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Mythbusters: Bobcats Attendance

I was born in Tampa Bay (and still root for the Lightning), moved to Atlanta when I was 4, moved to Charlotte when I was 6, and lived there until I graduated from college at 21 years old. Now, I live in New York, but my heart still lives in the QC. Not surprisingly, I'm the only Bobcat fan among my group of friends. They revel in making fun of my love of the team, routinely chant "Corey Higgins" at me, and just generally bemoan the state of the team. And yet, there's a perception of who we are and what we're all about that doesn't always fit with the reality of the situation.

I'd like to tackle some of these myths and figure out how far perception and reality differ. Today, I'm tackling the first of many, but no doubt the most common one around.

Myth #1: Nobody goes to Bobcats games.

"As a sports fan, watching the Bobcats drop their 14th straight game and fall to a 7-50 record against a Pistons team that is fast becoming the face of NBA mediocrity is probably the last place on earth you want to be. The sports fans of Charlotte, North Carolina, seemed to understand this, as hardly any of them appeared to be in attendance."

-Rafe Bartholomew, "A Fate Worse Than Death: Bobcats-Pistons," Grantland.com, April 13, 2012.

There's a perception that no one goes to Time Warner Cable Arena, and the city couldn't care less about the team. When I pressed one of my friends for evidence, he said the Bobcats have the worst attendance in the league. This assertion, that we have the worst attendance in the league, depends on what one's definition of "worst" is. He didn't say lowest, he said worst, which is a different beast all together. Let's try to look at a few possible definitions.

Here is a graph (Chart 1) of average home attendance for the team since its inception (in blue). Also on the graph is the league average home attendance (in red). As you can see, we have never in our history had above average attendance for our home games.

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In the 2011-2012 season, 5 teams had a worse average turnout than we did (Chart 2). Those teams, in descending order, were the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sacramento Kings, the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers, and the New Jersey Nets. The only team with a winning percentage above .500 was the Eastern Conference Semifinals-bound Pacers. In our history, we tend to sell 2,149 tickets less than the league average, which is certainly not good.

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Average attendance doesn't completely answer the above question, however. The only question it really does provide any insight into, is "How many people, on average, attend a Bobcats game, relative to the rest of the league?" Another facet to this myth is whether or not going to an NBA game is an activity that's less popular in Charlotte than in other markets.

The team that leads the league in per-game attendance average is the Chicago Bulls, who in 2011-2012 sat at 22,161- good for 4,888 above league average. Chicago is the 3rd largest media market in the country, behind New York and LA. The market's total population aged 12 and older is 7,612,100, meaning that each game, an average of .291% of the market attends the game. In Charlotte, the total population 12-plus is significantly smaller- roughly 1,962,300. Yet, nightly, 1.088% of the market attends a home game (just based off of the 2011-2012 data).

Here is a graph (Chart #3) of the total nightly market share for each NBA team, calculated by dividing nightly attendance into the 12-plus population of the media market. Not surprisingly, the Thunder enjoy the largest share, at roughly 1.947%. The Nets are rather unfairly listed in dead last, due to Newark's inclusion in the NYC market.

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To look at this graph, what's evident is that quality teams in smaller markets have a larger share than quality teams in larger markets. So, while Knicks fans may say that more people go to Knicks games than Bobcats games, the reverse is also true: more people DON'T go to Knicks games than DON'T go to Bobcats games. So, its technically a more popular activity in Charlotte than in Chicago. But this seems imprecise.

Let's now reduce the graph down to teams of like-market size. (Chart 4)

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Here is a graph of market share for the Bobcats, and the 3 teams of next largest market size, and the 3 teams of the next smallest market size. As you can see, the only team that performs worse in its market is the Milwaukee Bucks. Surprisingly, the Hornets perform quite well, at 1.406%, even in a season that saw Chris Paul's departure, and a trip to the bottom of the lottery. While we may have a better market share than teams with more to compete with, we still trail teams of a similar size.

At the heart of this question, however, is an implication that the Bobcats are somehow less valued by the community than its other institutions, such as our NFL team. There are 4 teams of near-like market size that also have NFL franchises. Here's a graph of those teams, with both NBA share and NFL share. (Chart 5)

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Once again, Charlotte and Indianapolis are about equal, while NOLA storms ahead. Most importantly, even though New Orleans has a significantly higher NFL share, that doesn't affect their NBA share- in fact, it might help. Cleveland places last, yet there may be a confounding variable due to their 3rd profession franchise- the Indians.

So, what does all this data mean? What does it mean about Bobcats attendance and their place in the Charlotte community? What does it mean for the future? Is it really true that nobody goes to Bobcats games?

I think the answer is two-fold. Our attendance is below average, but I don't think we deserve all of the scorn we get for having an empty venue. This all goes back to the lockout and the ownership's issues with revenue sharing and small-market vs big-market economics. In order for small market teams to fill seats, they have to operate at a ridiculously high market share. To fill an NBA arena in a smaller town requires more significant efforts than to do so in a large town. The Knicks could be terrible, and still sell-out the Garden. The fact is simply that they have a larger pool to draw from.

Teams like Oklahoma City benefit from being a one-sport town. Their market share is dominant because they put out a consistently excellent product and are, essentially, the only game in town. Indiana reached the Eastern Conference Semi-finals this year, and pushed back against the Heat rather hard. Yet, despite their success and their young talent, #GOLDSWAGGER didn't put more butts in the seats than we did.

So, does nobody in fact go to Bobcats games? Myth: CONFIRMED. As much as I wanted to bust this myth, I just don't think it's possible. Our average attendance has stayed relatively constant since our beginnings, and while we boast a larger market share than most teams, we still trail some of similar size. The problem, though, is not unique to Charlotte, but is instead systemic in nature. The Pacers, a talented team, put up worse attendance numbers than we did, while the Hornets, who until recently had one of the 5 best players on the planet, rank better than we do- albeit not by much. The prevailing opinion is that when the team is better, the fans will come. But there's no evidence for this in the NBA landscape, as it looks today. If the Bobcats want to fill the Cable Box, they'll need to decipher a code that has heretofore remained unbreakable: a careful balance of branding, talent, and community engagement. Charlotte's ready to become that unique two-sport market, it just needs to be nudged in that direction.

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