NBA fans are a mysterious breed. They like winning. But they tolerate losing. Many support mediocre teams and have done so for years while at the same time complaining but not putting their money where their mouth is. Other fans like young players and want to see development and they get amped up by lottery picks beginning their careers. There are frontrunner fans that just like winners. They are not in for the middle of the pack doldrums. In all cases, what matters in fandom is the culture. Every team builds one. It makes the fans want to be a part of the product or say no thank you.
Take the Warriors. They don’t have that many more fans at Oracle this year than ten years ago. The difference is Warrior fan today is ecstatic and spoiled by the winning instead of angry and complaining. But Warrior fan always showed up, always went to games, always supported the team and the franchise. They bought in to the culture even when they were depressed by the teams W-L record.
Teams without a superstar don’t necessarily depress the fanbase. Many fans still come in droves. It’s about the culture, not necessarily about the W’s.
Who do the fan’s love?
The teams with a superstar have an advantage but not always. The Lakers don’t draw 100% capacity at home and are not in the top 9 in home attendance. Some markets don’t care about a superstar. Just be entertaining. Play hard. Show the fanbase love. Be all in for something. It’s about the product.
The Timberwolves have the least amount of fan love in the NBA because the product and the culture was divisive and antagonistic. Mysteriously, some winning teams are at the bottom of the fan love because hard work and glamour don’t sell, sorry Clippers. And losing a superstar hurts for a long time but not in Cleveland.
Something the NBA has to be concerned about is that last season only one team, the Atlanta Hawks, had a home attendance of 76.9%. This season, four teams cannot draw 80% capacity. That’s trouble for those franchises.
These are the early returns on the fan crush in October and November:
The Necessary Nine
Dallas Mavericks. 103% capacity. For the second year in the row, the Mavericks are winning the we show up game. Luka Doncic is must see in Dallas; he is in close race with Trae Young for Rookie of the Year. The Mavs are an average team at best but the fans like the culture, the players, and believe the best is yet to come. They believe in Cuban and enthusiastically give up their money.
Toronto Raptors. 100.2% capacity. Trading DeMar DeRozan was good for business. Kawhi Leonard was all the Raptors needed, a true superstar and a top-5 player. Toronto has always been a tough ticket. We Are the North are passionate about NBA basketball and the local team is like family. Last year, the Raptors ranked 2nd (tied) in home attendance
Philadelphia 76ers. 100.1% capacity. The Process has finally grown up and we are all the better for it. Adding Jimmy Butler is the latest upgrade for Philly fan. Philly fan just needs something legitimate to cheer for. They will come out and be loud, raucous and passionate. They have high hopes for a long playoff run and with Butler and Embiid, why not? Last year, the Sixers were tied for 2nd in home attendance.
Houston Rockets. 100.1%. capacity. In Houston, everyone is a believer, even though GM Daryl Morey traded Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute for luxury tax reasons. It wrecked their defense. The fans, though, trust the reigning MVP James Harden in spite of their very slow start. Attendance in Houston this season has increased from their rank last year of 13th.
Miami Heat. 100% capacity. The Heat are a perfect example of buying into the culture. Their four straight NBA Finals trips stuck with the fanbase and they continue to fill the seats, absent a superstar, and the likelihood of a lottery trip this season. Dwyane Wade is aging and this may be his last go round. But the fans don’t care. This is just more of the same. Last season they were tied for second in home attendance.
Golden State Warriors. 100% capacity. You expect this year to be the craziest Oracle year ever. It is goodbye Oakland. The Warriors are the best in the West, despite their record, and the fans know that. It’s a great vibe in Oracle. The Warriors win for the city and the culture. Last year, they were tied for third in home attendance.
Cleveland Cavaliers 100% capacity. This seems a little bit strange but the Cavs renewed their season seats at the same pace after LeBron left. (Bulls fans did the same after Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson left). It’s a short term help the wound not bleed. In a way, it is a good thing, blind optimism. Lately, the Cavs have been competitive and Collin Sexton is exciting to watch which helps the season ticket holders maintain some hope. Last year, the Cavs were tied for third in attendance.
Boston Celtics. 100%. It’s been a rough start with no-show Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum coming down to earth but Celtic fan is as true as they come. They are a multigenerational fanbase, romantic about their father’s Celtics and their grandfather’s Celtics. The Celtics were tied for second in home attendance last season.
Oklahoma City Thunder. 100% capacity. Great culture. Great vibe. Russell Westbrook doing Russell Westbrook things. Paul George settling in. New guy Dennis Schroder a solid Russ backup. The fanbase is loyal, committed and frenetic. Last season, Thunder fan was tied for second in home attendance.
The Not Fab Five
Minnesota Timberwolves. 76.9% capacity. Can things get any worse for the Wolves than Thibs on the hotseat and Jimmy Butler hating the player the franchise gave the keys to? Who wants to come and witness war of the superstars? Particularly how Towns let Butler punk him. With Butler gone, the team has done a turnaround but the fans aren’t on board yet despite a throwback Derrick Rose year. Last season the Wolves ranked 20th in home attendance. They have had a massive drop.
Detroit Pistons. 77.4% capacity. The Pistons have moved back to Detroit but people in Detroit don’t know it. Blake Griffin is having a MVP like year but does anyone care? Last year, the Pistons ranked 29th in home attendance so nothing, not even with a star like Griffin, has changed except fans in the seats. Last year, capacity was 82.9%.
Atlanta Hawks. 77.5% capacity. The Hawks are rebuilding. They drafted Trae Young in part to fill the new arena with his 3-point bomb play while the organization tanks for Zion Williamson. Last year’s capacity was 76.9% so a little improvement because of Young. They are no longer last in home attendance.
Brooklyn Nets. 78.0% capacity. What do you want me to say? It’s Brooklyn. They had a 7 point lead in the final minute against Memphis and lost. Brooklyn fans have suffered year after year. While the Caris LeVert injury was a big blow-he’s their best player- even with LeVert the Nets are a young team with D’Angelo Russell as the headliner. No more to be said. Last year, capacity was 85.9%. Attendance has gotten worse.
Washington Wizards. 81.1% capacity. This is how depressing life is in the District. John Wall and Bradley Beal can’t draw fans. The Wizards have a lower home attendance than the Phoenix Suns. Last year, their capacity was 88.6%. The fanbase, what is left, is in revolt.