The Raptors marketing people have the unenviable task this season of selling sizzle without the steak.
Average home attendance has dropped in each of the past four seasons and it will be difficult for the organization to reverse that trend with the 2005-06 Raptors regular season set to begin on Nov. 2.
Difficult, but not impossible, said Tom Anselmi, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd.
"I think we bottomed out last year," Anselmi said of the team's attendance. "We have an incredibly loyal fan base and the message we're getting across is we're on a rebuilding path with the young guys, but it will be fun and entertaining to watch, even if they make mistakes."
The Raps averaged a franchise-high 20,200 during the 2001-2002 season, after two consecutive years of qualifying for the playoffs. Prior to that campaign, the then-immensely popular Vince Carter signed a $94 million US contract extension. Since then, however, average attendance has headed south, dropping to 17,100 last season -- the lowest number since 1997-98. The Raptors have failed to qualify for the playoffs for the last three seasons. Toronto's NBA franchise had a golden opportunity last year to attract new fans to the Air Canada Centre given the NHL lockout, but a 33-49 record resulted in a further drop in attendance.
Anselmi, ever optimistic, said season-ticket sales this year are comparable to last season (about 10,000) and season-ticket renewals are at a healthy 84%.
There has been talk, however, that if attendance continues to drop, the franchise may be in trouble. Anselmi, however, scoffs at that notion -- pointing out that Toronto's home average last year (17,100) was just under the league average, despite the club's struggles. Anselmi is confident the Raptors will be among the league-leaders in attendance once they start winning.
"It's going to be out of control popularity-wise once this team starts to mature and develop its identity," Anselmi said. "Basketball is so huge with kids now, it's so strong in Toronto."
Anselmi said GM Rob Babcock's prediction that the young club may not win as many games as last season has not had a negative impact on ticket sales.