Lets face it, the Cleveland Cavaliers have never been a sexy NBA franchise. Whether it be the cold climate, the hideous uniforms, laughable court designs, the perception of the city as a dark, gothic industrial wasteland, unhealthy self-loathing parody videos, the uneven history of success and losses in franchise history, or anything else (including Braylon Edwards’ bizarre belief that social networking doesn’t exist in Cleveland), the simple fact is that the Cleveland Cavaliers have never been a franchise of excitement.
The performance of the team on the court has been hit and miss with many modest highs and more extreme lows. Ownership groups have been infamously detestable in the case of Ted Stepien or generally underwhelming in the case of Gordon Gund. Even when the Cavs moved into a brand new arena, there was the unfortunate decision to have bright blue seats that made it painfully obvious how empty the cavernous arena was on most nights as mediocre team after mediocre team came through town.
As for Cleveland itself, it has always been a Browns town, and it will always be a Browns town. The city’s #2 team has always been the Cleveland Indians thanks to the franchise’s long history as a founding member of the American League and its 7 division crowns, 5 pennants, and 2 World Series titles. That has always left the Cavaliers as something of a 3rd wheel.
When the Cavaliers won the lottery and were awarded the privilege of drafting LeBron James, the hope was that everything would finally turn around for the Cavaliers. When Dan Gilbert bought the franchise from Gordon Gund a year and a half after LeBron’s arrival, he had big plans for the team.
The plan, as Gilbert saw it, was to spare no expense in reshaping the image of the Cavaliers. He overhauled Gund Arena and renamed it to The Q. With the new name came other changes in the arena. Gone were the hideous blue seats. The locker room was completely overhauled into a truly state of the art luxury suite. The in game experience would be changed as well. More music, more use of lights, explosions, more dancers. He attempted to turn attending Cavs game into more than a sporting event, but an all around entertainment experience.
Next came the practice facilities. One of the oldest tricks in corporate recruiting is to boost up the amenities. Gilbert applied this principle to his ability to draw in big name players and make the Cavaliers a destination franchise and not a stepping stone, and so he built the luxurious and unparalleled Cleveland Clinic Courts facility. He wanted his players to be comfortable at all times. Again, no expense was spared from extravagant catered spreads to relaxation and technology, everything was given to this franchise to make the players happy and the team competitive.
The final step, of course, was to build the product on the court. Gilbert’s vision was to have LeBron James be the eternal face of the franchise. The hope was, armed with all these provided amenities, LeBron would be a recruiting force in bringing in key free agents and having a franchise winning multiple Championships and competing for titles year in and year out. And when LeBron did finally have to retire, after spending his entire career in the wine and gold, he would be an ambassador for the franchise, keeping the franchise always in the spotlight, keeping the fans always engaged, and keeping the success always sustained.
Alas, though, we know what really happened. LeBron never became the great recruiter the Cavs wanted. Despite Gilbert’s improvements, the free agents still tended to stay away from Cleveland. Then LeBron finally just walked away from the franchise with the mission still incomplete and the vision failed. For Dan Gilbert, the question is how to proceed from here.
Of course winning solves everything, but the one last gift LeBron gave to Gilbert was the chance to use this season to change the legacy of the franchise. What was that gift, you ask? That gift was one last season of a packed house even with LeBron gone. With the fans still engaged in this team for at least this season, the Cavaliers have a real opportunity to win over the city and remain relevant in their own unique way.
Early in this season, it’s fascinating to look at the NBA’s attendance rankings. The Cavaliers are 2nd behind only the Chicago Bulls in average home attendance with an average 20,562 fans showing, which is The Q’s full capacity. Those looking for some satisfaction may notice the Heat languishing behind at 19,610 fans per game.
Of course, that’s not the whole story, that’s some statistical manipulation. First of all, the Q is the 6th largest Arena in the NBA and holds about 1,000 more fans than American Airlines Arena in Miami does. Second, the Cavaliers have an obvious boost from the season tickets they sold before LeBron made his decision. Some felt it was unfair that the Cavs put the deadline for season ticket renewals ahead of The Decision, but it was a brilliant move by the Cavs’ part because they knew that if LeBron left, they needed a chance to prove to the fans that this franchise was going to move on.
Having said all that, though, season tickets don’t make up full capacity. The fact that the Cavaliers average a full house speaks volumes to the growing passion for the Cavaliers in the city of Cleveland. The fans could have abandoned this team, but so far, the fans are still showing up to support the players left behind in the wake of LeBron’s desertion. And it’s not like the Cavs are playing good basketball at home. After the stunning yet equally exhilarating opening night win over Boston, the team has dropped 3 straight home games. Yet every game has been listed as a sell out, and the fans in the arena have been loud and trying to will the team to win.
The effort from the fans isn’t going unnoticed by the players, either. Daniel Gibson, when asked about the team’s home struggles, said
“We definitely have to clean that up. We have the best fans in the NBA and they need to see the best product we can put out on the floor. We’re playing extremely hard. We just haven’t been able to bring home those games. We’ll definitely become a better home team.”
Of course, all of this is dependent on how long it takes the Cavaliers to rebuild. Will they still be packing the Q three years from now if/when the Cavaliers still aren’t contending for Championships? It would seem unlikely. But there’s something going with the Cavaliers and their fans. There’s a growing symbiotic relationship in which both sides are appreciating and feeding off the support each side is giving to the other. This is where the Cavaliers have a chance to still grow a strong fan base and make Cleveland a great basketball city.
The NBA is a sport growing strong amongst the youth of America as superstars in the NBA resonate with kids more than the stars in any other sport do. For the youth of Cleveland, they’ve grown up with LeBron James and the Cavaliers playoff runs. They have a strong love for this team.
There’s also a beautiful underground movement of support for the Cavs. My Twitter timeline is just filled with absolutely great Cavs fans whose support of this team is going nowhere. Heck, did you know that there’s even a Cavs Zine? That’s right, it’s a fantastic piece of underground literature compiled by Cavs fans and handed out for free to Cavs fans. Stuff like this wasn’t happening prior to the LeBron era. Something is different now, and you can just feel it in the air.
As long as Dan Gilbert remains committed to making the Cavaliers a great franchise, this underground swell will stand united behind him and the franchise. It’s powerful to see. Again, Cleveland will always be a Browns town. They will always be the franchise that moves the needle the most in Cleveland. Fans support the Browns without even thinking about it. It’s like breathing in oxygen or the beating of the heart. The Cavaliers don’t need to top the Browns, but the hope is that the franchise can eventually develop a strong fan base of their own who has the same ingrained love for the team and for basketball that they go out and support the team without even thinking about.
As we head into the bitter cold months of December and January, the 2 months with the most difficult schedule for the Cavaliers, it will be easy to see support for the team wane. With colder temps and team likely to struggle even more in those months, it would be easy for fans to stay inside their warm house and do something else. My hope for this franchise, though, is that we fans can sustain this level of dedication to the Cavalier franchise no matter what. It’s a conscious decision, and I doubt this is the last time I will write a call to action to fans, but it really is up to us. The fans have been great beyond words in the wake of LeBron leaving. Better than I ever could have anticipated. Here’s to the future and sustained support of the Cleveland Cavaliers. This team both needs and deserves fans who live up to their billing over the last 7 years as some of the best fans in the NBA.