I didn’t fully understand the power of superstars in the NBA until I began working in Ticket Sales for the Atlanta Hawks. The energy in the arena felt different when there was a star player. From a sales perspective, guaranteeing the ability to see LeBron was a huge selling point for specific packages. In this post, I look at the impact that star players have on NBA attendance.
For this analysis, I used regular season attendance data from ESPN from the 2015-16 to the 2019-20 season. Specifically, I looked at a team’s average road attendance, as a percentage of total capacity. Looking at attendance as a percentage of total capacity was better than looking at overall attendance since some arenas are larger than others. I looked a team’s road attendance because this shows how interested home fans are in seeing a specific team. To no surprise, in 2019-20, the Lakers had the highest average road attendance of 101.7%, meaning their average road game was completely sold out with SRO tickets available. The next closes teams were the Celtics and Mavericks and 97.6% capacity for road games.
My former colleagues and I noted that fans generally prefer to see star players as opposed to really good teams. The Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, who for the last few seasons have been near the top of the Western Conference standings, wouldn’t have anywhere near the demand of a worse team with more marketable superstars. Using data from the past 5 years, I compared the average attendance for a game when a superstar is in town vs. when a winning team is in town. For my definition of superstar, I looked at the all-NBA team for each year, which gives a good assessment of the best 15 players.
Over the past 5 seasons, the average attendance was 93.95% of capacity. With an All-NBA player in town, the arena is 95.19% full, and without an All-NBA player it drops to 93.10%. The average attendance with a winning team in town is only 94.49%, whereas the average attendance playing a below .500 team is 93.31%. Not only do fans prefer to see All-NBA players, but they would rather see an elite player as opposed to a winning team. This plot shows all of the average road attendances over the past 5 years categorized by no All-NBA players or having 1 or more All-NBA players. The 1st quartile, median, and 3rd quartile are labeled.
The median attendance with an All-NBA player is higher than the 3rd quartile for no All-NBA. Having an All-NBA player on the road team greatly increases the potential to have a full arena. There have been 12 teams in the past 5 years with an average road attendance over 98%. Only two of those teams did not have an All-NBA player. Not surprisingly, those two outliers for no All-NBA players come from Lakers teams. Their average road attendance in Kobe’s last season was 100.9% of capacity.
Defining a superstar as an All-NBA player is not perfect. For example, All-NBA has a center requirement, so Rudy Gobert has been an All-NBA player the past two years. However, he may not draw the same attention on the road as players such as Trae Young or Ja Morant, who are not All-NBA but could be considered bigger stars. The impact of superstars is most evident when looking at a few specific cases. Here, I looked at which teams saw the largest one-year increase or decrease in their average road attendance.
Most people can look at these teams and decipher why their average road attendance increased or decreased so significantly. None was more significant than the 2018-19 Cavaliers, who lost LeBron James to free agency. In 2017-18, the Cavaliers had an average road attendance of 99.5% capacity. In 2018-19, that number went down to 92.6%. The next largest decrease was the 2019-20 Warriors, who lost Kevin Durant to free agency and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to injury. They went from filling 99.7% of road arenas to 93.6%, which was a lower average road attendance than teams like the Pistons, Kings and Bulls. The largest year over year increase is the 2019-20 Clippers at 4.7%, who signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George. The 2018-19 Mavericks saw their road attendance increase 4.4% when they drafted Luka Doncic. It is interested that the 2016-17 Celtics saw a 4.1% increase, but that was the year they caught lightning in a bottle with Isiah Thomas performing at 2nd team All-NBA level.
There are other factors that can influence NBA attendance, such as day of the week, holiday, other events going on in the city etc. Teams try to prevent sharp attendance decreases from one night to another by offering variable pricing. If you are looking for single game NBA tickets, you’ll notice that the same section may cost more for one game or less for another. Since the demand for a Lakers game is often the highest, teams can price tickets for that game higher than all the others. Hypothetically, if you are interested in seeing an NBA game at your home arena, you could pay $50 to see the Timberwolves play, or pay $200 for that same seat to see the Lakers. That variable pricing helps increase attendance for lower demand games, while also maximizing revenue. What kind of NBA fan are you? Would you prefer to get great seats to see your team play against a lottery team, or pay the same amount to see your team play against LeBron but you’re sitting in the 300 level?