Patrick Creighton: Does the city of Houston really embrace the Rockets the way it should?
Is Houston really a bad NBA City?
This is a question that keeps coming up. In fact, it’s been a common theme this entire season, a season in which the Rockets set a franchise record with 65 wins.
So why do so many people keep asking about the Rockets’ crowds?
Several times this year, we saw shots of inside Toyota Center for Rockets games, and the arena looking half empty. Truthfully, there’s no way to know exactly when those shots were taken, how long before tip, at the half, etc.
Here’s what we do know: The idea the city doesn’t attend Rockets games is a fallacy. While the Rockets are 16th in total attendance, that has to do with the capacity of Toyota Center and not the interest in games.
The Rockets drew an average of 17,900 fans per game, per espn.com. That’s 99.2% of arena capacity. Every team that outdrew the Rockets this season plays in a larger arena.
Even though the arena is almost to complete capacity on a nightly basis, is there something about the Rockets’ fans that isn’t connecting?
The answer to this question is: Maybe.
As someone who has attended NBA games in various cities, the raucousness of Rockets crowds can be best described as average.
When you consider the teams that are considered to have the best home crowds, the Rockets are never in the conversation.
The Warriors and Cavs are easy to explain away as having been to three straight finals but their crowds are incredibly loud. Also, Oracle was noted as an incredibly loud arena before the Warriors went off on their run of three straight finals appearances and two titles.
Other teams with notably strong home court crowds include the Knicks (and they stink), the Sixers (on the rise), the Spurs (maybe on the decline), the Mavs (stink), Raptors (great vs everyone except LeBron) and Thunder (who lost their best player to GSW, and are about to lose Paul George to the Lakers). Never in this conversation are the Rockets mentioned.
New York has been a miserable team for most of the last two decades. I have attended hundreds of Knicks games and there’s no excuse for that crowd to be hotter than Houston’s.
The ticket prices at the Garden are the second highest in the league (behind GSW). The team stinks. The owner is a pariah among fans. The Rockets, who are middle of the pack in ticket price, have two bona fide superstars, a likable coach and a respected GM. They also have a billionaire owner that fans like. So why does this scenario exist?
The NBA is as much a culture sport as any, maybe the biggest one. The stars come out to MSG. Spike Lee and Woody Allen may be the most consistent, but the team regularly draws megastars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Howard Stern, Ben Stiller, Alicia Keys, Katie Holmes, Olivia Wilde, whatever Sean “P. Diddy” Combs calls himself now, Ray Romano, LL Cool J, Kevin Bacon, and more. It’s an event.
The celebrity list for the Rockets for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals (as opposed to a regular season game in NYC) included Bun-B, Travis Scott, Z-Ro and Chamillionaire. All of those are talented people, but not quite the same level of star power. I’m not about to sit next to Stephen King and call myself an author.
However, the star power shouldn’t affect the energy level in the building.
Houston was recently named the No. 2 most diverse city in America. Maybe there’s more to do in the city of Houston, with the great weather we enjoy here so much of the year?
I don’t buy that either, because if you are paying for tickets, you are obviously into the game. Also, while the crowd may be late arriving at times, it does arrive.
I also don’t buy the Houston traffic argument, because as someone who grew up driving in NYC, it’s not as bad as you think. (That doesn’t mean it can’t be bad, it’s just not the worst ever).
So what is it about the crowds in Houston that don’t seem to have the same energy for the Rockets that they do for the Texans, when one team is in the conference finals for the second time in less than five years and the other has never been to a conference finals? (Sorry Red Rowdies, you just can’t cover for everyone)
Is it that Houston just has football fever? Is it distrust in the team’s ability to deliver, similar to how fans reacted to the Astros last season before they delivered? Is it that Houston has so many transient residents who move to the city, either temporarily or permanently, that come here from other parts of the country, and other countries that they never develop those lifelong bonds from growing up rooting for the local team? It is just a more laid back lifestyle in Houston as opposed to many other major cities?
Truthfully, it’s probably all those things and more.
None of this makes Houston a bad NBA city. Atlanta is a bad NBA city. Houston just isn’t a great NBA city, and it happens to be playing against a team that comes from a great NBA city right now. Should they advance to the finals, they will be playing another team that comes from a great NBA city, and the comparisons (which aren’t necessarily fair) will continue.
Here’s the good part about that, Rockets fans. None of those other teams were born as great NBA cities; they grew to be that way.
This is your chance to step up your fan game and make Houston a great NBA city. Don’t miss your chance.
Patrick Creighton hosts “Late Hits” weeknights 7-9p on ESPN 97.5 Houston; “Straight Heat” weeknights 9p-12a CT & “Nate & Creight” 12-5p Sundays on SB Nation Radio & SportsMap 94.1FM Houston. Follow him on Twitter: @pcreighton1