On an (almost) annual basis I present rankings of fan bases across major professional and collegiate leagues. Today it is time for the NBA. First, the winners and losers in this year’s rankings. At the top of the list we have the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls. This may be the trifecta of who the league would love to have playing at Christmas and in the Finals. At the bottom we have the Grizzlies, Nets and Hornets.
Before i get into the details it may be helpful to briefly mention what differentiates these rankings from other analyses of teams and fans. My rankings are driven by statistical models of how teams perform on a variety of marketing metrics. The key insight is that these models allow us to control for short-run variation in team performance and permanent differences in market potential. In other words – the analysis uses data to identify engagement or passion (based on attend and spend) beyond what is expected based on how a team is performing and where the team is located. More details on the methodology can be found here.
This year’s list contains no real surprises. The top five teams are all major market teams with storied traditions. The top fan base belongs to the Knicks. The Lakers, Bulls, Heat and Celtics follow. The Knicks highlight how the model works. While the Knicks might not be winning , Knicks fans still attend and spend.
The number two team on the list (The Lakers) is in much the same situation. A dominant brand with a struggling on-court product. The Lakers and Clippers are an interesting comparison. Last season, the Clippers did just a bit better in terms of attendance (100.7% versus 99.7%). But the Lakers filled their seats with an average ticket price that was substantially higher. The power of the Laker brand is shown in this comparison because these outcomes occurred in a season where the Clippers won many more games.
Why are the Lakers still the bigger draw? Is this a star (Kobe) effect? Probably in part, but fan loyalty is something that evolves over time. The Lakers have the championships, tradition and therefore the brand loyalty. It will be interesting to see how much equity is retained long-term if the team is unable to quickly reload. The shared market makes this an interesting story to watch. I suspect that the Lakers will continue to be the stronger brand for quite a while.
At the bottom of the list we have Memphis, Brooklyn and Charlotte. The interesting one in this group is Brooklyn. Why do the Nets rank poorly? It ends up being driven by the relative success of the Knicks versus the Nets. The Knicks have much more pricing power while the teams operate in basically the same market (we can debate this point). According to ESPN, the Knicks drew 19,812 fans (100% of capacity) while the Nets filled 83.6% of their building. The Knicks also command much higher ticket prices. And while the Nets were worse (21 victories) the Knicks were far from special (32 wins).
What can the teams at the bottom of the list do? When you go into the data and analyze what drives brand equity the results are intuitive. Championships, deep playoff runs and consistent playoff appearances are the key to building equity. easy to understand but tough to accomplish.
And a Draw
An interesting aside in all this is what it means for the league. The NBA has long been a star and franchise driven league. In the 1980s it was about the Lakers (Magic) and Celtics (Bird). In the 1990s it was Michael Jordan and the Bulls. From there we shifted into Kobe and Lebron.
On one hand, the league might be (even) stronger if the top teams were the Bulls, Knicks and Lakers. On the other hand, the emergence of Steph Curry and Golden State has the potential to help build another powerful brand.
Some more thoughts…
The Fan Equity metric is just one possible means for assessing fan bases. In this year’s NFL rankings I reported several more analyses that focus on different market outcomes. These were social media following, road attendance and win sensitivity (bandwagon fans). Looking at social following tells us something about the future of the brand as it (broadly) captures fan interest of a younger demographic. Road Attendance tells us something about national rather than local following. These analyses also use statistical models to control for market and team performance effects.
Top Social Equity Team: The Lakers
Bottom Social equity: The Nets
Comment: The Lakers are an immensely strong brand on many dimensions. The Nets are a mid-range brand when you look at raw numbers. But they suffer when we account for them operating in the NY market.
Top Road Equity: The Lakers
Bottom Road Equity: Portland
Comment: The Lakers dominate. And as this analysis was done looking at fixed effects across 15 years it is not solely due to Kobe Bryant. Portland does well locally but is not of much interest nationally.
It is possible to do even more. We can even look at factors such as win or price sensitivity. Win sensitivity (or bandwagon behavior) tells us whose fans only show up when a team is winning and price sensitivity tells us if a fan base is willing to show up when prices go up. I’m skipping these latter two analyses today just to avoid overkill (available upon request). The big message is that we can potentially construct a collection of metrics that provide a fairly comprehensive and deep understanding of each team’s fan base and brand.
Note: I have left one team off the list. I have decided to stop reporting the local teams (Emory is in Atlanta). The local teams have all been great to both myself and the Emory community. This is just a small effort to eliminate some headaches for myself.
Finally… The complete list