For years, celebrity sports figures have appeared at autograph sessions, feeding the region’s sports memorabilia market. But this year is different: the market has tanked for members of the Celtics, the city’s biggest losers.
The owner of Sportsworld in Peabody said he has rejected recent offers from Celtics Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Kris Humphries to appear for autograph signings. The revenue they might generate would not cover the cost of hosting them, the owner, Phil Castinetti, said.
Almost any Bruins player, however, is welcome at Sportsworld.
“Honestly, I can’t remember selling one item of current Celtics memorabilia this whole season, but it has been the total opposite with the Bruins,’’ Castinetti said. “One team’s hot, the other not.’’
So it goes for Boston’s storied winter sports franchises. The Celtics and Bruins find themselves on diverging paths of fortune. The Celtics, 17-time NBA champions, are mired in a makeover and ineligible for the playoffs for the first time in seven years, while the Bruins are a favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the third time since 2011.
Signs of their skewed trajectories are written on the faces of fans and the bottom lines of businesses from Sportsworld to TD Garden. You see it in television ratings. In ticket prices on the secondary market. In the eyes of the bartender at Sullivan’s Tap, where sports fans have gathered near North Station since the day after Prohibition ended in 1933.
Business at Sullivan’s is down more than 20 percent because of blunted enthusiasm for the Celtics, bartender Matt Coleman said.
“The only way we’re going to make up for the losses is for the Bruins to go deep into the playoffs again,’’ Coleman said at the former speakeasy.
In a rare embrace of failure, the Celtics have spent much of their season refining the art of losing with dignity. After shipping out beloved stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they are banking in part on their poor record (25-56) producing a franchise-changing collegiate draft pick. They have accumulated 10 first-round picks over the next five years and have created enough space under the league’s salary cap to compete for a promising prize in free agency.
“The big picture for us is that it has been a largely positive season,’’ Celtics president Rich Gotham said. “Our fans understand that even if we’re not a championship-contending team, we’re a championship-driven team.’’
The Green have played to 97 percent capacity at the Garden and have sold out more than half their home games, including the final three against relatively unglamorous opponents: Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Washington.
Yet cheering for the Celtics has taken on a strange new meaning — “an odd dynamic,’’ Gotham calls it — as many fans root for defeats so the team might secure a more valuable draft position.
“I never thought I would see the day when fans came in here saying, ‘I hope we lose tonight,’” Coleman said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s lose one for the Gipper.’ ”
Many Celtics diehards have stayed true to the team. But legions of casual fans have shifted their focus, creating an attention deficit that has hurt related businesses. In the television market, the average household ratings for Celtics broadcasts on CSNNE have dropped nearly 18 percent to 2.35 from 2.86 the previous season, although the Celtics still rank among the top 10 in the NBA in local ratings.
By contrast, Bruins broadcasts on NESN this season have averaged a 5.0 household rating, the network’s highest ever for a full season, and more than double the Celtics’ ratings. Only two NHL teams have enjoyed higher local ratings this season than the Bruins: Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
With the Celtics sputtering, their ice-skating counterparts on Causeway Street have stoked a level of excitement rarely felt among Bruins fans since the heyday of Bobby Orr generations ago.
The Black and Gold topped the NHL standings with a record of 54-19-9, including a league-best 31-7-3 at home. The club has sold out 206 consecutive games at the Garden since 2009 and has raised ticket prices next season, from 10 percent for the best loge seats ($145 next season) to 40 percent for the cheapest balcony seats ($45).
The extra cash may help the Jacobs family, which controls the Garden and the Bruins, finance an anticipated $70 million upgrade of the arena over the next two years.
“There is absolutely tremendous love for the Bruins,’’ said Jim Taggart, manager of The Fours, which was named for Orr (No. 4), next door to Sullivan’s. “I didn’t think it could get any bigger than it was a couple of years ago when they won the Stanley Cup. But last year was bigger and this year has been off the charts.’’
The same holds true at the Ace Ticket outlet around the corner. While the owner, Jim Holzman, expressed admiration for Celtics fans generally standing by their team — “It was refreshing to see people not kick them when they were down,’’ he said — there was no sugarcoating the sales figures.
“The truth is, Celtics tickets are going for half price, while Bruins tickets are going for twice the price,’’ Holzman said.
For months, a core of Celtics loyalists harbored a wisp of hope that the team would become competitive this season. Then the team’s elite point guard, Rajon Rondo, returned from an injury in January. When Rondo’s comeback proved magic-less, the diehards also began hopping on the road-to-the-bottom bandwagon.
With one game remaining, the Celtics have the NBA’s fifth-worst record, despite first-year coach Brad Stevens and several players gaining respect for their performances under difficult circumstances. Their efforts and the team’s rebuilding strategy have given many fans hope for 2015 and beyond.
“It looks like the Celtics have hit rock bottom, but I think they have the necessary assets to turn it around,’’ said John Iannacci, of Lunenberg, an avid fan of both the Celtics and Bruins.
“As for the Bruins,’’ Iannacci said, “we’re fortunate to have at least one team in the playoffs with a chance to win it all.’’
No one knows how long it will take the Celtics to regain their glory. But while they wait, Gotham was gracious enough to tip his hat to the skaters who share a home with his team.
“The Bruins are in a championship window; they have a great product,’’ Gotham said. “We’ve been there. We appreciate their success and we’re working hard to make sure we get back there.”