It’s become a common sight at the American Airlines Arena (AAA) during the magnified Big-3 era in Miami: Fans show up late for games—sometimes midway through the first quarter—and leave before the game’s over. Most notoriously, of course, a not-so-insignificant number of Heat fans left early during Game 6 of last season’s NBA Finals.
As fans streamed out, Ray Allen hit one of the greatest shots in NBA history to send the game to overtime—a game in which the Heat, of course, ultimately triumphed. Some of those recently departed Heat fans, upon realizing the error of their ways, begged security to let them back into the arena, but security was having none of it—sorry guys, there’s no re-entrance policy in Miami.
The spectacle of a few hundred disloyal Heat fans (or, as some might say, Heat fans just showing their true colours) angrily banging on the doors of the arena, and pleading to be let back it, was wondorous schadenfreude. A segment of the NBA’s biggest bunch of fair-weather, bandwagon-jumping fans were getting their just desserts.
And then there was this season’s home opener—the NBA’s 2013-14 curtain raiser—against the hated Chicago Bulls. Before tip-off Heat owner, Micky Arison, stood alongside commissioner David Stern to hand out the championship rings to the players and coaching staff. It was a relatively brief moment, but it was a moment to savor all the hard work that went in to winning the team’s third NBA title. It was a also a moment that too few fans—at least those who’d purchased seats closer to the court—were there to see.
Were those people stuck in traffic?
Well, if you were to ask fans of the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers, Pacers, or any other die-hard basketball fan that dislikes the Miami Heat—or even some that are indifferent—they’d tell you that, as alluded to above, Miami Heat fans aren’t true basketball fans. Miami’s not a basketball city, fans are more interested in being ‘seen’ at the arena for a couple of quarters, rather than cheering on the team; and most Heat fans jumped on the bandwagon only after 2010—the post-Decision, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh era.
Sure, they may cheer like madmen and women when time expires in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but they’re not there in a not-so-glamorous, mid-January, regular season game, cheering on the team; and they’re certainly not there when things go badly (case in point: the last few minutes of Game 6). Under difficult circumstances they’re quick to ditch their team altogether.
This Jimmy Kimmel segment, called “Lie Witness News,” certainly doesn’t help dispel the notion of Heat followers being nothing more than casual bandwagon fans who know nothing about the game.
But heavily edited videos, and extreme examples of fan disloyalty aside, is Miami’s reputation of being a bad basketball town entirely fair? Are Heat fans really more fairweather than fans in other basketball markets?
Well, the obvious thing to do in order to answer that question is to examine some attendance figures. Luckily for us, ESPN has those numbers easily accessible on its website. Here are the Heat’s attendance figures for the past three seasons—the Big-3 era—that include the average attendance at the AAA, where that number ranks in the NBA as a whole, and that number as a percentage of the arena’s capacity.
2012-13: 19,982 (3rd in the NBA) 102% capacity
2011-12: 19,935 (5th in the NBA) 101.7% capacity
2010-11: 19,778 (5th in the NBA) 100.9% capacity
As we can see from the numbers, contrary to the notion that Heat games are poorly attended—which to be fair, is a notion enforced by empty seats, early and late in games—the Heat have ranked top-five in attendance for the past three seasons. Sure, some people are showing up late, and some of them are leaving early, but they are showing.
And here’s the thing: a lot of the empty seats that are visible on television early in the games are the expensive seats closer to the court—seats that are often bought by celebrities, and wealthy individuals who have few ties to the team, and view their presence at a big game as a reinforcement of their status. Those in the 300 and 400 levels—those in the cheap seats, in other words—are often there cheering on the team, and humming along as “Seven Nation Army” drones over the loudspeaker (ugh), from tip-off to the end of the fourth quarter.
But back to those numbers.
Heat-haters could make a case that the numbers reinforce the bandwagon nature of Heat fans; they show that the fans only started showing up once the Heat acquired LeBron James and company. To a certain extent, that’s true. In the season prior to the Big-3 joining the team, Miami only ranked 16th overall in attendance. However, during the 2007-8 season, a season in which the Heat won just 15 games, the team was ninth overall in attendance. Not too bad considering such a putrid campaign.
Ultimately, however, saying that a team’s fans are bandwagon-jumpers, because attendance increased when the team got better, is not really saying much at all. The Indiana Pacers, who ply their trade in a basketball-crazed state, have had appalling attendance records since the ‘Malice in the Palace’ incident—an incident that spawned anger, indifference, and ultimately a lot of crappy Pacers basketball. Basketball fans in Philadelphia, a city rich in basketball lore—and a city with a historic franchise NBA franchise—haven’t exactly flocked in droves to their team’s arena in recent seasons. Why? Because the Philadelphia 76ers have sucked in recent years.
And check out these attendance figures:
2005-06: 16,899 (18th in the NBA) 90.7% capacity
2006-07: 16,843 (20th in the NBA) 90.4% capacity
2007-08: 18,624 (12th in the NBA) 100% capacity
2008-09: 18,624 (12th in the NBA) 100% capacity
Those figures belong to the Boston Celtics, that revered, historic franchise—winners of a record 17 NBA titles, and according to the narrative, a team with some of the most passionate fans in basketball. The first two seasons listed belong to the era prior to their own Big-3 (Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen) arriving, and the last two are Garnett, Pierce, and Allen’s first years together, including the championship season.
So, if you’re going to make a case that Heat fans are of the fickle, bandwagon variety, then based on the numbers, you could argue the same thing regarding Celtics fans. The pattern goes like this: The Celtics were terrible and they couldn’t fill out their arena, and then the Celtics were good and they could fill their arena. With a few exceptions this is the way sports attendance works. The good teams get good attendance figures and the bad teams don’t. There is nothing unique about more people showing up to Heat games after 2010, when the team became perennial title contenders.
The Nuanced Reality
One of the problems with attendance figures, however, is that they’re usually a tad inflated. As this article attests, teams usually count tickets sold, or given away, rather than turnstile clicks. But teams don’t release figures based on the number of people actually showing up to games, so it’s hard to know exactly how inflated the numbers are—just know that all teams are inflating them slightly.
The other numbers to look at, however, are television ratings. While those in the lower-bowl seats of the AAA are giving Heat fans a bad name by showing up late to games, it’s also possible that many die-hard Heat fans are being priced out of going to the games altogether. The 2008 recession hit South Florida pretty hard, and so the average joe in Miami may not have enough expendable cash to blow on expensive basketball tickets.
But most average joes do have televisions, and according to the television ratings Heat fans are tuning in to watch their team in big numbers. Forbes reported earlier this year that Sun Sports, a regional Fox affiliate that carries Heat games, drew an average rating of 6.59 during the games, which is the second highest rating in the NBA. What’s more, TNT’s broadcast of the Bulls-Heat game last week drew a much larger audience in the Miami area than it did in Chicago.
All this is not to say that Heat fans are more passionate about their team than Bulls fans are about theirs—or that the Heat have the best fan-base in the NBA—but simply that the notion that Miami isn’t a basketball town might be slightly overblown.
That being said, the fact remains that Miami is a city with a large number of transplants. Many people living in the South Florida region—particularly those with lots of expendable cash to spend on basketball games—are from northern cities, and have relocated to the area for business or retirement. Hence, the large amount of screaming ex-New Yorkers present when the Knicks show up to play at the AAA.
Miami is—traditionally at least—a football town, with the beloved Dolphins and University of Miami Hurricanes (the football team) having ruled the sporting roost for years. But times could be changing. The Heat are a relatively young franchise (coming into the league in 1988) and it takes time—a generation or two perhaps—for a team to truly resonate with a city’s populace. The younger generation growing up with the successful Heat team today (and an ever-improving Hurricanes basketball program)—just like Bulls fans who grew up during the Jordan era; or further back, Knicks fans during the days of Walt Frazier—are likely to pass their passion for the Heat down to their children, and their children’s children.
Heat fans get a bad rap, and while some of the derision is well deserved, a lot of it comes out of a broader dislike of the Miami Heat in general, and the controversy surrounding its formation in 2010. The truth is, with any fan-base in the NBA there are die-hards who attend every game and can tell you the statistics of every player who’s ever played for the team, and there are those who jump on the bandwagon when things are going well, and who couldn’t tell you the difference between a pick-n-roll and a dill pickle on a bread roll. And ultimately those guys, as annoying as they can be, are just there having a good time, too.
Oh, and regarding that Jimmy Kimmel segment above: here’s another edition, but in this one, the bandwagon followers in question are Lakers fans.
There’s nothing that unique about the Miami Heat.