We've all seen the Bobcats' stands during games. Photos, videos, stills grabbed from video; there's no lack of evidence of turnout.
And judging by these pictures, I think it's a teeeeeny bit misleading to think the reported estimated 15,000+ home attendance average is factual.
Why? Because they're blatantly misleading and it's not just the Bobcats that are doing it. Forbes contributor Maury Brown notes this in his 2011 piece, "How Sports Attendance Figures Speak Lies." The numbers noted in box scores is no longer a measurement of butts through turnstiles but now a measurement of pure ticket butts sold, used or not. That's why we see mildly encouraging "attendance" statistics. These are simply tickets moved, not people moved.
In terms of ticket sales, this sure as hell isn't good. Consider the fact that Bobcats have given tickets away for a player simply hitting a three-pointer. Consider the fact that the Bobcats had a promotion to "pay the pick" or in essence $2 per game (because they got the No. 2 overall pick, you see). Consider the fact they also had a season ticket deal where if you buy season tickets for this season, you get next year's for free. Of course I don't have the actual attendance figures, but when you watch a Bobcats game do you see 80.7 percent of that arena's seats filled? This means other streams of revenue are hurting from this poor actual attendance, too.
We can see this doesn't reflect a fanbase perfectly. The Sacramento Kings are dead last in attendance, but I think you can see they have some amazing fans and can support a team. But like many franchises, they can't support a team run inconsistently by farcical ownership. The difference is that they're not even willing to buy in. Would you consistently put money towards ownership that has tried to relocate the team and inconsistently fumbled away arena deals?
EDIT: Apparently "counted against" means "counted as part of" in that Forbes piece.
As for the free tickets, aka comped tickets, those are reportedly counted against attendance numbers (per that Forbes piece). This means that if that is true, the Bobcats and other teams are not fudging attendance by counting all those tickets given away.
Per the above Forbes article, free tickets (aka comped, or complimentary, tickets) are counted as a part of "attendance." This isn't to say the Bobcats are acting alone. Every NBA team does it. In fact, every major sports league in North America does it except the MLB. Per this 2006 bit from the U-T San Diego, the NBA strictly announces tickets distributed and not turnstile counts. Without turnstile counts, conventional attendance figures look to be essentially a farce. The Bobcats are getting more tickets to people this year whether by increases in ticket sales, marketing promotions to move those season tickets or by single game promotions that essentially give out free or heavily discounted tickets; but it's hard to tell if they're actually drawing more people to games.
So why isn't it working? Because duh is why. The Bobcats are 2-24 since starting the season 7-5. They play teams inconsistently, sometimes holding on by mere threads to talented teams and sometimes being crushed beneath the distance in talent levels. With inconsistency in not only the day-to-day play but promise down the road, it's no wonder why some don't bother to show up to the free game.
For those who live close enough to take advantage of the free tickets, perhaps it doesn't make much sense to throw the free tickets in the trash. For others, the benefit of free admission doesn't outweigh the transportation costs or other costs that they would face in taking up the offer.
With inconsistent play, it's not hard to see why ticket sales struggle. But even with a free ticket, it's not just the cost of going to a game via bus or light rail or car. It's the cost of four hours that possibly are more valued staying in watching TV or reading or what have you. And that's just for a single person sans responsibilities.
Besides, for many people, they can just turn on the ol' boob tube to watch the games or even *gasp* watch on the Internet. NBA games do have more entertainment in person but the tradeoff of sitting at home vs having to put on pants and go outside may be a compromise some aren't willing to make, especially for a team like these Charlotte Bobcats. I'm one who would go to an NBA game in person over watching one on TV or the Internet just about any day of the week. I enjoy the atmosphere. I enjoy the sounds. I enjoy being able to discern which player is which without the help of the TV broadcast.
But like many basketball enthusiasts, until the Bobcats put a team on the court that can consistently compete in the NBA, I and other probably won't be making many trips to Time Warner Cable Arena unless there are great incentives.
Why would anyone want to go to a game and risk being hit with an errant Tyrus Thomas jump shot anyway?
Sources and interesting links:
NBA Attendance figures - ESPN
Why I Hate Comp Tickets - Arts Marketing (this doesn't have to do with sports, but it's very closely related, I would argue)
Why can't NBA teams fill arenas, even after giving away free tickets? - Ball Don't Lie
The book on attendance - U-T San Diego