Why can’t NBA teams fill arenas, even after giving away free tickets?

So, why aren’t you going to NBA games?

Is it because you’re a weirdo, and don’t like the league? That can’t be the case, because you’re reading this website. Is it because you live too far away from an NBA arena? Fair enough, though there are 28 cities to chose from, including two teams apiece in New York and Los Angeles. Parking prices? Concession ripoffs? Poor sight lines? Can’t stand that guy that yells “ev-ry-bo-dy clap your hands?” All of these make sense.

It can’t be the ticket prices, though. For a few teams, at least. More and more NBA teams are basically giving away tickets to games, offering free ticket specials or $1 deals on ducats. Several ticket pricing websites are often reduced to selling tickets for literal pocket change on game days, and yet fans still aren’t showing up. From a report from TIME, as put together by Bill Tuttle:

According to ESPN statistics, the Pistons are averaging 13,272 tickets sold per home game, and they play in the 21,000-seat Palace arena. Some of these “sold” tickets are given away free, and many more ticket holders simply don’t show up. The net result is a sea of unoccupied seats in the Palace, as fans who watch the games on TV can attest.

Essentially the same scene is being played out at several NBA arenas this season. The Pistons are hardly the only team finding it difficult to attract fans. To boost attendance, the Milwaukee Bucks (fourth-worst in league attendance) have been hosting promotions like “Buck Night,” when tickets for kids 14 and under are $1, and hot dogs sell for just $1 as well. (Naturally, the event took place when the Bucks were playing the Pistons.)

Entertainment sways aside, there’s a good reason why a whole lot of fans don’t follow through on using those free or discounted tickets. It’s the same reason you just let a whole sheet of coupons expire, or declined to take advantage of the free local municipal entertainment your city surely offers.

It’s because it’s free. Who cares, when you’re not taking in entertainment you’ve already paid for? This is why the Pistons have cut back on free tickets. From the Detroit News:

"If you rely on free tickets too heavily, it undermines the pricing structure," said Andrew Zimbalist, economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "If you have a regular ticket and you're sitting next to someone who got theirs free, that undercuts the value of your ticket.

"And you can, like the Pistons are, get away from that by offering other inducements that maintain the underlying integrity of the pricing structure."

[President and CEO of Palace Sports Dennis] Mannion agreed, saying that giving away tickets generates "very low" revenue from parking and concessions.

"You also have high no-show rates with free tickets," he said.

Which brings us back to the original point. If you can secure free or heavily discounted tickets through either the team or ticket brokering sites, why not take in that night’s contest? Even if it is against the Sacramento Kings?

For a lot of us, the secondary costs get to be way too much. Personally speaking, my family of four cannot afford to take in an Indiana Pacers game this year, even if we grabbed a batch of heavily discounted seats high in the rafters. The hour-long drive, parking and costs that go beyond the price of the actual ticket are too high. Because I’m not going to be the dad that sneaks snacks into the arena for his kids to eat surreptitiously on the cheap -- and I’m not going to make my wife sit through D.J. Augustin running sets off the bench without buying her a few beers to get through it. And YOU try saying “no” to your daughters when they want to buy another foam finger.

Teams have acted upon these issues, offering all sorts of concession and apparel deals, but the fair-weather fan isn’t going to spend time researching these things as they would research pricing out travel and lodging for a vacation. A $1,000 expense is worth studying. A $150 night out? Not so much.

Especially when you can lift your head from the laptop and look up to see an NBA game, likely in full high definition on a receiver your cable company gave you at an ever-cheapening rate, flickering for free on your local affiliate. You don’t even have to shell out nearly $200 for NBA League Pass to watch that same random midweek game, coming to you live or paused by choice with varying camera angles and impressive production values. Should your team’s high scorer limp off to the locker room during the contest, you’re probably better off at home anyway – because all the NBA news you’d ever need is yours immediately, just for the price of a computer and Internet connection. Updates come quicker in the living room.

You can quibble about the style of play all you want, but if you enjoy the game, you enjoy the game – and it’s much easier to enjoy regional NBA basketball for free than it is to check in on the local high school or college team on TV. To say nothing of the fact that even the most basic of cable or dish packages will allow you to see nationally televised games nearly every day of the week, often two times a night.

The fears that baseball owners expressed in the 1930s regarding radio airplay of games, possibly cutting into their attendance figures, might be finally realized. There’s no comparing sitting in the warm sunshine of a slow-as-molasses (but still enjoyable, in person) baseball game with huddling around a scratchy RCA radio dial. Basketball’s an indoor sport, though. A winter sport that is easy to follow on television. The experience isn’t nearly the same. There is nothing like taking in a live NBA game with your eyes acting as your own producer in the truck, but the TV experience ain’t half bad.

And even at half-cost, fans aren’t showing up. You can blame the lockout or slow-paced coaching or losing records or the economy all you want; these are all significant factors behind the lacking attendance. Even in the shadiest of shacks, though, with the most minimal of electronic setups, NBA basketball can still be a fantastic thing.

That’s bad news for teams that can’t help but turn a $1 ticket into a $100 night out.