The NBA’s best fans

Sports are the ultimate form of entertainment, especially in Los Angeles. At Lakers games, it’s hard to tell who the bigger fan attraction is – the superstars on the court like Kobe Bryant(notes), or courtside celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Sometimes the athletes and celebrities come together, like reality TV star Khloe Kardashian and her new husband, Lakers forward Lamar Odom(notes). But starstruck or not, there is one fact that is not up for debate: Lakers fans are the best in the NBA.

We looked at three fan engagement measures from the 2008-09 season to arrive at this conclusion. We ranked teams based on average regular-season home game attendance as a percentage of arena capacity; regular-season local television viewers as a percentage of the team’s metro area population; and team merchandise sales.

Judged by those measures, Lakers fans showed their team the most love. Fans filled the Staples Center to its 18,977-seat capacity for every home game the past two years. They had a league-high 98 percent renewal rate for season ticket holders for the current season. On top of that, an average 267,000 households in the L.A. area tuned into Lakers games last season on television stations KCAL 9 and FS West. Fans also bought enough Lakers gear to make it the top-selling merchandise last season. Kobe Bryant jerseys were the most popular in the league, and Pau Gasol’s(notes) jerseys ranked ninth.

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In Pictures: The NBA’s best and worst fans

The Lakers’ following is not just a function of their large market. Look at their Staples Center co-tenants: the Clippers. The Clippers averaged 16,170 fans at home games and only 38,000 television viewers on average.

The two Los Angeles teams highlight that winning certainly counts for something. The Lakers won 79 percent of their regular season games before going on to capture their 15th NBA title. The Clippers won only 23 percent of their games, and have never even won their division. In this economy, who can blame Los Angeles sports fans for choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere?

Each of the teams whose fans rank among the best made it to the playoffs last year. The Chicago Bulls won just half of their games, but their fans still rank fourth overall. The city is still basking in memories of Michael Jordan – his No. 23 jersey is one of the most popular sold, helping make Bulls merchandise the fifth most popular in the league. The United Center sold out every home game last season.

On the flip side, the fans at the bottom of our list had good reason to turn their backs on their team. The bottom five teams have posted only one winning season over the past three years.

The team with the weakest following by our count is the Charlotte Bobcats. Fans haven’t had much to cheer about as the team has won only 35 percent of its games since the expansion team’s inception in 2004. Bobcat merchandise sales were at the bottom of the league last season. Plus their historically low TV ratings were further depressed by the fact that the team moved all their games to cable, inking a deal with FS Carolinas and sister-station SportSouth, where games were available live in a limited area.

Still winning isn’t everything. The Lakers’ last two playoff opponents, the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets, finished in the middle of the pack in our fan rankings. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks won just 39 percent of their games, but boasted stronger fan interest than both. Some fans are just gluttons for punishment.

The top five:

1. Los Angeles Lakers: Slideshow
2. Boston Celtics: Slideshow
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: Slideshow
4. Chicago Bulls: Slideshow
5t. New Orleans Hornets: Slideshow
5t. San Antonio Spurs: Slideshow
See the NBA’s worst fans

In Pictures: The NBA’s best and worst fans


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Updated Thursday, Dec 10, 2009