From 1996 to 2003 (roughly) the Colorado Avalanche were consistently selling out McNichols Arena and Pepsi Center. Winning two Stanley Cups with two different owners, and overall just setting the standard for excellence in Denver (winning a championship one year before the Broncos did). The Avs also benefited from a largely incompetent Nuggets organization that was in constant flux, and perpetually bad during that same time period. While I haven't found too many Hockey AND NBA fans (it usually is either or, there is rarely crossover) there are enough casual fans to where that made a difference.
When team fortune's took a slide around 2006, the Avalanche's long sellout streak came to an end. In 2008 the decision was made to fully tank their roster (ala the NBA) and go with a youth/low payroll movement. The Avs have struggled with attendance ever since, and as The Denver Post's Terry Frei notes in his column today, their attendance still lags behind a largely amorphous and, right now, mediocre (20-20 record) Denver Nuggets team.
Now, there are some factors at play here. The NHL, in it's infinite wisdom, decided to lock out it's players for the second time in 8 years in 2012. Lockouts hurt the general fan base of any league that decides to go that direction ... and certainly the NHL is no exception and as the 4th of the 4 major sports in the United States, probably could least afford it. However, the Avalanche attendance slide, that accelerated in 2008 neatly coincides with their decision to tank. It's been a struggle ever since to bring back the fans, even with a young and exciting team that they possess right now. I encourage everyone to read Frei's article on the Avs attendance, it's eye opening.
Which brings me to the Nuggets.
It is wrong to call the Nuggets a small market team. They aren't. They are a mid-market team, which is actually worse. Not low enough in revenue to get a large piece of the revenue sharing pie, not a big enough market to make enormous profit. The Nuggets are just ... there. In the middle. The Nuggets have also a fiduciary obligation to the worst financial deal in NBA history (which hopefully is resolved soon), which neatly cuts into team profits (as a side note, former Nuggets owners Ascent constantly complained about that payment to the Silnas). This isn't a "woe is the Nuggets piece" more of the "realities of mid-market life" in the NBA.
The Nuggets fully tanked their roster three times from 1990 to 2002. The tank job that was started by Bernie Bickerstaff in the summer of 1996, and completed by Allan Bristow the following summer, set the Nuggets back for at least 6 seasons by the sheer incompetence of it. All the while, the Nuggets were drawing six thousand fans to McNichols and the sports watching populace of Denver turned it's eye toward other things. The Nuggets were hit terribly in the wallet, and only the one year blip of the first season of Pepsi Center (1999-00) temporarily eased the pain. As Andy Feinstein likes to say, the reason people went to Nuggets games was to watch Super-Mascot Rocky.
The only team Denver will support when they are losing is the Denver Broncos. Period.
That places teams like the Nuggets and the Avalanche with the constant need to stay relevant. Tanking, in a manner of speaking, "tanks" interest in the team. With the Broncos dominating the coverage of winter sports, a bad Nuggets squad suffers the consequences. The frustrating part about Denver is there's enough people in the area to support all three, but the whole "Broncos town" thing is enormously hard for competing winter sports teams to break through. The Rockies have the advantage of playing during the summer, and have no real competition for most of their season. Lucky them eh?
It shouldn't be so hard in Denver, with 3 million people packed into the front range there's enough to go around.
I'm of the mind that the Nuggets needed to tank the roster as much as possible this summer. If they were going to go a new direction (which they clearly are), tanking and beginning to bring in players that fit what coach Brian Shaw wants to do is a better plan of action than getting on the treadmill of mediocrity. The Nuggets are decidedly mediocre right now. I don't know any dedicated fan that wants to see "meh" basketball being played. At the same time, casual fans retain interest when the team is semi-competitive.
I don't envy the difficult decision to start trading for picks and expiring contracts. It's basically a signal to fans they can take a couple years off. Yet, you almost have to go that route. Will the Nuggets eventually have to risk losing a hefty amount of the casual fan and struggle to gain them back in order to make themselves better in the long run? If history tells us anything...
The Nuggets are in an extremely difficult place right now. Going from where they are now, to where they want to be is one of the most difficult routes in all of sports. As of right at this very moment, I have not seen, nor have I heard anything coming from the Nuggets that would lead me to believe that they would start selling off. I truly believe they are off the mind-set that they will remain competitive.
Financially speaking, I don't blame them. The hardest part is making it work. I think that says more about the city of Denver than it does the Nuggets or even the Avalanche.