Detroit Pistons deliver a win with fans in stands for first time during pandemic

Easy parking. No lines. Unobstructed views.

There were a few perks that came with being among just 750 fans allowed at Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday as the Detroit Pistons welcomed fans for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began a year ago.

It didn’t hurt that the rebuilding home team bested the Toronto Raptors 116-112.

While the Pistons are eager to fill a larger portion of the 20,332-seat stadium, bringing in more fans is forward progress, said Mike Zavodsky, chief business officer for the Pistons. When state officials allow the team to open capacity to higher than 4 percent, they’ll be ready.

“I’m thankful that we’re able to have 750 people in the building,” Zavodsky told Crain’s. “I think, as you’re seeing tonight, it just creates a different vibe in the building when you’re able to have people.”

When professional sports resumed after being halted a year ago due to the pandemic, images of empty stands were a haunting reminder of what was happening outside the stadium. Now, actually seeing fans inside is the novelty, and it’s a sign that things are improving.

Billy Westfall, 35, came out to the game Wednesday with his 2-year-old daughter Sloane. It was her first game. While Westfall said he wished it was more of a traditional outing, the lack of crowds made life a little easier.

“Ideally, it would be under normal circumstances, but having a 2-year-old, it kind of makes it a little easier,” he said. “There’s no bathroom lines, there’s no concession lines, so that makes it a little easier on me. … We’re happy to come out and be able to enjoy the time, and hopefully she stays happy enough to make it through the whole game.”

Fans were required to take a wellness survey before entering the arena, but temperature checks were not done. Masks were required by all except when actively eating or drinking in a designated seat. Mobile phone tickets were scanned at pedestals, and transactions for concession items and merchandise were cashless to reduce contact.

A beer still cost $13 — some parts of the stadium experience haven’t changed.

Alexander Dubre, 23, said the last time he went to a live entertainment event was a Red Wings game downtown last March. He said Wednesday’s Pistons game was a welcome change of pace from staying inside and playing video games during the pandemic.

“It’s pretty much been in my room the entire time,” Dubre said. “Totally online life … It feels good to be back here.”

Zavodsky said the Pistons’ four remaining home games in March sold out quickly, and tickets for its seven home games in April are close to being gone. Tickets for May will go on sale next month.

Some fans have been at previous games, but attendance has mainly been limited to players, essential staff and guests of the team, which have included corporate sponsors and season ticket holders.

Season ticket holders were given the first chance to buy tickets for the reduced-capacity games. Zavodsky said more than 90 percent of its season ticket member base rolled over their accounts to the 2021-22 season rather than take refunds. He declined to say how many season ticket holders there are.

Zavodsky said the team is ready to “flip the switch” and accommodate more fans when it gets the nod from state officials.

“Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be really focused on some of the in-game entertainment and some of the experience fans have coming out to games,” he said. “That’s really the focus for us — helping elevate the experience that people have when they come out to a Pistons game.”

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