The Timberwolves started selling tickets at rock-bottom prices early in this decade and that distorted the attendance figures. The Wolves were 15th in official NBA attendance with an average of 17,480 in the shortened season of 2011-12, and 21st with an average of 16,340 in 2012-13.
They were also selling selected season tickets for $100 and change, in the hope this might have fans hooked when the team returned to NBA standards for pricing.
It didn’t quite work out that way, as the streak of losing seasons reached 12 and of non-playoff seasons reached 13 in 2016-17.
Once the discounts started to fade, the Wolves have been reliably 29th in attendance: ahead of Philadelphia in total tickets sold by 24,000 in 2014-15, and ahead of Denver by 3,280 in 2015-16 and by 1,618 in 2016-17.
Through the dreariness, we continually have been told that at its soul, this is a strong NBA market, and that will be proved if and when the Wolves return to contending status.
The problem with that theory is this: If contending status is defined as having a team capable of actually making a run at a title, it has happened only once in 28 previous seasons as a franchise.
Kevin Garnett was joined by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell for the 2003-04 season and the Wolves put up a 58-24 record – best in the Western Conference, and second to Indiana in the NBA.
Those Wolves averaged 17,635. That was 92.8 percent of capacity, and the total tickets sold of 723,071 were 11th in the NBA.
There was a sizable degree of Wolves madness during the magnificent seven-game series with Sacramento in the second round, and the six-game elimination vs. the Lakers, Kobe and Shaq in the Western Conference finals.
What amazed me most after all of that was when the Wolves opened the next season at home against the New York Knicks and the announced crowd was 17,295, or 1,800 below capacity.
The excuse for the non-sellout was that the fans were turned off by Sprewell’s “I have to feed my family’’ quote in the run-up to the 2004-05 season. If that’s all it would take to kill the madness, the idea that the Twin Cities had an NBA soul was a myth.
I was talking this week with a pro team executive (he's not involved with a winter sport) on the various segments of fans that are pursued to buy tickets:
There are the corporate customers. There are the “this is my favorite sport’’ hard-cores. There are the suburban families with two kids that have been captured so magnificently by the Wild. And there is the post-college crowd – perhaps married, but no kids – that gets out three nights a week to a drink a couple of beers, listen to music or, perhaps, go to a game.
“I think those are the fans the Wolves have a chance to hook,’’ the sports executive said. “It’s sort of a spinoff of the same crowd the soccer team [United FC] already has done a good job of attracting.’’
Dana Wessel is a personality on the morning show at 96.3 FM, an alternative/modern music station. I don’t exactly know what it is, but if I start the car in the morning after having been listening to a Twins game the previous night and one of their tunes belts out of the radio, it scares the Hades out of me.
Wessel is my man, though, on this younger, we’ll-spend-for-fun generation, and I asked him: “Your people … NBA or NHL?’’
There was no hesitation. “NBA, 100 percent,’’ Wessel said. “I had a number of friends that went to the Timberwolves opener and said it was great. The NBA’s the league now; the superstars, the music, the atmosphere. The NBA has the cool vibe.
“The Timberwolves brought in Jimmy Butler, and that impressed a lot of my friends. If the team can start winning, and with Target Center fixed up so it’s not a dump anymore …
“Yeah, it’s the NBA for sure, with the people I know. I don’t hear anyone mention the Wild.’’
Both teams were at home on Tuesday night. The Timberwolves were hustling a 2-for-1 ticket deal during Sunday's FSN telecast and had a crowd announced at 14.353. The Wild was sold out again in St. Paul.
The hockey team’s crowd -- the corporations, the hard-cores, the Woodbury families -- isn’t going away. What the Wolves might have in 2017-18 is a chance to escape 29th place in attendance by attracting the 20- and 30-year-olds, no kids, and looking for the cool vibe