Wednesday evening, in a game between two NBA teams not bound for the playoffs, an announced crowd of 18,179 watched Ricky Rubio score a career-high 33 points as the Timberwolves beat the lowly Los Angeles Lakers at Target Center.
Saturday night, when the Wolves host the Sacramento Kings — another also-ran — the team expects Target Center to be close to a sellout.
To Ryan Tanke, Wolves chief revenue officer, this is encouraging.
Certainly in terms of attendance, the Wolves are finishing the season rather strongly; an average of just under 16,500 fans have attended the team’s six home games since the All-Star break. The Wolves have gone 5-1 at home in that stretch, including a victory over the Golden State Warriors on March 10 that drew 20,412, the largest crowd to ever watch a Wolves game at Target Center.
“We’re pretty encouraged heading into the final stretch,” Tanke said.
But much work remains to be done.
Despite the recent surge, the Wolves remain 30th in the NBA in attendance at 14,584 fans per game. Tanke is quick to say the team needs to build its base of full season-ticket holders, which is now just over 7,000.
“Until we get our membership base to the right spot, which is north of 10,000, you have a lot of seats there,” Tanke said. “It will be a multiyear build to get us to that spot.”
Still, Tanke sees positive indicators. First, in a league that is seeing a general increase in attendance — the NBA is at about 93.5 percent capacity — the Wolves are expecting to finish the season with a rise in attendance of better than 4 percent over last season. And that would be an increase bettered by only two teams in the league this season, Philadelphia and Denver. Also, TV ratings for Wolves games have increased almost 10 percent over last season, according to Tanke, and single-game tickets sales have grown as the season — the first under Tom Thibodeau as president of basketball operations and coach — has progressed.
Ultimately, though, on-court success will translate into bigger crowds. In other words, buzz brings fans.
In the 2003-04 season, when the Wolves finished with the top record in the Western Conference and went to the conference finals, they drew an average of 17,635 fans, 11th in the league.
The Wolves have not made the playoffs since, and as their fortunes fell, their average attendance steadily fell, too. In 2007-08, the first season after the Wolves traded Kevin Garnett to Boston, home attendance was down to 14,476 per game.
When Rick Adelman came for 2011-12, the buzz around Rubio’s rookie season and a Wolves team flirting with a playoff spot (until Rubio injured his knee) pushed attendance back over 17,000. But that number dropped back under 15,000 as the Wolves continued to struggle.
But, with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in the lineup, attendance ticked up this year. And, interestingly, the Wolves are the league’s 11th-best draw on the road, suggesting the team might be a bigger story around the league than at home. At least right now.
Tanke can see a good scenario developing.
Target Center is in the middle of a renovation that will be fully unveiled next season. With essentially a new home and a team expected to make a jump, good things can happen quickly, Tanke said.
“I was here for Ricky’s rookie year,” he said. “Look at what transpired there. All of a sudden you had some movement. It tips pretty quickly when it tips. … Look at Gophers basketball. That’s a good example of how quickly fortunes can change. The buzz they had at the Barn [Williams Arena] was different. We have a loyal fan base, optimistic about the future.”