There are plenty of new things about the New Jersey Nets this season. They will begin their first regular season at the Prudential Center in Newark at the end of this month, playing under new owner Mikhail Prokhorov, with a host of new players on the roster. But my question will be the same as it has been over the past decade: Will anyone actually show up for Nets home games?
Let me give you a little bit of background before you continue reading. I was lucky enough to have season tickets for about 10 years from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s. I went to anywhere from 15-30 (depending on Playoff runs) games with my father each season, and to say we were diehards would be an understatement. There were some great games (2003 Eastern Conference Finals Game 4) and some tough ones (2004 Eastern Conference Semis Game 6) but I always found myself asking the same question when attending these games: Where are all the fans? Sure the place would be full in the regular season against teams like the Knicks and Lakers, but often times the fans of those teams would be louder than the Nets fans. The Playoffs were different of course, and that concrete dungeon in the Meadowlands was actually rocking at times. But I remember Game 1 of the First Round in 2002, when it wasn’t even a sellout. This was the first playoff game for the top seed in the East, a very exciting team that had a great season led by Jason Kidd. It was arguably the highest point the New Jersey Nets franchise had ever reached (before the run to the Finals) and Continental Airlines Arena (at the time) was still 1,500 fans short of a sellout. As a fan I wanted to see the Nets win and play well, but I also wanted to see others around New Jersey get excited about the team and support them as I did.
While the Nets had some great teams from 2002-2004, they continued to be near the bottom of the NBA in attendance. The team last made the playoffs in 2007, but since then they have struggled and so has the attendance. Last season the Nets finished dead last in the League in attendance, averaging just 13,103 fans per game (ESPN.com). But we all know that even that lowly number is a bit generous. I can probably count over 10 games where the announced attendance and the actual fans you could see on television were thousands apart. Many of the few diehard fans the Nets have became disillusioned with the team over the last few years, especially with last year’s 12-win campaign.
But as I’ve noted, 2010 marks a new beginning for the Nets franchise in many ways. Other than the changes to the roster, the most visible change will be the place the teams calls home. Rather than playing in an old, outdated arena in the middle of the Meadowlands, the Nets will be at a state-of-the-art building in Newark. I’ve been to the Prudential Center numerous times for college basketball games and let me tell you, it is quite a place. It has all of the amenities associated with the modern-day arenas and is truly a great place to watch a game. I think back to mid-June when Mikhail Prokhorov first took a tour of The Rock. Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger wrote a great piece about how the Nets new Russian owner may not have realized how nice the Newark arena is, and is probably wondering why he’s paying so much to get the arena in Brooklyn finished. Unlike with the Izod Center in East Rutherford, the Prudential Center is very transportation-friendly, just a two-block walk from Newark’s Penn Station. This will allow Nets fans to more easily access the arena by train from all parts of the state. But the question remains: will there actually be fans who want to come see this team play?
Even when the Nets were having their greatest success, regular season attendance was still down. If fans won’t come watch an exciting team that won 50 games a season, why would they come watch one that is still in rebuilding mode? The fact of the matter is that there just aren’t that many Nets fans out there. Those of us who do consider ourselves diehard fans care about the team and the direction of the franchise, but we need more people to join the cause. There is no doubt that Mr. Prokhorov wants this team to matter in the tri-state area sports landscape and I believe he will be committed to making them a winner. One thing I don’t want to see with this new regime, however, are the gimmicks that the organization used over the last few seasons to try and get fans to the games. Like anything, sports is a business and everyone wants to make money, but giving fans free jerseys of OPPOSING PLAYERS just to get them to the arena? That’s where I draw the line. I would rather have the arena be half-full with fans that actually want to be there than have 15,000 in the building, with a third of the crowd who could care less about the outcome of the game.
There is no doubt that there is some sense of optimism and promise as the sun rises on the 2010-11 season. The franchise is going in the right direction and it should be an exciting brand of basketball to watch. But the key to getting more fans to games comes down towinning. Nobody wants to go see a losing team and while the convenience of getting to the arena and the amenities at The Rock are great, in the end true fans will only be there if the team wins. So to answer my question, in the beginning I don’t think that all of the changes to this franchise will equal more fans. But if they put an exciting, winning product on the court, the fans will come and the New Jersey Nets will finally become relevant.