Win, Lose, or Draw: where and why do NBA fans spend their money?

With the NBA Conference Finals underway, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the 2015-16 regular season attendance numbers. Which road teams were the best draw? Which teams need to re-engage their fan base? In what possible way was Kobe better than Steph? We will answer these questions and more while showing you how to accomplish it all with the Stattleship API R wrapper.

We are going to be doing this by comparing capacity ratios which tells us how well a team fills an arena. The formula is simply:


capacity ratio = (average attendance)/(venue capcity)

First let’s take a look at how well a team fills an arena on the road.

Here we are plotting road games capacity ratio versus winning percentage.


Using R (see script below) we see there is low correlation (0.20) between winning percentage and road game attendance.

Takeaway #1: Winning percentage is not a large factor for how well teams draw on the road

  • MVP Award: Congratulations to the Lakers and the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour who were a slightly better draw than the record setting Warriors and Steph Curry. Both averaged just over 1.00 capacity ratios, and while it’s was very close, Kobe did bring in about a dozen extra people per game than Steph and the Warriors while winning 56 less of them. Pretty impressive.

  • The High Achievers: The Warriors, Cavaliers, and Thunder are all top 5 in away capacity ratios. It makes sense since they are winning teams with multiple superstars.

  • The Overachievers: Rounding out the top 5, the Lakers and the Knicks also attracted a ton of fans yet had losing records. How did they do this? They hail from the top-two media markets and both have marketable superstars in Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. It’s interesting to note that the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis had the 4th best-selling jersey this year, 11 spots higher than Carmelo and right behind Kobe but it’s much too early to put Kristaps into the superstar category.

  • The Bad: The Raptors, Celtics, and Hawks attracted the least amount of fans among teams with winning records. They are all outside the top 5 media markets and are known more for their scrappy, blue-collar, and team-oriented style of play. Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, and Paul Millsap are all underrated All-Stars who don’t rise to the popularity level of a Curry or Durant.

  • Dishonorable mention: We can’t let the Magic go unnoticed. They were last in the league in road capacity and along with the Raptors one of only two teams to come in at under 90%. Again, the theme here is the lack of a real superstar.

  • Most Surprising: One team that drew better than one might expect were the Timberwolves. Their 0.354 winning percentage was the 5th worst in the league, yet they were the 9th best road draw. Having the last two #1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, along with back-to-back NBA Slam Dunk Champion Zach LaVine are likely reasons fans are willing to pay to see them play.

  • Most Predictable: While the Warriors broke the single-season win record this year, the Spurs (in typical fashion) quietly tied for the 7th-best record in NBA history. Their draw was good for 7th overall but still lower than 3 non-playoff teams (Lakers, Knicks, and Bulls). With their slow tempo offense - 3rd fewest transition possessions in the league - and the fact that they are likely to be resting one of their stars on any given night, some fans may choose to spend their money on a more exciting opponent instead. Sounds about right for the oldest team in the league.

Takeaway #2: Star power matters on the road.

LeBron and Steph only come to town once or twice a year. Supply and demand reigns supreme.

Now let’s take a look at how well teams fill their home arena.

We will do this by plotting home games capacity ratio versus winning percentage.


Once again using R, we see that there is medium correlation (0.46) between winning percentage and home game attendance, which is more than twice that of road game attendance. This makes sense since we’re talking about the same fan base for every home game, they are more likely to be consistent than road games where you are dealing with 29 separate fan bases.

Takeaway #3: Winning matters more to home fans

It’s hard to fill an arena 41 times a season when you are not winning.

Takeaway #4: The East is not getting it done at home

There’s a lot of green and red below the best-fit line.

  • The High Achievers: Congratulations to the Mavericks and Bulls for somehow cramming over 104% of capacity every game. Is that even legal? We’ll assume they add seats or include standing room only tickets in these numbers. In any case, it’s a good problem to have with these dedicated fan bases.

  • The Overachievers: The Kings, Knicks, Pelicans, and Lakers were all over 97% capacity with losing records. It’s worth noting each of these teams have a player who would qualify as a star (Cousins, Anthony, Davis, and Bryant).

  • The Bad: There are at least 5 teams that have a lot of work to do in order to excite their fan base. From the plot above it’s obvious that the Sixers, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Pistons, and Bucks are all leaving a lot of money on the table with these unused seats, coming in at under 75% capacity.
    The 10-win Sixers can’t expect much more from their fans. Philly has been rebuilding for years while allegations of tanking continue to swirl. With numerous lottery picks on the roster they at least have some exciting young players to give the fans hope. Landing the #1 overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft can’t hurt.

Sadly, the Timberwolves and Nuggets each won nearly 3 times as many games as the Sixers yet had a lower home draw. Speaking of the Timberwolves…

Takeaway #5: The Timberwolves should consider trading for Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise

  • Timberwolves: They get their own section. They had the worst home capacity ratio in the league at 73.2% but 9th best on the road at 93.8%. Why are they such a better draw on the road than at home? Having the longest playoff drought in the league (12 years) might have something to do with it. Oh, and then there’s the other team in town (officially next-door in St. Paul), the NHL’s Minnesota Wild who just happen to be the best home draw in the NHL with a 113.2% home capacity percentage! Take that Bulls! Truth be told, the Wild are the best home draw (capacity-wise) of the 4 major North American sports. This past regular season the Wild attracted nearly 40% more fans per game than the Timberwolves (19,827 vs 14,175). At least we now know where everyone goes on those cold winter nights in Minnesota.

  • Biggest Letdown: Has to be the Pistons, who won 44 games and made the playoffs this year, yet they have the 4th worst home draw at 74.69%. This is nearly 16 points lower than the next closest playoff team which are the Hawks at 90.16%. Six straight seasons without a post-season appearance has likely disengaged this once proud fan base. The emergence of Andre Drummond in the post and a return to the postseason this year hopefully means brighter days are ahead in Detroit.

  • Dishonorable Mention: This award goes to the Nets who were the 6th worst home draw while playing in the largest media market. This is what you can expect when you have the 3rd worst winning percentage, no marquee superstars, and no 1st round draft pick this year yet payout the 6th highest team salary ($88 million): a fan base that has nothing to be excited about.

Conclusion

Having a big-name superstar is the best way to fill seats. On the road this is more important than at home where fans also like a winner.

We focused on only a few elements like capacity ratios, star power, winning percentage, and market size but many other factors such as weather and ticket prices factor into the equation. I would love to see folks take this analysis further to test other elements! Just how much money is being left on the table?

Below you will find the fully-commented R script which generated the plots and the data used to make the interactive Tableau dashboard. Play around with the dashboard: choose any team, home or away, and see how they filled arenas or which teams were the best draw for them at home.

A special note regarding the dashboard when choosing “All” teams: with the “Home” filter, you will see how each team fared on the road since “all” the Home teams are the selection. Likewise, choosing “All” teams with the “Away” filter will show you how teams filled their home arenas.