The Real Value of an NBA Ticket

Atlanta Hawks fans

A lot of speculation has been about which is the best NBA franchise to support. The team that plays the most attractive basketball, the team that has been the most successful lately or even in the past, or the one that your favorite athlete plays for? The above question can also be set under a different perspective : business. This research will focus on which is the most “economic” team for a fan to support.

Before getting into the previously mentioned topic, there is one thing that needs to be clarified. This research does not aim to present which team a fan should support (since probably nobody picks his favorite team e.g. by its ticket price). It is to demonstrate which one is the best according to economic criteria only. Therefore, it would be interesting to see if you get a better “value for money” for being a Utah Jazz supporter than a Golden State Warriors supporter for example.

Since United States is a vast country with quite different geopolitical, social or economic background from state to state, the average household income differs across the country. In 2016, this index for Oklahoma was 49,176$ while for Massachusetts was 75,297$ (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). The below interactive map gives a clear idea about the distribution of money across the country. As it is quite profound, usually residents of big metropolitan areas are the highest – paid.

There is one term that needs to be clarified for the purposes of this research : inflation. The country’s 1984 median household income was only 22,415$. However, if we adjust for current inflation, this number increases up to 48,000$ approximately (, 2016). Nowadays, U.S. citizens usually have to pay more than the previous year to get a NBA ticket. However, they are still very affordable. Between 2006 and 2016 the median household income saw a rise of 15.9% (adjusted for inflation), while the average ticket price rise by 15.9% too!

This research focuses on the last 5 seasons and relevant instead of absolute values will be used since median income differs from place to place. In this way, the conclusions will be much more concrete. The main criterion will be the quota of household income used to buy a ticket. Some states have more than one team and therefore using median household income by city is much more accurate than by state. This makes sense, as someone living in Houston for example, will rarely make 240 miles to Dallas to watch a Mavericks home game, even if they have cheaper tickets.

From 2012-13 season and afterwards 22 states have at least one NBA team, plus one Canadian provincy (, 2017). As mentioned before, the aim is to determine which franchise has the smallest value index, which is defined by average ticket price divided by median household income. That means that its fans spent the least proportion of their annual income among all 30 teams to watch a home game. It should also be taken into consideration that secondary goods & services like parking, fans merchandise and snacks/refreshments are not included in this study.

On the below chart, one can see the average index for those 5 years for Western Conference. It can be said with certainty that Lakers’ index is way above average.

And this is the correspondent chart for Eastern Conference. It is impressive that Knicks index is approximately 0.002, equal to 0.2% of the annual household income of a New York City resident. In other words, the average Knicks fan had to spend 2% of this income to watch 10 home games per season.

Having those graphs on mind, it’s time to determine which team offered the cheapest ticket compared with the median household income during those 5 years. The answer might seem quite interesting to many readers : Washington Wizards. The main reason is that residents of D.C. are the highest – paid in United States. The median household income in Washington Metropolitan Area in 2015 was 93,294$, while the country average was 55,755$. Apart from that, only 7 teams had a lower average ticket price than Wizards. There was one occasion though that a franchise had a better index than Wizards. That was Minnesota Timberwolves in 2015 – 16 season. Their fans however still are not very devoted ; Wizards’ percentage of home capacity was approximately 84.81%. A quite low number for a team that reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals three times.

The below map is a combination of the previous two graphs and shows the average value of this index for all 22 states that have at least one team playing in NBA. It could be said that this index is much better in Eastern than Western U.S. Especially in the Southeastern United States, where 4 teams of Eastern and 2 teams of Western Conference are based.

It is a common belief that bad – performing teams would have cheaper ticket price and vice versa. In fact, there are a few reasons denouncing this claim :

  • History. Boston Celtics are a team that after their latest Big – Three era they barely made the play – offs till 2015. However, nobody can doubt that they are the most successful franchise, at least in the Eastern Confence.
  • Prestige. Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks are two of the worst NBA teams lately. But the idea of visiting LA or NYC and watching a game in a very famous arena like Staples Center or Madison Square Garden, sometimes next to celebrities, is enough to raise the prices.
  • Fans satisfaction. For example, Phoenix Suns have one of the worst indexes. But they did not change their tickets policy significantly, because they “are making the fans the stars” (Jason Rowley, 2016). A Suns supporter knows that he is going to have fun. Even if their team struggles, the franchise offers a good in – game entertainment.

Are the above conclusions sufficient to tell with certainty which is the most “value for money” team? Someone could reply positively. Nonetheless, there is one thing that has not been taken into consideration. Do NBA fans want just to watch games, or do they want to watch stunning games? It is a great opportunity to introduce quality to this research. Quality can be subjective sometimes, but everyone would agree that a close game is always quite entertaining for fans.

Having this on mind, on the following paragraphs the previous index will be divided by the total number of close home games per season. From now on, it will be called “quality index”. A game is defined as close if the margin of victory or loss is between 0 and 5 points (so it includes overtime games). The less the value of quality index is the better. Meaning fans can enjoy more thrilling games by paying less. Supporters of Wizards are the ones that have to pay the smallest portion of their annual income to watch their favourite team. But it would be intriguing to find out if they still get the best “value for money”.

If the previous graph is compared with the following, it can be claimed that the franchise that offered the most fascinating games for less money between 2012 and 2017 is still Washington Wizards. During those 5 seasons, 65 out of their 205 home games were close, a number that brings them in the 6th position of relevant list (tied with Mavericks and Raptors). In combination with the conclusions of the first part of the research it can easily be assumed that Wizards is the most “economic” team to watch, not only in terms of ticket price – income correlation but also in terms of what their fans enjoy for the price they pay.

Again, there are not any major changes in the top – 10 of this list in comparison with the first list. There a few interesting things to point out though :

  • Atlanta Hawks fell from #7 to #17 on this new list. The reason is that they had only 46 close games.
  • Only one team can be found on both of lists and made the play – offs all 5 seasons. That is Memphis Grizzlies.
  • New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers are on the bottom. Their average ticket price was 3.25 and 2.58 times higher than Wizards, but the quality index is 4.60 and 5.09 times worse than Wizards. Otherwise stated, a Lakers fan had to give two times the money that a Wizards fan spent in order to attend a close game.

In conclusion, this research led to some useful and probably unexpected results. Surprisingly as it may seem, the best value for money NBA team is not an unsuccessful one which would therefore lower prices, but Washington Wizards. A quite successful franchise lately which combines medium – priced tickets with the high income of D.C. area residents. As it was analyzed, the price to attend an NBA game is not directly connected with the performance of a team and even less with the average salary in each city.


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