Reasons for the Timberwolves’ variable attendance trends

Stumbling around the internet can lead you to some interesting places, especially on Basketball-Reference. While randomly looking at the roster of the 2009-’10 Timberwolves, I noticed they were 24th in attendance. Wait a minute. That is a few spots higher than this team and they’ve already won twice as many games as this team. So, I tracked it for the next few seasons and this is what I found.

2009-’10: 24th in attendance; 15-67 record

2010-’11: 24th; 17-65

2011-’12: 15th; 26-40

2012-’13: 20th; 31-51

2013-’14: 28th; 33-32

Now, we have been hearing for three years that the next year is the year that the team puts it all together and makes their triumphant return to the playoffs. Yet, that year hasn’t come yet, so there is the wait of those broken promises. On the other hand, the only two teams that are below them in total attendance are the Hawks and the Bucks. On the other-other hand, the two teams immediately ahead of them are the Sixers and Bobcats; one of which is the co-worst team in the league and the other is a playoff team.

Per ESPN.com, the Timberwolves are 26th at home in terms of average fans per game at home with 14,769, filling 76.3 percent of Target Center. Guess where the disparity is? Hint: it’s not at home. Yes, on the road the Timberwolves are the league’s 11th best draw on average with an average draw of 17,414 and fill the arena to 90.1 percent.

Why the disparity? I mean, this winter was below zero all the time. What else was there for people to do? It’s not like this team is bad, so why are they drawing less than were in years past? There could be a couple of reasons:

1) Raised ticket prices. Some people have told me that the price tag for their seats has risen as much as 600%, which is a lot. And while the Knicks not only are better in attendance, but the cost of living in New York is certainly higher and without looking at the average state salary, the average income is probably higher. Same for the Celtics, who field a far worse team on a nightly basis, but also have a far more loyal fanbase. That’s not a slight, either; few fanbases can compete with theirs.

2) It’s one thing to price-out your more loyal fans, but like I said above, people have been hearing for years now that they are going to get back to glory and that hasn’t materialized. Minnesotans as sports fans are nowhere near loyal enough to tolerate that, especially with raised prices. Some of these things, like last year’s injuries and Ricky Rubio’s ACL the year before were out of their control, but the product has steadily improved each year. There’s no reason to think they won’t get there, but this team has shot themselves in the foot too many times in late game situations– which is all the more fatal in the Western Conference –to get there this year. Next season, when Flip Saunders has more time to clear out the Kahn guys and vamp up the roster, the team should be even better. I mean, it’s not his fault Phoenix, Portland, and to an extent, Dallas, came out of nowhere to snap up those 4-8 seeds this season.

So, it’s certainly understandable that people are impatient and disappointed, but it is what it is, really. They’re better, but not better enough yet. Still, nearly 3,000 fans per game seems like a lot even with those factors. Fans in other NBA cities are turning out to see the Timberwolves. Despite not being a strong shooting team, they’re still fun to watch offensively. It’s a treat to get to watch Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic do work down low, and Rubio being a triple-double threats on most nights isn’t a bad thing either.

Hearing from Timberwolves fans it sounds like it’s a combination of raised ticket prices and their own disappointment that is holding them back from going more. Yet, the product is undeniably better than in year’s past and fans in other NBA cities are recognizing this more– a lot more. The late-game failures and questioning Rick Adelman’s rotations have been hot-button issues amongst fans this season, but really? Does it all matter that much? I could see a slight drop off in attendance with raised prices, but all the way down to 28th feels like a lot.

I tried finding data for NBA season ticket prices this season, but got last year’s, and the Timberwolves were 24th. Ticket prices did go up again this season, but the value of the ticket did too rise considering the roster’s improvements and I highly doubt they rose them enough (Or were the only team to raise them) to make that much of a difference. Basically, ticket price should matter, but to go from 20th to 28th for a team that is more talented and healthy? Kind of a lot, though we are far removed from the days of buying $8 seats on StubHub. Besides, as of last year, 23 fanbases were paying more for their seats and they’re still turning out more for games.

Maybe it’s just the fans and the way Minnesota sports fans seem to be wired. Being around them all my life, they tend to be fairweather and fickle and not afraid to make teams earn their business. For instance, I recall buying 10 dollar tickets for Twins games walking up to the Dome five minutes before the game, and now they still pack Target Field for a 90-100 loss team. Yet, we’re seeing like with the Wild and their stupid sell-out streak that they will begin to care less-and-less once they realized that the product isn’t worth their time despite the shiny new venue. Even everyone becomes a Vikings fan when the team is 12-4, but look suspiciously like Packers fans like when the team is 4-12.

As for the Timberwolves, they still have a lot to prove. Maybe they have a reputation in the city to overcome and they haven’t proven that image to be false yet. What if they had a shiny new venue that caused them to have to put a 20-win team on the court? Would that do the trick? Because fans from all over the country are seeing value in this team, but the hometown fans sure don’t seem to.

About Derek James

In addition to writing for Howlin' T-Wolf, Derek James writes about basketball Hardwood Paroxysm in the ESPN TrueHoop Network and covers the Charlotte Bobcats for SB Nation’s Rufus on Fire. Andray Blatche and Isaiah Rider follow him on Twitter.