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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.

I guess i'm not the right fan. I like the team that I think has the best chance to win every year. I also keep an eye out for the teams that are exploiting the market and/or have a top producing player not named Lebron, Cp3, or even Durant.
@Andrew, you're just a fairweather fan, or frontrunner, or a bandwagoner.
this is definitely accurate in terms of a business model, but bball is an art, too. NBA is the most commercialized expression of the art, but it's still art. Some fans enjoy the styles that different players bring to the game regardless of winning. Give me Z-bo on a losing team any day over having to watch lamarcus aldridge's "boring" game on a winning team.
Using Griffin as an example of an overvalued player here is a really big stretch. He's an efficient volume scorer and a plus rebounder. Those guys get max deals for a reason.

Being a Clippers fan, it is very funny to hear Clipper fans continue to talk about Jordan needing to improve and earn his contract. Everyone is in love with Drummond, and rightfully so, but Jordan is only a few years older and matches or bests him in every statistical category except shots taken. For whatever reason nobody around the league recognizes how good Jordan has become.
The argument is a bit more subtle than saying Griffin is overvalued, it's that he's not as productive this season as Paul or Jordan but might be considered more fun to watch by some fans.

The Clippers are in first place but have very little depth, those three top guys are basically doing it on their own (Collison and Reddick have been fine too, but haven't played a ton of minutes). Griffin is 24th in the league in wins produced so far, he's just on a team with the 3rd and 5th place win producers.
Griffin started off the year pretty poorly. He's been playing much better as of late. Him making his free throws is doing wonders for his true shooting. If he can get his field goal percentage to what is usually is, the clippers will have an even more efficient starting lineup (duh, but those guys are already very efficient for their careers). They just need a legitimate back up big man. Wonder if they'll get that guy.
This is a great post Dre. The sleeve jerseys are a great idea and I think will make more money than the traditional sleeveless jerseys, never thought about it, it's definitely more accessible. With Jordan and Griffin, I disagree just slightly, I get the whole function over style debate, even though I don't like players like Griffin, I still think they are more valuable on a larger scale outside of their home franchise fan base. It's players like Griffin that have fans in other states, regions and even countries. Other team fans are willing to pay money to watch Griffin and not Jordan. Also Televised games, teams are not selling players like Jordan to networks. Style of play is very important to the NBA as superficial as it is.

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