The NBA game is played for the fans. And in another way, the fans pay for the NBA game. There is a distinct relationship here that exists. The more fans a team has means more money coming in, which means better players, and (perhaps) better performance on the court. (Which, of course, means you can raise ticket prices or whatever...) Bigger cities can maintain bigger arenas, more fans, and theoretically, better teams as well. (Pours 40 out on sidewalk for Sactown)
Let’s explore which teams consistently do the best at: bringing in fans to watch their games, filling out their arenas, and lastly, winning games. Even a quick observation of this leads us do draw conclusions on which teams have the most or least bandwagnon-ing fans out there. Click below to find out!
All the data I am using comes from espn.com and basketball-reference.com. I am assuming that the data from those websites are both true and accurate. I don’t understand how a team like the Mavs can boast attendance percentages of 104.4% during the 2009 season. But that’s the type of data I’m working with here. Some teams just appear more honest with the numbers they report here. That said, here are the results of a 1,235 kb spreadsheet:
Here are two columns of data. The one on the left shows the average number of wins per season, for all the games played between the 2000-2001 and 2009-2010 NBA regular seasons. The one on the right shows the attendance for each team over that same span, in terms of attendance per game. The plus/minus part on both shows the variation between seasons. For example, the San Antonio Spurs were highly consistent over this time frame never winning or losing more than 3.5 games from their base 57.3 wins a season. By contrast, over this same time frame the mercurial Phoenix Suns have (depending in the season) won or lost 10.6 games from their base average of 49.2 wins a season.
The same sort of thing is seen for per game attendance as well. For example, the Utah Jazz (regardless of how good or poorly the team is doing) will show up with 19k people to watch the game with a variation (standard deviation) of about 500 people. That’s not too shabby. The Cleveland Cavaliers, on the other hand, have a +/- for any given home game (over these 10 years) of over 3000 people. (Are we allowed to call a spade a spade here yet?)
Top 5 Winners
The Top 5 teams in terms of average wins per season over the last decade are: the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, and Detroit Pistons. The Top 5 teams in terms of winning consistently (smallest standard deviation) are: the San Antonio Spurs (±3.5), Dallas Mavericks (±5.2), New York Knicks (±7.5), Toronto Raptors (±7.9), and Philadelphia 76ers (±8.1). This doesn’t mean best winning teams, but teams that win their average the most consistently. Hence, a team can be consistently good (like the Spurs) or consistently mediocre (like the Raptors).
Top 5 at putting butts in the seats
The Top 5 teams in terms of average attendance per home game over the last decade are: the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, and Utah Jazz. The most consistent draws (again, smallest standard deviation) are the Los Angeles Lakers (±67.22), New York Knicks (±338.44), Utah Jazz (±515.33), Charlotte Bobcats (±792.73), and Phoenix Suns (±895.05). I really owe the TRUE LA Lakers fans an apology here. I may hate your star player, your coach, and the fact that you guys always kill my team in the playoffs – but you guys come out to show support to your team. All the "fake" internet Lakers fans give you a bad name. What I find interesting is that you don’t have to necessarily win all the time to put butts in the seats. Some teams just have way more loyal fan bases. (But more on that later)
Winning and Selling Tickets
Wins, on the x-axis, are the main indicator of franchise success. There are only 6 teams that have won over 45 games a season over the past decade, on average. They stand out here as well. Similarly elite are the teams that have brought in 19k or more fans a home game over the last 10 seasons. Win or lose these teams (or fan bases) are also only 6 strong.
Of these two categories (45+ wins per season, 19k+ fans per home game) there are just a handful of teams that satisfy both criteria: the Spurs, Mavs, Pistons and Jazz. (Lakers are really close here too)
These teams are the cream of the crop when it comes to their relative performance in winning games and putting people in the seats over the last decade. Of course, winning seems to be the common denominator here. But you don’t need a winning franchise to be a good, consistent fan base.
We’ve always been told that the OKC, Blazers and Warriors crowds were among the best in the league – over, and over, and over again. If anything, the 10 year data suggests that (much like the franchises they support), the crowds are similarly average over the long haul. It got real old really quick to hear about the Oracle or Rose Garden – the data shows that the Palace of Auburn Hills or the United Center were way better places to watch a game. I’m not including any graphs or charts for this part – but some of these fan bases really get out of dodge quickly. (These are the ones with the higher standard deviation between home game attendances)
There’s no point in trashing the Charlotte Bobcats for having only 15k people go to their game on average. They are really new and developing their identity still. Where is the excuse, though, for the Trailblazers fans back in the 2004-2005 regular season? Yes, your boys only won 27 games that year – but you didn’t have to abandon your team. (2004-2005 home attendance of 16.7k, 20th in the L) The Blazers have had averages of over 20k people per home game for an entire season 3 times in the last 10 years. Somehow those years seem to co-inside heavily upon star power (2000-2001, 2008-2009, and 2009-2010). Another small town, small market team – the Jazz – only had 26 wins in the 2004-2005 season. Those fans still supported their team though. The Jazz attendance for that season (the one with 1 less win than the Blazers) had 18.8k people each home game (8th best in the league). In fact, over the last decade the Jazz attendance rank for any given season has never been out of the Top 10.
The last decade has seen the Jazz have stellar seasons of 44, 47, 42, 26, and 41 wins in the heart of it. These are all crappy seasons. But the Jazz fans are not band wagon fans. They stood by their team.
Another team that needs special recognition would be the New York Knick fans. Over the last decade they have won 32.7 ±7.47 games a season. Like the Jazz, their attendance has never been out of the Top 10 – and also like the Jazz, boast ON AVERAGE FOR 10 YEARS home game attendances of 19.2k people.
A swift contrast to that would be the Golden State fans. Their guys win 32.6 ±9.50 games a season. That’s just like the Knicks. Except, their fans only showed up for over 19k people each home game once in a decade. The Knicks fans averaged 19k in the Isiah Thomas / Scott Layden era. No one is allowed to give props to the Golden State fans for showing up for that one season.
The Sonics went through hell, and now the Thunder have emerged as a new team in a new city with new fans. They didn’t have the life sucked out of them by ownership like Seattle fans did. Their decade long data shows a standard deviation of nearly 1.5k people a home game. The last two seasons they’ve had over 18k people in to see them. That’s great. It really is. But hardly anything special.
No one is going to call the Pistons a better team, but last season they outdrew the thunder by nearly a thousand people per home game. The Pistons had 20 some wins last season. Lastly, I gotta tip my hat off to Bulls fans. The Bulls are far from the only game in town, and there is just so much to do in Chicago anyway – yet a team that wins only 34 wins a season (3 less than the Sonics/Thunder have over the last decade), they have averaged 20.7k fans a home game.
Sure, size of the city/fan base and size of the arena count quite a bit. But winning makes a fan base loyal. Which probably explain the data way better than these 1.5k words have.
Calling you out
Cavs fans, wow. Not the most loyal bunch. We’ll see how the next decade goes, but there was a nearly 7k spike in home game attendance from no-LeBron to having-LeBron. "Heat Fans" also get a special call out here. You guys never really used to support your team, lots of Bobcat like attendance numbers over the last decade. I’m expecting big things this year though, I wonder why. (Discount seats on the band wagon?) Rockets fans, I see you. Or more likely, I don’t see you. Only 15k on average and you guys have had some of the biggest stars over the last decade (Franchise, T-Mac, Yao?) . . . wow. I guess you all are at home posting at clutchfans or something.
Mad respect for Kings fans, who have been selling out and filling out at capacity for 7 out of the last 10 seasons. You guys need a bigger gym, as you can only fit 17k people. It’s a damn shame what’s happening to you guys right now. Everyone else -- If I didn’t mention your favorite team yell at me in the comments section.
Thanks to JC who runs a very tight ship at the Utah Jazz official website (on twitter @utah_jazz), ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com