By Ben Fisher
Fans are often referred to as a team’s ‘sixth man’, suggesting that a strong fan base can provide an intangible element to offer their club an edge through their presence as a collective, partial group.
This is the case in some cities more so than others. Utah’s EnergySolutions Arena is renowned for providing a distinct advantage for the Jazz through the sheer intimidation of opposing teams with loud, passionate and sometimes distasteful rooting. Conversely, the Atlanta Hawks have ranked no higher than 18th in average attendance over the past three seasons, each of which saw the club reach the playoffs.
The point here is, fans can make a difference to their teams by showing up and offering a vocal presence. So it’s worth watching a team which has recently ascended to contender status to see whether the fans can make the same jump.
The Miami Heat aren’t there yet.
Operating purely on appearance, the fans in South Florida seem to be getting it. They’re rocking LeBron James and Dwyane Wade jerseys (predominantly Wade, who is still seen as ‘the Man’ in Miami) with a ‘Big Three’ foam finger serving as a popular accessory. But merchandise will only get you so far. This remains a fan base seemingly waiting for meaningful playoff games to fully embrace and support their new-look Heat.
Consider the scene at Saturday’s tilt against the Toronto Raptors: the American Airlines Arena was barely half-full come tip-off, and even those in attendance were more inclined to check their blackberry than to cheer on what was a 7-0 Heat run to start the game. The only audible presence from the crowd came when the video board requested it. Even James’ famed powder toss has yet to elicit much of a response beyond the few rows of fans seated behind the scorer’s table.
Perhaps the most embarrassing sight was the second quarter video for the team’s new “Fan Up” campaign, in which the organization feels the need to openly push its supposed supporters to attend games on time and make noise as if having James, Wade and Chris Bosh isn’t reason enough.
The campaign is a thoughtful, bold attempt to inject some energy into a demographic that counts the Heat as just one entertainment option alongside plenty of outdoor activities in sunny Florida and countless South Beach hot spots. But its message (a sampling: “Fan Up means there’s nothing fashionable about showing up late”) speaks to a relative indifference towards pro sports in a city where only the Dolphins are a consistent draw among the big four pro franchises.
Compare that to the jilted Cavaliers who, despite losing James in the off-season, have sold out each of their six home games this season and rank second in average attendance. Their continued support sends a strong message to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that they are remaining committed to the team and ready to win once again.
Now, it’s not all bad in South Florida. Miami does rank among the top five teams in attendance and the tickets are being purchased. By the middle of the second quarter on Saturday, most – if not all – seats had been filled. It’s difficult to place the blame on the fans when most available tickets are being re-sold at a significant mark-up from face value, thereby pricing out a good percentage of the fan base. And as their 2006 title run recently showed, the crowds will show up and be heard when it counts.
But it remains difficult to imagine the ‘Fan Up’ video being needed in a true basketball-mad town like Boston or Portland, where the chance to cheer on the Celtics or Blazers is all the marketing necessary.
Miami does have some company in the club of championship-calibre franchises with a notoriously late-arriving, early-leaving, better-things-to-do fan base. And clearly the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers haven’t been too bothered by their city’s relatively lukewarm support.