The NBA’s Most Loyal Fans

In some ways, the old notion of New York City as America’s basketball Mecca seems quaint.

Given the expanded and mobile population across the U.S. and the globalization of basketball, players at the pro and major college levels are just as likely to hail from Chicago, Washington, D.C., or the West Coast (or China and Europe, for that matter) as they are from one of New York’s legendary playgrounds.

Nevertheless, basketball and the Big Apple still have a special bond. When it comes to the NBA, there isn’t a group of fans anywhere that shows the passion and loyalty to its local team the way New Yorkers show it to the Knicks. It isn’t even close. Over the past five years, the inept team – owner of a 0.368 winning percentage and one playoff appearance – has played to 99 percent capacity at Madison Square Garden. Either New Yorkers are just gluttons for punishment, or they really love their hoops.

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In Pictures: The NBA’s Most Loyal Fans

How miserable have things been for Knick fans? How about an average record of 30-52, including a pair of 23-59 seasons, over the past five years? Then there’s the series of off-the-court soap operas: respected veteran coach Larry Brown being hired and fired within one year; star guard Stephon Marbury feuding with coaches and now sitting out in street clothes as the team tries to trade him; and, of course, the embarrassing sexual harassment fiasco that ensnared (now former) president Isiah Thomas.

All this while charging the second-highest prices in the league. Still, the fans keep coming. Year after year, season ticket renewal rates check in at better than 90 percent.

Fan loyalty can be subjective and is, of course, measurable in different ways. Our method was tying attendance figures around the league to the affordability of tickets and to performance on the court. We measured affordability by comparing the average price each NBA team charges a family of four for tickets, food and parking, according to Team Marketing Report’s Fan Cost Index, to the median income level of the local metro area. Performance rankings were measured by overall winning percentage, with bonus points doled out for playoff appearances and championships. All numbers were compiled and averaged out for the past five seasons (2003-04 through 2007-08).

Fans that showed up in the largest numbers while watching the lousiest basketball and paying the highest prices relative to income (or a combination thereof) scored the most loyalty points.

Following Knick fans on the loyalty scale are West Coast basketball followers in Los Angeles (both Lakers and Clippers) and Sacramento. Even before last season’s run to the finals, the Lakers were just about filling up the Staples Center, despite charging the league’s highest ticket prices. Their weaker arena mates, the Clippers, have long been dismissed by the country as an irrelevant franchise. But give their local fans credit: The Clippers have played to 90 percent capacity over the past five years, despite averaging a paltry 35 wins a year while trying to compete against the Lakers’ panache.

Also on the list: the Dallas Mavericks, a once lackluster franchise whipped into the NBA’s top draw by owner Mark Cuban. For a winning team to lower ticket prices in the upper bowl of American Airlines Center, which the Mavs recently did, goes a long way toward building goodwill when a down cycle comes along.

“We are probably the first team ever in pro sports to go to the finals and then lower prices,” Cuban says.

The least loyal NBA fans? They can be found in Charlotte, N.C., where the Bobcats have ranked last in attendance over the past four years despite offering the fourth most affordable tickets. Things aren’t much better in Denver, where fans in the league’s fifth-highest income market, of the NBA’s sixth-best team (0.563 winning percentage, five straight playoff appearances), rank just 16th in attendance.

The top five:

1. New York Knicks: Slideshow
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Slideshow
3. Los Angeles Clippers: Slideshow
4. Sacramento Kings: Slideshow
5. Chicago Bulls: Slideshow
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In Pictures: The NBA’s Most Loyal Fans


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Updated Friday, Nov 7, 2008