Image: Empty seats at Pepsi Center
David Zalubowski  /  AP
Courtside seats sit empty at Denver's Pepsi Center during a game last week against the New Orleans Hornets.
By
updated 3/23/2010 7:56:39 AM ET 2010-03-23T11:56:39

Glen Taylor isn't blind.

Sitting courtside at Target Center, the Minnesota Timberwolves owner sees the scores of empty seats that surround him.

The Timberwolves, like many NBA teams, are losing more than just games these days. In the middle of a rebuilding project that team officials acknowledge will take at least three years, fans in the sports-saturated Twin Cities are choosing to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere while the young Wolves learn on the job.

So Taylor challenged his marketing team to come up with a plan that would make them want to stick with the team through the hard times.

They responded with a drastic proposal: Fans who buy or renew season tickets in March can purchase seats in the lower bowl at discounts of up to 50 percent off this season's price, with some as low as $10 per game.

"I told them to be creative. So they come back to me with something like this," Taylor said with a chuckle.

Teams across the league are finding that they have to offer more in these difficult economic times to entice fans to spend money at their arenas.

According to a survey conducted by Team Marketing Report, an Illinois-based sports research firm, the average price for a ticket to an NBA game this season fell for the first time in eight years. In addition to the 2.8 percent drop, more teams are offering incentives such as meet-and-greets with players, free parking or separate concession lines for season-ticket holders.

So, after years of the average fan grumbling about being priced out of professional sporting events, are we seeing a market correction in some cities?

"Absolutely," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and the Robert A. Woods professor of economics at Smith College. "Well over half the teams in the big sport leagues are engaging in discounting of one kind or another. The Timberwolves are probably on the far end of the discounting, both because of the size and the explicit nature."

Timberwolves president Chris Wright calls it "a body play." While the team may have difficulty making money with ticket prices at that level in the short term, Wright says the team views itself as a "growth stock" in the commodities market right now.

"If you're in the commodity business and you have more inventory than you have demand, your price is low," Wright said. "The idea is then to flip that on its backside and make sure there is more demand for the inventory that you have. We're not there. Obviously we're not there."

Neither are the Sacramento Kings, who will cut nearly every season ticket in the lower bowl next year by 6 percent. The Kings are also offering season-ticket holders 20 games of free parking and their own line at the concession stands.

"The main thing we're doing is listening," said Mitch Germann, the Kings' vice president of business communications. "We've always been listening, but I think we've listened more carefully than ever before."

Detroit is another team that is cutting prices. It's just a matter of determining how much.

"We are going to make some adjustments with our ticket prices, reducing most if not all of them, because we have to be responsive to the economic situation we're all in," Pistons CEO Alan Ostfield said Thursday.

Some teams, such as the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers, haven't had to reduce their prices. And the Miami Heat have told fans ticket prices will rise next season, but have not laid out a specific plan yet.

Ticket prices are staying the same in places like Phoenix and Memphis, which has frozen prices for five straight seasons. Other teams are making deep cuts, including the Golden State Warriors, who will reduce prices by as much as 28 percent next year.

"This is the right thing to do," Warriors' president Robert Rowell said in a statement announcing the plan.

Even some of the league's best teams are going above and beyond to keep fans coming back. The Dallas Mavericks sold out their 351st straight home game on Tuesday night, a streak made possible in part by offering tickets for as low as $2 to some home games. The Mavs also cater heavily to groups.

"Bottom line is that the upper bowl is becoming a smaller and smaller part of our total revenue," owner Mark Cuban wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "So we would rather have a full house than make a couple dollars more. More fans means a better home-court advantage, it means a better fan experience, which in turn means more sales."

Professional sports have become more dependent on the corporate dollar, from expensive luxury suites and courtside seats, rather than the lower-revenue producing seats in the nosebleed sections, Zimbalist said.

"Because they're more dependent on those high-income sources of revenue, they're more vulnerable to the economic cycle than they were before," Zimbalist said. "As the financial sector collapsed, that's what hurt them more than anything else. Now what's hurting them is the high unemployment rate."

And, in the Timberwolves' case, rebuilding in a crowded sports market. The Vikings and Twins have both fielded playoff teams, the University of Minnesota basketball team is in the NCAA tournament and the Wild are always popular in this hockey-loving state.

The Wolves averaged 14,792 in paid attendance, 25th in the league, through 34 home games. But rarely have that many actually showed up to the games.

So Wright said the team, which has not been to the playoffs since 2004 and is still at least a year or two away from getting back there, had to do something to get the attention of area sports fans.

The plan got Taylor's attention, too.

"It's a competitive town and we have a lot of sports," Taylor said. "We aren't in a position where we can tell our fans that we're going to (make a big) jump from this year to next year. So we've got to say, 'Buy in and build with us.'"

The early returns have been promising. In the first two weeks of the campaign, the Timberwolves sold more new, lower-level full season tickets than all of last year. They sold more new season tickets in a one-week span than they had since the league announced a franchise was coming to Minnesota more than 20 years ago.

"When prices came out we thought this is too good to be true," said Kim Hanson, a new season-ticket holder. "We can hang in here and this is a good way to start and we went for it."

A 10-month payment plan, and hosting season-ticket holders at the team's practices, have also contributed to the brisk sales. The Wolves had to get approval from the NBA for their proposal, and Wright said league officials had plenty of questions before responding with their support.

"The concerns of our fans are always our concerns for all of the teams," said Chris Granger, NBA vice president for team marketing and business operations. "Especially when the economy gets tighter and people have to make harder choices with their money, our teams have to be very in tune with their markets."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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