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Amid losses, Pistons get creative to keep fans engaged


Posted May 8 2012 7:40PM

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) -- When Dennis Mannion became president of business operations for the Detroit Pistons last September, he took over an operation that had become an afterthought at best in the local sports scene.

Attendance was down, the team was losing and to make matters worse, the 2011-12 season didn't start until late December because of the lockout.

Looking back, Mannion realizes all those obstacles actually presented a unique opportunity.

"One of the tricky things in sports is, when you win, it usually in some way cannibalizes your aggressiveness to do more interesting things for your fan base," Mannion said.

For the third straight season, the Pistons missed the playoffs, going 25-41. They also finished 28th in attendance, but not for lack of effort. With a new owner and a rebuilding team, Detroit management has tried some creative ideas in an effort to appeal to fans.

The most obvious new spectacle at the Palace was a series of halftime shows by performers such as Vanilla Ice, Gladys Knight and Bell Biv DeVoe. By the end of the season, it became almost the norm for some familiar name to show up and entertain at Pistons games.

"Hopefully we've re-energized the Palace this year," owner Tom Gores said as the season drew to a close. "Part of our job is, even when we're having tough times, to make it right for the fans. You can't always guarantee wins, but you can guarantee the experience - the moment you walk in the door, that it's a good experience for the fans, and so hopefully we've done that."

Gores took over the franchise last offseason after a dreary 2010-11 campaign in which Detroit went 30-52 and players struggled with coach John Kuester. Attendance sagged accordingly, and the team remained in limbo until the drawn-out sale to Gores was complete.

The new owner has remained somewhat in the background, leaving Joe Dumars in place to run the basketball side of the operation. Lawrence Frank was hired to replace Kuester before this season. Gores recently discussed his hope that the team can return to the postseason next year, but for now he's simply pleased that the "culture" surrounding the team is improving.

With the Tigers, Red Wings and even the Lions enjoying success to different degrees these days, the Pistons run the risk of being forgotten. Mannion's job is to make sure that doesn't happen. The non-basketball-related entertainment at games is part of a larger plan.

"We knew we needed something that would guarantee some measure of relevance," Mannion said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We wanted to set some sort of bar for entertainment value so fans would know they have a consistently fun experience."

Mannion previously worked as an executive for teams in all four major U.S. pro leagues, and his vision for the Pistons doesn't end with musical guests. His hope is to provide flexibility and experiences apart from the actual games that will make purchasing basketball tickets a more rewarding proposition for fans.

"We think that the days of the full- and in some cases half-season ticket, are dying a very slow death," Mannion said. "Why shouldn't you be able to go and say, `Look, I don't want the full 41 games, 44 with preseason. Maybe I want to treat my family to two games per month. So I want 14 games, but I'd like to add in the basketball clinic for my son and daughter. I have another daughter that we're going to put in the cheer clinic."'

The Pistons averaged 12,730 fans for their first 16 home games this season, according to STATS, LLC. For their final 17 games at the Palace, that number jumped to 15,998. A winning team helps - after a 4-20 start, Detroit played .500 basketball the rest of the way and actually went 18-15 at home for the season.

Mannion says he didn't necessarily expect a quick fix to the team's struggles at the gate. The goal early on is simply to start changing the public's perception of game night at the Palace.

"There's always a factor of revenue proceeding relevance," Mannion said. "It's only been a three-and-a-half, four-month season. I think in that short amount of time, we're building up a reputation for the uniqueness of halftimes."

Improving the rest of the product is an ongoing process, but Gores sounds no less optimistic these days than when he first bought the team.

"We made a lot of progress," Gores said. "We have to earn the trust and the excitement back from the fans. Were we disappointed with some of the attendance and all that stuff? Of course. But we have to earn that trust."

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