NBA Attendance – A History
NBA was not always the huge crowd-puller that it is today and has been for the last three decades. In the early days of the league, games were played in high school gyms in front of crowds of hundreds or even dozens. Players travelled by buses and trains and they slept in run-down hotels, if fortunate. Do not even get us started on the way African-American players were welcomed, especially in certain parts of the country.
By the early 1970s, things started to look up and NBA was beginning to find its way to popularity that was comparable to that of NFL, NHL and MLB. Still, the crowds were nowhere near as big as those attracted by the other major sports.
In the mid-1980s, things really started happening for NBA and it was all thanks to two players – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The league knew how to market their rivalry, the glitzy Los Angeles Lakers led by Magic and the blue-collar Boston Celtics led by Bird. When Michael Jordan arrived in 1984, the league exploded and the games started attracting larger and larger crowds. Since then, with only a few dips during a couple of seasons, the attendance of NBA games has been steady and on the rise.
Today, we will be looking at five NBA games with the largest attendance recorded, as well as the game with the lowest recorded attendance in history.
1. 2010 NBA All-Star Game
Some people will argue that an All-Star game does not belong here since it is not a regular season or play-off game, but we say to them that it is still organized by the Association and that it still involved NBA players, the best at the time, moreover. The game was played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas and it was the 59th All-Star game in NBA history. It was also attended by 108,713, making it the most attended NBA game in history, and by a significant margin. The East won, 141 – 139 and Dwyane Wade was named the MVP.
2. Chicago Bulls vs. Atlanta Hawks, March 27, 1998
From the early 1970s, Atlanta Hawks played their games at the Omni Coliseum. In mid-1990s, it was decided that a new arena would be built. The Hawks’ 1996-1997 season was the last one they played at Omni. The arena was demolished and works on the new arena began.
The reason we’re telling you all this is because for the next two seasons, Hawks played at Georgia Dome, the home of Atlanta Falcons. And in 1998, more precisely March 27, Hawks hosted Chicago Bulls led by his Airness, Michael Jordan. The game is still the most attended game in the history of NBA regular season and playoff games, with 62,046 people in attendance. Unfortunately for the huge home crowd, Jordan led the Bulls to a victory, 89-74. It wasn’t even close.
3. Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons, Jan. 29, 1988
The next largest crowd at an NBA game was recorded in 1988, when Detroit Pistons hosted their bitter Eastern Conference rivals, Boston Celtics. It was another classic late 1980s Pistons-Celtics game with Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas going at each other. Larry Bird just barely missed a triple-double with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists. Thomas did not bring his best game, but the team effort by the Pistons ensured a comfortable 125-108 victory. Number of people attending? 61,983 filling the seats at Pontiac Silverdome.
4. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Detroit Pistons, Feb. 14, 1987
Pontiac Silverdome was the venue for the next game on our list, with the crowd of 52,745. This time the visitors were Philadelphia 76ers and the game was played on Valentine’s Day, 1987. For the 76ers, Roy Hinson had 27 points and Tim McCormick had 23. It was not enough to beat Pistons led by Adrian Dantley who scored 35 and Joe Dumars who scored 20. Pistons won, 125-107.
5. Denver Nuggets vs. Minnesota Timberwolves, April 17, 1990
Minnesota Timberwolves were one of four expansion teams to enter the NBA in the 1989-1990 season and their first year in NBA, they played their home games at the Metrodome, the home of Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota Twins. On April 17, 1990, they played the Nuggets in front of the biggest crowd in franchise history – 49,551. Unfortunately for the home crowd, Timberwolves lost, 99-89.
The Smallest Recorded NBA Crowd – San Francisco Warriors vs. Detroit Pistons, March 4, 1965
First of all, we feel we should point out that there is a very clear possibility the game played between San Francisco Warriors (who later became Golden State Warriors) and Detroit Pistons in 1965 was not the NBA game with the smallest crowd. It was, however, the game with the lowest attendance ever recorded. There were exactly 741 people in attendance that night. And it’s not like there weren’t any stars playing that night. Two of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History went against each other – Dave DeBusschere for the home Pistons and Nate Thurmond for Warriors.
It is the perfect example of how much the NBA has grown over the years.