At halftime against the Phoenix Suns, and with his team holding a three-point lead, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor was sitting courtside preaching patience and lamenting his bad luck. “I think people can see the potential,” Taylor said as two of the team’s injured star players, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, stood in street clothes nearby. “We’re just going through some darn tough luck.”
Outside Target Center, where the game-time temperature on a Wednesday night in January dipped to minus-6, patience and sympathy seemed to be in short supply. “How’s business?” Henry Jackson, a scalper, was asked by a passer-by wearing a heavy coat. “Terrible,” Jackson replied.
Before the night ended, the Wolves lost the lead and the game, their 13th defeat in a row. Two more losses would soon follow, leaving the team squarely in the race for the NBA’s worst record. Television ratings have dipped, injuries have taken away three starters and attendance ranks last in the NBA. Wolves spokesman Brad Ruiter, trying to find a glimmer of hope, said this year’s road attendance is in the upper half (12th of 30) of the NBA.
The Wolves’ misfortunes are in part caused by the forced trade of unhappy Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, compelling the team to once again begin a rebuilding project with young, inexperienced players.
Though all of Minnesota’s professional sports teams seem now to be stuck in neutral — or reverse — the Timberwolves in particular are struggling with relevancy. At Target stores in Richfield and West St. Paul last week, the “Fan Central” aisle had rows of jerseys, T-shirts and hats for all of Minnesota’s other teams — there were Wild house slippers for $9.99 — but barely anything for the Wolves.
Ryan Marshall, the owner of AME Sports at the Rosedale Mall, sells jerseys and other sports merchandise autographed by local pro stars from the Vikings, Wild, Twins and Wolves. “Not even close. [The Wolves] are last — they’re last with a bullet,” Marshall said of the team’s popularity with his customers.
A month ago, Marshall had Wolves teammates Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett along with retired North Stars hockey player Neal Broten at the store on the same night signing autographs. Even though Broten has not played professional hockey in 18 years, Marshall said more people lined up for Broten’s autograph.
Last Friday, as the Wolves were losing to the Bucks in Milwaukee, Tom Jackson of St. Paul stood in line at Marshall’s store to get an autograph from young Wild forward Erik Haula. At least 200 people waited in line. “The Timberwolves are constantly rebuilding,” he said. “[It’s an] underperforming team, year after year.”
Not all of course is lost for the Wolves and Taylor, the team’s majority owner since the mid-1990s. Forbes last year said the average NBA franchise was worth $634 million, up 25 percent from the year before, and predicted that team values would only jump again with the NBA’s upcoming TV contract renewal. With an estimated worth of $1.4 billion, the New York Knicks led Forbes’ rankings last year — despite now being every bit as bad on the court as the Wolves.
The Wolves, in many eyes, also now have a star-in-the-making in Andrew Wiggins, the teenage sensation who was voted the NBA’s Western Conference rookie of the month in both November and December.
“Is it discouraging? There’s no question,” said Wolves coach Flip Saunders, moments after telling reporters Monday that Muhammad would miss at least two weeks because of an injury. Saunders, a president and part-owner of the team, said he also understood that some fans were beyond impatient. “It’s tough to sell [hope because] maybe they feel they’ve gone through that. [I] can’t correct what’s been done here the last eight, nine years.
“The people we have are diehards. [They’re] more understanding maybe than I thought they would be,” he said.
Saunders could have been talking about Amy Sharp, a wheelchair-bound season-ticket holder who patiently waited for autographs before the game against the Suns. “It’s not like we’re getting completely blown out every night,” she said. “Once we get some of our players back, I think we’ll do better.”
Eric Rolseth of Rogers sat with his 9-year-old son, Finn, before a Wolves game. “I still like the team. I like Flip,” said Rolseth, a season-ticket holder. But “until they start winning, they’re not going to be that relevant.”
For some, patience has about run out. Terry Guy, a longtime season-ticket holder, said this will be his last year. “Been here, down [this road], too many times,” he said.
Last spring, according to the team, the Timberwolves’ 7,400 season-ticket holders had dwindled to 6,000 before the Love trade that netted the team Wiggins. Since then, the team has climbed back to 6,800 season-ticket holders.
Officially, the Wolves are averaging 13,818 fans at home this season, which would be a single-season record low for the franchise. But that figure includes the announced 18,996 fans for the game against Houston in Mexico City on Nov. 12, a game considered a Wolves home game. At Target Center, the Wolves are averaging 13,531 fans — 551 less than No. 29 Philadelphia. The Wolves averaged 17,491 fans in 2011-12, but the figure has dropped steadily since.
As the Jan. 7 game against the Suns was set to begin — a game that was televised on ESPN — a public address announcer at Target Center told the crowd, “We’re about to go live to the entire world, let’s show them how we do it!” Five minutes before the game, just seven people sat in Section 220’s sea of empty blue seats.
Even the season’s marquee game — the Jan. 31 arrival of Love along with LeBron James — is not yet a sellout. Against the Suns a week ago, the Wolves hastily rolled out a promotion and discounted tickets by whatever the outside temperature was in Minneapolis. When the thermometer dipped to 9 below, the team dropped all tickets by $9 and sold a thousand extra tickets. On StubHub, lower-level seats for the game were going for $12.69.
Mike Dimond, the senior vice president and general manager for Fox Sports North, which televises Wolves games locally, acknowledged that TV ratings are down. Dimond declined to disclose details, but added “it’s not dismal.” The Wild might be more popular locally, Dimond said, because the NHL team has “more ‘stars’ to put out there in front of people because they’re not hurt.”
As he readied to board a plane for Indiana — and a rare victory, ending the Wolves’ 15-game losing streak — Saunders tried to move forward. “The worst thing to be [is] mediocre,” he said. “You either want to be really good, or you want to be really bad, because if you’re really bad you got a chance [with high draft picks] to get really good.”