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Has Hockeytown turned into Hoops City?

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The Free Press has a couple of big questions for you to consider:

Have the Pistons replaced the Red Wings as Detroit's most beloved team?

Has Hockeytown turned into Hoops City?

Honestly, I think it has. I've always followed basketball much more so than hockey, but I'm starting to notice a lot more people talking about games, rattling off player names that I'm surprised they even know. I know the crowds haven't suffered at the Joe since hockey returned, but there just doesn't seem to be the same buzz, especially considering the Wings are the best in the Western Conference (yes, I had to check).

I knew the Pistons were working on 100 straight sell-outs, so I had a hunch my noticing an increased buzz around town wasn't purely anecdotal, but the Free Press dug a little deeper and revealed some interesting facts:

Fox Sports Net's ratings are up 80%, and twice this season, the cable network has notched all-time records for the number of viewers tuned in to a game. The Dec. 14 game against Sacramento set the high-water mark with an 8.5 rating -- or nearly 170,000 households in metro Detroit.

"It doesn't make any sense," [team president Tom] Wilson said. Ratings are up 80% "from a team that had come off a championship last year, and a team that was not fighting against the Red Wings. You wanted winter sports, it was all yours last year. And yet we come back, the Red Wings are playing great, and we're still up" 80% after not winning the championship.

Wow. That's impressive. If the Pistons front office brass can't even figure it out, I won't try to offer an definitive explanations, but I have a hunch it has something to do with the continuity of the starting lineup from year to year to year. The Wings were gone and the most recognizable faces of the Lions and Tigers either don't want to be here (Pudge Rodriguez) or aren't wanted by the fans (Joey Harrington). But the Pistons have had the same five starters take them to the NBA Finals two years in a row, and there's not an unlikeable guy on the team. Plus, going to the game is a ton of fun, and it's been consistently ranked among one of the most enjoyable experiences in all of sports.

Basketball is such an intimate sport in that you can see each player's personality on the court. Other sports like hockey and football have helmets and padding, making most of the players simply indistinguishable from each other. And baseball is played in such a structured manner with even the best players only getting a chance to really change the game three or four times a night. But in basketball, players touch the ball dozens of times each night, and it's played at such a pace where their personality comes through in their play as well as their body language in general. Seems to me every camera close-up between plays in hockey is a player either skating in circles waiting for the face-off or a player sitting on the bench staring at the ice. In basketball, you see all of the interactions players have between the refs, other players, and even opposing coaches.

But why has the popularity taken off this year as opposed to last year? I think Ian hit the nail on the head earlier today:

And while the Pistons' gaudy record this season is mostly attributable to the best starting five ever, these same players were mired in an emotional funk for much of last season (albeit partly due to Ron Artest). This is the big difference between the '04-05 team and '05-06 model: not only are the Pistons the best team in the league this season, but they are the happiest as well.

Anyone that watched games last year and this year can just tell -- the Pistons are simply having more fun. Maybe it's because they don't have a sourpuss of a coach always bringing them down and controlling their every move on the court, maybe it's because they're that much more comfortable with all of their teammates, or maybe it's just because they're so darn good that they don't ever lose enough games to ever get in a bad mood. I don't know. But it's plain to see. And it's been awesome to watch.

Pistons attract hoopla aplenty [Detroit Free Press]
100 things we love about the Palace [Detroit Free Press]
Ultimate Standings: Fan Satisfaction Rankings [ESPN.com]
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