It’s 5 o’clock on a Tuesday night in the middle of November, but fans are already piling into the American Airlines Center to see their Dallas Mavericks take on the San Antonio Spurs.
The season isn’t even a month old and the home team is off to a miserable 2-12 start. Rookie Dennis Smith Jr.’s body is having issues adjusting to the physical intensity of the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki, the 39-year-old face of the franchise, is barely averaging double digits in scoring. And the team had already dropped several games to inferior opponents such as the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings (both home losses).
Fast forward almost two months, and Rick Carlisle’s team has somewhat righted the ship, going 5-5 their past 10 games. Last week, the Mavericks almost completed a stunning comeback against the Golden State Warriors.
After a 33-48 record in 2016-17, the Mavericks entered this season with low expectations, and the team remains a long shot to make the postseason.
But fans keep filling the arena, keeping alive a sellout streak that began in 2001.
Affordable ticket prices, two highly visible franchise players and approachable management have helped keep fans interested and engaged.
“I’ve been to three games this year, and the first time I came was because I saw they had cheap tickets and I took my girlfriend,” said Matthew Leach, 26. “I’ve only been coming the last couple of seasons, but it’s been really nice because I can save money, and there are always tickets available.”
Single-game ticket prices depend on the opponent. Tickets for Tuesday’s game against the Magic start at $7. But it will cost at least $31 to get in the door for Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Both times the Spurs have come to town this season, their fans have showed up in droves. The second game in particular produced audible cheers for the visiting team because of the regular-season debut of star forward Kawhi Leonard, who was returning from a quad injury.
A few of those Spurs fans took note of the American Airlines Center experience.
Eli Espinoza is a Spurs fan who has lived in Mavericks territory since 2001. For several seasons, he’s bought a 10-game package that includes the games against his favorite team.
“We got married right in the middle of the rivalry and I was the lone Spurs fan, but it’s still been a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m partial to the fiesta feel in San Antonio, but I do love the feel coming in with the plaza with the big screen, the AT&T Plaza, and there are activities, it’s something they don’t have down there.”
Technically, the Mavericks have sold out 726 consecutive home games, the second longest streak in NBA history. The Portland Trail Blazers sold out 814 straight from the 1970s through the 1990s.
And while the organization and owner Mark Cuban are proud of the streak, the “sellout” figure is based on tickets sold, not the number of fans in attendance. But most nights the American Airlines Center tends to be full with energized fans.
The twilight of Nowitzki’s career and the rise of rookie Smith have also contributed to the consistent turnout.
“I want to see Dirk as much as possible before he retires, and watching Dennis Smith Jr. develop into a superstar in person, that’s special,” Leach said.
George Prokos, the Mavericks’ senior vice president of ticket sales and services, said Cuban’s focus has always been about being affordable and creating an exciting environment. He said the owner often shares the feedback he gets from customers.
“That in and of itself puts us in a unique position because most organizations in professional sports are more attuned to the financial side of the business than they are the entertainment side of the business,” he said.
Prokos said the league’s teams are eager to collaborate and share ideas.
“In the NBA you aren’t competing against another team is a general rule,” he said. “We have a market area that does not cross over into another team’s market area. The NBA is very collaborative from the top down.”
Having an owner who’s just an email away from fans helps, too.
“We get a lot of feedback through Mark where a customer has contacted him directly and made a recommendation or suggestion about how we might do something differently or add something to our mix,” Prokos said. “A lot of our best ideas come from consumers that are engaged with us.”