A seat at the Portland Trail Blazers' Dec. 12 home game against the Houston Rockets should have been a hot ticket.
The matchup at the Moda Center featured the Blazers, the NBA's hottest team, hosting two of the league's superstars, Houston center Dwight Howard and guard James Harden. The game received marquee treatment by cable network TNT. And it was the most recent chance to see Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge cement his case as a surprise MVP candidate.
Little wonder the game was officially a sellout, with an announced crowd of 19,997.
But 36 minutes before the announced tipoff, I walked up to the Moda box office and bought a nosebleed Section 327 seat for its $25 face value.
I paid too much. Ten minutes later, prices on the online ticket resale site StubHub dropped to as low $11.20 for a seat in Section 326. (That's the same cost as seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in theaters.) A seat in the 100 Level, typically priced at $168, was going for $78.
The bargain prices point to a strange Moda Center phenomenon: The best Blazers team in years is playing to crowds noticeably short of capacity and ticket demand weaker than you might expect for a team that went into Tuesday night's games with the NBA's best record.
At tipoff, I was the only person in my row, and during the game the arena looked to be about 85 percent full.
"We're in first place," said Jamie Unger-Fisk, a fan in Section 327. "How do you not come out to see the team when we're in first place?"
It's a question Blazers fans—and people in the team's front office—are trying to answer.
The Blazers rank sixth in the league for announced home attendance, averaging 19,334 spectators a game.
But the size of the Moda Center—the league's third-largest arena—means the Blazers are in the middle of the pack for filling up their building. The average of 93 percent attendance is 13th in the NBA, according to ESPN.
Fans—after years of frustration, and a 13-game losing skid to end last season—remain wary about spending money to support the team.
"The fans in Portland are still getting used to having one of the best teams in the league," says Syracuse University sports-marketing professor Rick Burton. "If you haven't won in a long time, people can end up taking a wait-and-see approach."
Chris McGowan, the Blazers' president and CEO, says the front office faces a challenge in wooing back customers who have abandoned the team in recent years.
"Once you lose season-ticket holders, there's a lot of statistics in the industry that suggest it's hard to get them back," McGowan says, noting season-ticket sales are climbing now. "It's hard to get people to come night in and night out unless your team is really doing something special."
Which they are. But the Blazers, like all teams in the NBA, boost their attendance figures by counting every seat they sell, even if the fans who bought them stay home.
The Blazers say about 90 percent of ticket holders (those who bought tickets and those who received them as giveaways) are coming to games.
The team won't disclose how many seats it gives away as freebies.
Dwight Jaynes, a commentator for CSN Northwest who has covered the Blazers for three decades, says attendance was never as high as reported during the 195-game sellout streak the team claimed from 2007 to last year. "There have been empty seats in that arena for years," he says.
McGowan blamed the empty seats at the Blazers-Rockets game on icy weather downstate, and on corporate sales to companies that bought group tickets and provided them to people who didn't show.
"A crowd that's perceived as bad in Portland is perceived as good in other markets," McGowan says. "Just because there were a few empty seats in the stands, I don't see that as an alarming thing. If there were 14,000 people in the arena, that might be alarming."
Most NBA teams would love Portland's problem—just watch highlights of the Blazers' Dec. 15 road win in Detroit. The Palace of Auburn Hills looked like an IKEA chair showroom where a basketball game happened to break out.
The Blazers also need to establish a new identity that will keep fans coming back to the arena.
Brad Hoggans, a roofer, came to the Rockets game because his son, Miles, received free tickets from SEI Academy, a charter school in North Portland.
Hoggans recalled how former Blazers guard Brandon Roy created excitement around the team when he played here from 2006 to 2011. Hoggans was wearing a vintage Roy jersey.
"A real star to get people excited," he said, "is what we're lacking."
Burton, the sports-marketing professor, says even as the Blazers improve, they face fiercer competition for fan dollars: from the Portland Timbers, the resurgent Seattle Seahawks and even high-definition TV.
"Sitting at home and drinking a 50-cent beer becomes attractive to some people," Burton says. "They're doing a value equation in their heads."
But in Section 326 during the Houston game, the Nilsen family was attending a Blazers game for the 20th consecutive year.
In the third quarter, as Aldridge ripped control of the game from the Rockets, the six family members were at a loss as to why the seats around them were vacant.
Andrew Nilsen, 25, noted the Blazers are off to their best start since the 1999-2000 season, when Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire led the team.
"It's really exciting basketball, too," Nilsen said. "I don't know what isn't to love."