Wolves fans showing up, even without wins

BY foxsports • January 13, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Look up into the recesses of the Target Center — up, up, up to the seats that were a deserted no-man's land for much of last season.

Look, and you'll notice something: signs of life.

In the Timberwolves' first seven home games, the average attendance was 17,442, up 14.4 percent from last season's average (15,242) and 15.5 percent from two years ago (15,101). That's a sizeable jump for a team that has yet to prove it's any better than its predecessors, and it's dramatically altered the feeling inside the Target Center.

"It was nice," Kevin Love said after the team's Jan. 1 game against Dallas. "The crowd here, in the three home games that we had, has been great. I think if we continue to play the ball that we have … they're going to come. It's nice. There's a little electricity there."

What's even more striking is the number of sellouts. For the first time in three years, the Timberwolves sold out two of their first six home games, against Oklahoma City and Miami. And with another capacity crowd of 19,357 on Tuesday night against the Bulls, the Timberwolves reached three sellouts on the season.

Some percentage of those sales must be attributed to the caliber of opponents — sellouts against the Thunder, the Heat and the Bulls are not exactly uncommon. In 2010, the Timberwolves' first three home games were against Sacramento, Milwaukee and Atlanta. In 2009, they faced New Jersey, Cleveland and Boston, a more popular team but still not up to the likes of the ones led by Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki.

Still, the numbers are encouraging, and the close games (including that improbable win against Dallas) proved to fans that they might actually get to see a contest, rather than just a crop of visiting stars.

"It's just a lot of fun," Luke Ridnour said. "You can feel the atmosphere's totally different. The fans are into the game the whole game, even when we're down big. When we make a run, you can just hear them getting into it."

The team hasn't averaged more than 17,000 fans since the 2004-05 season, when it went 44-38 behind Kevin Garnett. In fact, attendance hasn't even averaged more than 16,000 per game since the following season. So far in 2011-12, the Timberwolves' average attendance of 17,442 puts them at 14th in the league, a vast improvement from 24th a season ago and 25th in 2009-10.

In this post-lockout season, attendance hasn't particularly fallen among teams like the Bulls, Heat and Trail Blazers, which consistently have the highest turnouts in the league. Where attendance has fallen is among the teams in the middle and lower end of the spectrum, a group the Timberwolves should fall into. Last year, 20 teams averaged more than 16,000 fans per game. This year, that number has fallen to 16 teams. The Timberwolves' climb is a testament to the buzz surrounding this team, excitement from fans about what they know (Kevin Love) and what they can't wait to see (rookies Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams) despite a 4-7 record.

Timberwolves chief marketing officer and senior vice president for communications Ted Johnson said he's been pleasantly surprised by fans' excitement after what he called a tremendous offseason, especially at a time when the organization was uncertain how the lockout would affect sales.
 
Although the Timberwolves do not provide precise advance ticket sales numbers, Johnson said that the team is pleased with advance sales for future games, especially for games against big-name opponents. He also added that promotions have been at their most successful so far this season, and last Tuesday's college night set a record with more than 3,000 students taking advantage of lower ticket prices.

There are obviously strong reasons to hope that attendance may not wane to the point it did last season, and season-ticket sales will also bolster numbers this year.  With 8,000 full-season equivalents, the team has its largest season-ticket base since 2005-06, and it's one of five NBA teams to sell more than 2,000 new full season tickets for the second straight season.

"It's incredibly meaningful because that's a core base of fans that's going to be in the building every night," Johnson said. "Those are the fans who are going to know our players best."

Tuesday night was another promising sign. After several nights of lagging attendance, the game against the Bulls was the first non-opener weekday sellout since March 31, 2004. With a good enough opponent and some reason to believe that the Timberwolves might hang in the game, people are willing to show up at the Target Center after work and school this season. That's something new, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by players.

"As far as last year, this year's been no comparison," Ridnour said. "It's just a lot more fun."

So, yes, these high attendance numbers are good for the team financially, good for its reputation in the NBA. But on a random weeknight, when the stands are packed and the crowd is noisy, there's no better way to describe it than just that: fun.

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