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Sellout OKC Thunder crowd could have the Atlanta Hawks (and several other NBA teams) a little jealous

BY JOHN ROHDE, Staff Writer, Modified: December 30, 2010 at 7:19 pm •  Published: December 30, 2010

When the Atlanta Hawks jog onto the court inside Oklahoma City Arena at 7 tonight, they can look up into the stands with envy.

A sellout crowd of 18,203 is expected for the contest, with another 60,000-70,000 in the downtown area celebrating New Year's Eve.

This will be the 16th sellout in 19 home games for the Thunder. The team had 28 regular-season sellouts last year.

The Hawks are good (21-13), but sadly play before thousands of empty seats at home inside Philips Arena (18,729 capacity). Atlanta went 53-29 last season, yet ranked 18th in attendance, averaging 16,545 per game.

This season, after signing free agent guard Joe Johnson to a six-year deal worth roughly $119 million, the Hawks have dipped to 24th at 14,174 fans per game. That's not paying the bills.

The Thunder is a small-market team that offers some of the most affordable tickets in the league, which means sellout crowds are vitally important to the franchise being financially solvent.

If the Thunder was averaging 12,000-14,000 fans at home, the team probably still would have offered Kevin Durant a maximum five-year extension, but that would severely damage the chances of extending the contracts of Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, James Harden and others.

And would Durant have accepted the offer if he was playing in a home arena that was one-third empty?

It's a real-life scenario facing several teams in the NBA right now like Atlanta, Memphis, Sacramento, New Orleans and Charlotte.

Charlotte ranks No. 22 in home attendance this season at 15,494 per game. The Bobcats literally couldn't afford to keep Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton, who are now excelling with Dallas and New York, respectively.

"We understand there are tough economic times throughout the league and throughout the country," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It's special when you have an arena filled to the top every night. It's not like that everywhere."

Collison said fan support can influence whether a player decides to accept a team's extension offer.

"It can give you a better feel of your total experience," Collison said. "The games are a lot more fun when the fans are showing up and a lot more into it. I don't know if players look at that as a numerical thing — that "X" amount of fans makes it a place I want to be — but their experience is better and it definitely plays a part."

In attendance percentage — which is a building's occupancy based on its capacity — the Thunder ranks ninth at 99.6 percent and is sandwiched between the Los Angeles Lakers (99.7) at Staples Center and the New York Knicks (99.5) at Madison Square Garden. The top seven teams list 100 percent or higher, claiming standing-room-only.

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