As far as the Pistons management is concerned, the arena is extremely cool. Built by Olympia Development, part of the Ilitch family empire, it cost $862.9 million, $324 million of it in public financing. It has brought new life to a once-neglected area of Detroit, with retail shops, upmarket restaurants and handsome new or recently renovated housing.

The arena was originally built for the city’s hockey team, the Red Wings, which relocated from the Joe Louis Arena across town. (The Ilitch family owns the Red Wings and the Little Caesars pizza chain, which explains the arena’s name.) Fans grumbled about the name, which they found déclassé, and about the huge Little Caesars logo on the roof of the building — a man in a toga waving a pizza on what appears to be a spear — which they found annoying.

“I’m officially embarrassed,” one Red Wings fan, Brent Latam, wrote on Twitter. Nicknames proposed by disgruntled fans for the new arena included The Oven, Pizzarena, The Frozen Pizza and Voldemort arena (“because I will never refer to it by name”).

But if Cleveland fans could get used to showing up at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavaliers play, then surely Detroit fans can cope with a gym named after a pizza conglomerate, even one that fails to use an essential apostrophe in its title. “Welcome to Little Caesars Arena, the newest, most exciting arena in the world!” blared a loudspeaker from the side of the building as fans arrived for a recent game.

Charlie Metzger, the Pistons’ chief revenue and marketing officer, said the team was pleased with how things had gone so far. More than 80 percent of last year’s season-ticket holders came back, he said, and the team added 3,000 new ones.

“There’s an adjustment period,” he said, “but over all the reaction we’ve gotten has been very, very positive. In addition to its being a brand-new building, the excitement is in being part of what’s happening in the city.”

Sure, there are fans who feel aggrieved about what they see as a hockey-centric atmosphere, reflected in the steeply graded seats and in what seems to be a disproportionate array of Red Wings memorabilia scattered about the ground-floor concourse. The arena is full of statues of hockey players like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, while famous Pistons like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars have to settle mostly for appearing in photographs suspended from the ceiling.

The thought is not lost on the players, either. Little Caesars looks “more like a hockey arena,” the Pistons’ star center, Andre Drummond, tweeted in September.

He told reporters: “I went down there last month, and I just felt there’s a lot of hockey stuff. I’m like, damn, I mean, I understand we’re sharing the arena, but … ”

Metzger said the memorabilia display was a work in progress. “We’re working closely in partnership with the Wings to make sure that both teams are properly represented,” he said.

The point guard Reggie Jackson said he was not thrilled about playing with ice under the floor, a state of affairs that Little Caesars, of course, shares with many other combination arenas.

“I don’t think people know, especially when the ice is under there, it’s a little bit colder,” Jackson said last month. “You’re breathing cold air while you’re trying to exercise, the first thing that happens is it goes to your chest.”

At the Timberwolves game, the mood was gently benign rather than raucously enthusiastic. The arena did its best to stir the fans’ passions, such as they were. Music blasted out across the crowd. “WE FEEL YOUR EXCITEMENT,” said the Jumbotron, a sentiment that under the circumstances felt more aspirational than descriptive. Although the Pistons dominated the game, the crowd seemed to respond most vociferously when workers roamed the stands dispensing giant Michigan state lottery cards.

But it’s hard not to love Little Caesars, which fits so seamlessly into its city.

“Before, this was a no-go area, full of derelict land and abandoned buildings,” said Craig Hepworth, who was on a brief return visit to Detroit after moving to Florida in search of the sun. “It’s great to be able to stay downtown and do stuff instead of just getting in your car and driving away right after a game.”

“If Detroit gets any nicer,” he added, “we’ll have to move back.”