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The "Right" Fans

The Short Corner is a fantastic basketball podcast. Recently David Berri was on their show, and he discussed what wins in the NBA. One thing that came up was the reason for the Clippers' success. Having Chris Paul is one obvious reason. But another reason – at least, according to convential wisdom – is the improvement of both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Last season Blake Griffin was an 18 point, 9 rebound player and has "improved" to a 22 point, 10 rebound player. Jordan has gone from an 8 point, 7 rebound player to a 10 point, 13 rebound player.

However, Griffin's improvement is a bit of a mirage. He's playing four more minutes a game and is actually shooting worse than he did last season. Of course, more minutes means more shots, and more shots means more points. Jordan's improvement is very legitimate. Like Griffin, he also has increased his minutes. But unlike Griffin, Jordan's shot attempts have declined while his efficiency has stayed spectacular. In a Rodman-like move, he's gone from being a great rebounder to being an unreal rebounder. Tack on 2.5 blocks per game, and Jordan is definitely an elite big (unlike say...oh, I don't know...DeMarcus Cousins).

However, the Short Corner's Justin Halpern had an excellent point: Griffin is more memorable than Jordan. If you watch a Clippers' game, it's very likely that you will remember one of Griffin's amazing dunks. While big-time rebounders are imporant when it comes to winning, rebounds are seldom memorable. As a personal example of this, I've had second row seats to a game featuring rebounder extraordinaire Kevin Love. He somehow pulled down 17 boards in under two quarters, and I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't checked the boxscore. This leads us back to the classic question: is a star like Griffin more valuable than a rebounder like Jordan because he "puts fans in the stands"?

Although he didn't mention it on the show, Dave Berri has done research on this very topic, and has found that the answer is no. Fans are pretty boring. Fans like winning. The single factor that impacts attendance the most is the record of the home team. When a team wins, fans show up. When they don't, fans stay away. For instance, in 2004 the Pistons were a below-average offensive team. Their only All-Star starter was Ben Wallace, another one of those boring, non-scoring rebounders. Yet, they won a lot of games and, oh yeah, led the league in attendance.

Dave's research has expanded to other sports as well. Another interesting sport is college football. Surely fans want to see their teams play good opponents, right? Well, in analyzing the coaches that avoided being fired, it turns out that playing easier opponents is okay, as long as it leads to more winning!

Basically, if you're running a sports team as a business, you want to target a fan that will come to multiple home games, buy jerseys, etc. And winning attracts these fans! Yes, players like Blake Griffin are memorable, but they aren't as profitable as players like DeAndre Jordan. While it may seem logical to pay players like Griffin a lot of money to put fans in the stands, the truth is that other players can do the job – and more cheaply, too! Luckily for the Clippers, they play in a big market and can easily afford to have several expensive players on their roster. But other NBA teams aren't so lucky.

There was another scenario that reminded me of this. On a recent podcast, Arturo mentioned that his wife Maria had an astute observation: the new, sleeved NBA jerseys are not about the players; they're about the fans. Sleeveless jerseys may make sense for playing a live basketball game, but they show a lot of skin and aren't exactly flattering for most people. Arturo has shown up on the podcast wearing a sleeved Arsenal jersey, and we've seen Patrick sporting a sleeved T-Wolves jersey. A jersey with sleeves is easier for a fan to wear at a job with a casual dress code or to family gatherings. That means it's more likely to be purchased. Or – as Maria pointed out – more likely to be bought as a gift for someone.

This brings us up to the idea of the right type of fan to target. There are only about 400-500 active NBA players at any given time, and it's unlikely that many of them buy their own jerseys. Even if they do, that's pocket change. However, there are millions of NBA fans. Trying to improve the odds of these fans buying an official, high-markup NBA jersey is a brilliant idea.

Just as there are people who will say that DeAndre Jordan isn't more valuable than Blake Griffin, there those who will say that the new jerseys are ugly. However, the real question is this: which of the two will make the most money? The NBA is a business (well...kind of) and every owner should be asking themselves that question. And that question will help NBA teams target the "right" fans.

Who are the "right fans"? The right fans are those who will pay to support their team. More practical merchandise and a winning record will make more fans into the right ones for NBA franchises.

Food for thought.