The Myth of the Declining NBA

Is the NBA becoming a niche sport?  A few days ago, this question was debated at Ball Hype by Dan Shanoff and Tom Ziller. Shanoff –of DanShanoff.com and The Sporting Blogtook the position that the NBA is fading in popularity.  Ziller — of NBA FanHouse and Sactown Royaltytook the opposing viewpoint.

Many people seem to view debates as a contest, with clear winners and losers.  In my experience in academia, debates are often just an exchange of information.   People do not win (or try and win).  We simply state our position as best we can and hope to learn something.

All that being said (and it does make academia sound kind of nice), if the Shanoff-Ziller debate was a contest, this wasn’t very close.  Ziller clearly won.

This is not necessarily, though, because Ziller demonstrated superior debating skills (he might have, but that’s not the point). No, Shanoff lost this debate because his position is contradicted by the data.

In 2006-07 the average NBA team attracted 726,954 fans during the regular season.  And this was the all-time record. Let me repeat.  Last season the NBA – which Shanoff says is declining in popularity – set an all-time attendance record.  And this is a per-team average record (of course they also set a record for total attendance).

To put this mark in perspective, 20 years ago – during the peak of the Boston-LA rivalry — the NBA’s per team average was only 550,190 fans.  Across the past 20 years, while the U.S. population has grown 23.8%, NBA attendance has grown 38.7%. 

The NBA’s Oklahoma Problem

We should note, though, that attendance is down this year.  According to the attendance data posted at ESPN.com, NBA teams are currently on pace to post an average of only 709,219 fans. So after setting attendance records in 2006-07, 2005-06, and 2004-05, the NBA has experienced a slight dip. 

Is this because of the general problems with the national economy? Although Martin Schmidt and I have found that Major League Baseball attendance is impacted slightly by changes in the national economy, my sense is that this is not the story in the NBA.

When we look at the individual teams, we can see that 50.6% of the decline can be tied to Oklahoma. 

The Hornets left Oklahoma City and have seen their attendance decline by a projected 164,410 fans.  Seattle – the team that is doing everything to move to Oklahoma – has seen its attendance go down by a projected 104,571 fans.  All together, the teams either leaving or going to Oklahoma account for more than half of the league’s drop-off in attendance.

One should note that two other teams – Indiana and Sacramento – have also seen significant drop-offs at the gate (primarily due to the disappointing play of each team).  All together, New Orleans, Seattle, Indiana, and Sacramento account for the entire decline we see in league attendance.  In sum, it doesn’t look like the NBA’s drop-off this season is due to changes in the national economy.  And it certainly doesn’t look like it is part of a decline in league popularity. 

One last note on the attendance story.  You certainly you couldn’t get very far telling the declining popularity story in Portland – where attendance has grown more than anywhere else this season.  Or in Boston and Golden State, where attendance has also increased.  Yes, as The Wages of Wins argues, an individual team’s gate is driven primarily by wins (or to put it another way, we should not be surprised that the Denver Nuggets – even with Allen Iverson – are on pace to draw fewer fans this season).

The Television Rating Story

Missing from the Shanoff-Ziller debate was much reference to any data.  Shanoff, though, did note that last year’s NBA Finals – between the Spurs and Cavs – did not get very good ratings. 

Of course, drawing an inference from one data point is a problem.  Although I have not seen published research on what drives ratings for NBA Finals, I suspect that there are two issues with a Spurs-Cavaliers final.

1. These are both small markets.  Beyond Cleveland and San Antonio, who else would care?

2. These teams were also not very competitive.  It was pretty clear that San Antonio was the much better team.  A contest between two small-market competitors, where we pretty much can guess the outcome at the onset, is not a contest that is going to get you very high TV ratings.

I would add that according to John Dempsey of Variety (Hat Tip to Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.com) NBA ratings are up quite a bit this year. 

Quoting from the Dempsey article: National TV audiences are flocking back to the NBA, led by double-digit gains in all the adult-male demographics on ABC, ESPN and TNT.

So let me summarize:

The NBA set an attendance record in 2006-07.  TV ratings are up this year.  And this is a league in decline?  I think the data clearly rejects this argument. 

– DJ

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