The NBA is a fascinating league for analyzing fandom. The NBA is more star-driven, integrated with popular culture, and social media-savvy than the rest of the sports world. These traits help position the NBA with younger consumers. However, the NBA also has some obvious struggles with older fan segments. Understanding brand power and fan loyalty in the NBA is very much a look at the past and future of American sports fandom.
We compute our rankings based on how teams perform on marketing metrics like revenue, attendance, social media, and road attendance after controlling for current winning, market size, and many other factors. The analyses begin with economic and marketing theory. In particular, the key idea is that we can measure brand equity based on a team’s ability to generate value beyond what a comparable team generates. Specifically, we create league-level models of marketing performance (e.g., revenue) as a function of teams’ performance (e.g., winning rates) and market potential (e.g., population). Individual team performance is compared to the league-level model to quantify how much teams over or underperform. We then use another statistical technique to combine the “market premiums” on multiple metrics (Revenue, Social, Road Attendance) into a single measure of brand power. For the analyses, we use more than 20 years of data on metrics like attendance and revenue and a decade's worth of data on social media results.
The Emory Marketing Analytics Center and Professor Michael Lewis have analyzed fanbases across the major American sports leagues for a decade. Today we present our 2022 ranking of the best NBA brands and fanbases.
The NBA team with the most passionate fan following is the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are followed by the Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Boston Celtics. At the other extreme, The Minnesota Timberwolves score at the bottom of our list. Other struggling NBA brands include the Hornets, Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Wizards. The full rankings are below.
The 2022 NBA Fandom Rankings:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
No surprises here. The Lakers have been the premier NBA brand for decades. A history of championships and a litany of past stars: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant. Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Elgin Baylor, LeBron James, and Shaquille O’Neal. Lakers are also located in a media hotspot and have A-list celebrities at courtside. The result is a brand that commands the second highest ticket prices in the league, leads the NBA in social media, and is the biggest road draw; even in years when the team doesn’t make the playoffs.
2. Golden State Warriors
When I began this rankings project (about a decade ago), the Warriors were an also-ran NBA brand. But, after a prolonged period of success and an iconic star in Stephen Curry, the Warriors are now NBA royalty. It is an interesting question about what it takes to become an iconic sports brand. On one level, it is simple; win titles and have stars. But How many titles and how many stars? It doesn’t happen often, but the Warriors have ascended to the top ranks. The Warriors are second in the league in social media, sell every ticket available (at the third highest prices in the league), and are resilient to the occasional off-year. The question is whether the Warriors can retain their position once the current stars age out. Like the post-Jordan Bulls and post-Brady Patriots, I think they will.
3. New York Knicks
The Knicks are a case study of the power of fan equity. I was about to write “brand equity,” but the Knicks highlight why sports are unique and why fans are in a special class of consumer. No soft drink, car company, or fast food chain could maintain the loyalty of its consumers like the Knicks. (Maybe the Disney Star Wars experiment is the closest comparison.) Look back over the last decade, and you see a LOT of Knicks teams with 50-plus losses. You add in controversies with past players (Oakley) and Super Fans (Spike Lee), and you might think the Knicks would be playing in empty arenas. Nope. They are still top ten in attendance and able to charge the highest prices in the league. The only place where the Knicks weakness shows up is social media, where they have mediocre results; the Knicks have fewer followers than the Spurs and slightly more than the Kings.
4. Chicago Bulls
The best sports marketing executive of all time is Michael Jordan. The Bulls are ranked 4th and the brand equity is due to a guy who left before the year 2000. Ranked by win shares (estimated wins attributed to a player), the Bulls’ top 5 all-time stars are Jordan, Pippen, Chet Walker, Artis Gilmore, and Horace Grant (No Offense but the next team on the list has a top 6 of Russell, Bird, Pierce, Havlicek, Parrish, and McHale). The Bulls are in the upper echelon in terms of social media, prices, and attendance. The Bulls are top 5 brand despite not making a trip to the finals in two decades.
5. Boston Celtics
The Celtics feel a little low on this list. For many NBA fans, the “classic” NBA finals would feature the Lakers and Celtics. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, and Larry Bird can all claim places on various versions of an NBA Mount Rushmore. Like the other clubs at the top of the list, the Celtics do well on all the fan indicators. The Celtics probably haven’t been building fan equity the last few years, but they are definitely maintaining it with “good stars” and solid playoff runs. It’s the curse of being an iconic brand. Building a brand like the Celtics takes something spectacular.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs' ranking is where it starts to get interesting (and debatable). Last year the Cavaliers were 9th in the league in attendance while charging ticket prices that were about 8% higher than the league average. Pretty good, but not great? It's an excellent performance when you realize that Cleveland is only the 34th largest metropolitan area and has a median income far smaller than many NBA cities. It may seem strange, given how it feels each time he leaves the Cavs, but LeBron James’ time in Cleveland has elevated Cavs fandom. If the Cavs acquire another Super Star and maybe another title, they can cement their status as a top-ten brand. This is a brand with potential. The Cleveland market is small but loyal. The caveat with the Cavs is that James’ time in the city inflated the team’s social numbers. Side Note: A key to effective analytics is knowing the strengths and limitations of the data and the models. It’s fair to say that the uniqueness of LeBron James puts an asterisk on the Cavs’ results.
7. Houston Rockets
The Rockets do well because they are terrible, but their fans have stuck around. The Rockets were the worst team in the league at 20-62 last year but ranked top 5 in social media (Yao Ming deserves some credit) and are reported to have the 5th highest prices in the league. The Rockets are living on the legacy of 8 straight playoff appearances and an all-time great franchise member in James harden. However, the cracks are beginning to show as the team was ranked 23rd in attendance in 2021-2022. The data suggest that the Rockets are trending downward. Eight playoff appearances and James Harden is great, but it’s not enough to build an enduring fandom.
8. Miami Heat
Miami is another fascinating case study. Three finals victories and three more appearances in the last 17 years is impressive. It’s also a team that has featured Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, and Jimmy Butler. Miami ranked 4th in social and 4th in attendance last year. The only issue with Miami is that it feels (to myself) that the talent has largely been mercenaries making temporary stops. South Florida is also a tough sports market. A minor issue for the Heat brand is being connected with FTX.
9. Dallas Mavericks
ESPN lists the Mavs' attendance as 102.8% of capacity. The Mavericks also charge about average prices but are a little weak on social metrics. The Mavericks are ranked about where you might expect a sunbelt team with just 23 years of history, 1 championship, and Dirk Nowitzki as its iconic player. There is even a celebrity owner. The Mavericks are currently a respectable fan base. Fandoms in this range are interesting to watch. It’s easy to slide back into the pack but very hard to move forward. For the Mavs it's all about whether Luka Doncic becomes a payer that wins titles.
10. Toronto Raptors
The Raptor are solid on the fan metrics. Top 5 attendance rates, above-average prices, and good social media. Toronto is a relatively young franchise, and being located in Canada probably has pluses and minuses – Canada’s NBA team as a plus but no Candian rivals as a minus. They do have a finals victory, but that was courtesy of Kawhi Leonard (a temporary rather than core star). The Raptors have built something, but is it temporary?
11. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have an intriguing fandom. There is a legacy of on-court greatness. Going back to the late 1970s and 1980s, the Sixers were in the conversation with the Lakers and Celtics. Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Moses Malone, and Joel Embiid have delivered star power. But there is also an era of futility and “The Process.” Cold Northeast cities are also usually prime territory for passionate fan bases. Great attendance, solid pricing, and average social media land the 76ers at number 11.
12. Milwaukee Bucks
Small markets present challenges and opportunities. The Bucks have been on a run and added a second finals victory. They also have a player that is arguably the heir apparent to become the face of the league. Above-average pricing power and a consistently sold-out arena put the Bucks at 12. The challenge will be in attracting and retaining enough talent to maintain excellence. It's always going to be tough to recruit to Milwaukee. It’s a matching problem, as players can better build personal brands in larger metros. The upside is that small markets require “less” to build solid fan bases.
13. Sacramento Kings
This one will get some pushback. The Kings were near the bottom of the league in attendance last season, but they are able to charge prices about 10% higher than the league average. They also have a social media presence on par with the Knicks and Clippers. These are pretty remarkable results for a club whose last winning season was in 2006. It’s also remarkable, given the realities of the Sacramento market. Who is the iconic Sacramento King? Chris Weber?
14. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs should be higher on this list. Five championships. Tim Duncan, David Robinson, George Gervin, and Greg Popovich as iconic figures. And playing in a small market with no other pro-team competition. But lower than average prices and far below-average attendance in 2022. Social media strength is a saving grace for the Spurs. The weakness of Spurs fandom is remarkable.
15. Portland Trailblazers
You see amazing consistency when you look at the Portland Trail Blazers’ history. After winning the Finals in 1977, the Trailblazers missed the playoffs once in the next 25 years. Clyde Drexler, Bill Walton , and Damian Lillard are A-list stars (I’ll define A-list stars as guys that fans might wear the jersey of 20 years later.) But weak pricing power, average attendance, and mid-range social media leave the Blazers in the middle of the pack. I suspect that the political environment in Portland is an issue. The city's political dynamic tends to run in the opposite direction of strong fandoms.
16. Oklahoma City Thunder
A 16th rank is more than respectable for a team that moved within the last 15 years to a market that receives little media attention. In hindsight, it’s a strange move, given the booming nature of Seattle and the passion that seems to exist for Seattle teams. And the Sonics had a nice tradition with multiple Finals appearances and players like Gary Payton, Jack Sikma, Shawn Kemp, and Kevin Durant. It’s an intriguing thought of what could have been if the team had stayed in Seattle and built around Durant. If anything, the Thunder’s ranking is inflated from social media numbers built during the era of Westbrook and Durant. My conjecture is that the Thunder did not do enough to create an enduring fan base, and we will see a decline in this ranking over time.
17. Los Angeles Clippers
One of the greatest challenges in sports is to be the number 2 team in a city. Sports fandom is about community, so there is a natural tendency to group around one club. Ask fans to name a baseball team in New York, LA, or Chicago, and I’d predict that 75% would answer with Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs. In my lifetime, we’ve never seen the second franchise surpass the market leader. In the LA basketball market, the Clippers have about 1/5 as many social followers, and the Lakers average ticket price is about 50% higher. I was especially interested in the Clippers when they acquired Leonard and George a few years ago, as it looked like a battle for LA. The contest is over, and the Lakers won.
18. Utah Jazz
The Jazz have a solid showing, but it feels like they should be better. For similar reasons as Portland and San Antonio. Small market teams with great histories and limited competition should create fan loyalty. A history of success (almost always in the playoffs) and Stockton and Malone as iconic players should be enough to be in the league's top half. If there is a lesson, it is that the media hype that comes from a big market pays lasting dividends. The Jazz have been very good recently, but the scores on the fan metrics outside of attendance aren’t there.
19. Denver Nuggets.
Denver is a team with solid history (love these ABA teams). But middling marketing results. Average in terms of attendance but below average in pricing power and social following. Good retro (Issel) and current (Jokic) jersey possibilities for the fans, combined with playoff runs, make the Nuggets a team to watch. I think there is unharnessed potential here. Denver has long-been a Broncos town, but Denver’s trajectory suggests more future NBA fandom.
20. Phoenix Suns
A lot of these teams ranked in the second ten feel like they should be higher. Often they are or were the only game in town. Before the Cardinals and Diamondbacks, Phoenix only had the Suns. And the Suns have a history of making the playoffs 21 times out of 24 years from the late 1970s to 2001. Kevin Johnson, Larry Nance, Paul Westphal, and Charles Barkley are fan jersey worthy. Aside - Is Barkley a Sun or a Sixer? But the Suns have below-average attendance and pricing. Perhaps the Suns are another brand with untapped potential. It should be mentioned that teams in sunny cities often struggle to create intense fan bases.
21. Orlando Magic
This is another one that might generate pushback. Not from Orlando but from other cities that think Magic Fandom is too high. How can you rank the Magic above the Brooklyn Nets? You know nothing about basketball! You are just another academic that is clueless about the real world. You are lost in the numbers and don’t understand actual fan passion. Why does Emory employ you? Don’t you have anything better to do? ESPN lists the Magic at 26th in attendance, ticket prices are low, and social numbers indicate little national following. But these numbers are after a decade of usually winning only 20some games a season and only two playoff appearances. The econometric models (based on twenty years of data) suggest that the Magic does better than some teams when we control for population, income, winning, etc. The Magic is also an interesting franchise because of the players that have come through town; Nick Anderson, Shaq, Howard, McGrady, and Penny Hardaway, to name a few.
22. Atlanta Hawks
Name an iconic Hawks player? Click on this basketball reference link if you need ideas. Lots of black-and-white photos. I think of Dominique Wilkins and Trae Young. The Hawks are a team that just hasn’t been able to get over the hump and win championships. The Hawks have an opportunity, though. Atlanta sports fandom is on the upswing over the past decade and the Hawks have one of the top young players in the league. Can the Hawks acquire that second superstar? In terms of fan metrics, social media numbers reveal the story of the Hawks’ ranking. The Hawks have about the same social media following as Utah. However, Atlanta is the 8th largest market, and Salt Lake City is number 46.
23. Indiana Pacers
I’ve never been to a Pacers game, but I’m guessing that Reggie Miller is the most common jersey in the stands. As I go through the rankings, a thought occurs. Jordan is the greatest player and CMO of all time, and one of his impacts is on the legacy of almost every other great player from his era. What If Reggie Miller had led the Pacers to a couple of championships?
24. Brooklyn Nets
I see two big challenges for the Nets. Maybe three. First, the competition in the local market. The ABA teams are still generally ranked below the NBA teams, even decades later. Fandom is LONG term project. The Nets have about 20% fewer social followers than the Knicks, and the Knicks’ prices dwarf the Nets’ prices. Second, it appears the Irving and Durant era may not yield a championship and the Nets, like the Clippers, seem to be another failure to upset the status quo. The third problem is Kyrie Irving.
25. Detroit Pistons
Statistical models show that championships and superstars are the keys to enduring fandom. But there are sometimes factors that are beyond the models. Maybe we don’t have enough observations or some factors are hard to quantify. The Pistons had the kind of run that should build lasting fandom. The Pistons are a fan equity rebuild. The key is to build a winner and leverage the legacy of Laimbeer, Dumars, and Thomas. The Pistons have the Lowest social media impact in the league.
26. Charlotte Bobcats Hornets
The Hornets are a brand without a foundation. I struggle to think of great Hornets teams and players. The Hornets are middle of the road in attendance but charge the lowest prices in the league. They are also bottom three in the league in social media. One rule for teams interested in building fandom is don’t change your name.
27. New Orleans Pelicans
See above. I don’t remember why Charlotte and New Orleans were the Hornets or Bobcats, but it’s confusing. Boston is the Celtics, New York is the Knicks, etc. Don’t change the name. Don’t move cities. Excellence and consistency are the keys. We could also add don’t trade away superstar players. The result of violating these rules – minimal pricing power, below-average attendance, and mediocre social media following.
28. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are a young franchise that has moved into a small, lower-income, media-starved market. Currently, the lowest prices in the league for one of the most exciting on-court products. The Grizzlies have an opportunity. His name is Ja Morant. The other key feature (it’s a plus and a minus) is the Memphis market. The Grizz are the only game in town, so there is an opportunity to build community, but it’s unlikely that the media spotlight will ever shine brightly enough to elevate the brand.
29. Washington Wizards
DO NOT CHANGE THE TEAM NAME. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes are Bullets. Beyond, the Wizards/Bullets, Washington is an interesting sports town. A lot of positives (money, population, expense accounts), but currently, it’s a town of struggling brands (Commanders and Wizards, especially). In terms of the metrics, the Wizards don’t excel on any key marketing metrics.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves
Maybe Minneapolis isn’t a basketball town. Kevin Garnett is the right kind of iconic player, but the T-Wolves have never won it all. Karl-Anthony Towns is a two-time all NBA player and rookie of the year. Anthony Edwards is a budding star. But at the moment, the T Wolves struggle in terms of attendance, pricing power, and social media following. Will Towns and Edwards eventually generate sustained interest? Is it the market or the marketing?
Watch/listen to our discussion of the 2022 NBA Fandom Rankings here: