The Fan Factor in the NBA Conference Finals

Does home court advantage really help teams win?

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Reuters/Hans Deryk


This year's NBA's playoffs have had more than their share of drama. Kobe Bryant's and Phil Jackson's Lakers melted down at the end of their four game sweep by the Dallas Mavericks. Lebron James finally triumphed against the vaunted Boston Celtics. Now the conference finals feature four stellar teams in matchups that are as notable for their tactical and strategic contrasts—the star-studded Heat versus the defense-minded team concept of Tom Thibodeaux's Chicago Bulls—as for their outstanding players. And the archetypal confrontation between the Thunder's 22-year-old Kevin Durant and the Maverick's grizzled veteran, the seemingly unstoppable Dirk Nowitzki, promises still more scenery-chewing.

But beyond their individual stars and lineups, there's that intangible force of the proverbial sixth man—the ineffable but undeniable jolt that players get from a noisy fan presence in the stands. Playing on your home court in front of devoted fans who whoop it up and cheer you on while booing your opponent, creates an extra level of energy that is almost impossible to measure.

But instead of waving our hands at it, let's try to quantify it. As part of our ongoing study of the geography of sport, that's just what my MPI colleagues Patrick Adler, Charlotta Mellander, and I have been doing. Poring over statistics on wins, losses, and attendance, we've looked at series of conventional measures and tried our hand at developing some new ones that might offer a better gauge of fan devotion—and that will allow us to zero in on which teams have the most devoted fan bases and which either reward or punish their fans' loyalty. The maps below prepared under the steady hand of the MPI's Zara Matheson plot these metrics for the NBA's 30 franchise cities.

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The first map (above) charts the total number of fans that each NBA team has drawn over the past three years. Of current playoff teams, Chicago is in first place in attendance, Dallas fourth, Miami fifth, and Oklahoma City 13th. Across the NBA, Portland is second, followed closely by Cleveland in third (likely a legacy of the Lebron years), and the until-recently woeful New York Knicks in fourth. Some fabled and very good teams place further down the list: the reigning champion LA Lakers in eighth place, four-times champs San Antonio Spurs in eleventh, and the 17-times champions Celts in 12th. At the very bottom are the New Jersey Nets, a franchise that is relocating to Brooklyn, the Sacramento Kings (a team that has threatened to move), and the Indiana Pacers. Each of these teams has drawn about two-thirds the attendance of the league leaders'.

But total attendance doesn't show how much of an arena is filled at each game. To get at this, we use a second metric of "attendance capacity," also relatively standard, which compares the average attendance numbers for each NBA team to the average capacity of their stadiums. Doing so enables us to compare teams from smaller markets (many with smaller arenas) to teams in much bigger cities. We also averaged this measure over the past three years. The second map (below) charts how the NBA's 30 franchises stack up.

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Two of the current crop of playoff contenders—Dallas and Chicago—do extremely well. Dallas is first and the Bulls are third (little wonder their hyper-dedicated fan base traveled en masse to Indianapolis during the first playoff round). The Portland Trailblazers are second. Oklahoma City ranks seventh. Interestingly, the Miami Heat ranks just 13th. But recall, this is a three-year average. This year, with the Big Three, the Heat moved up to fifth position. Among other teams, the Orlando Magic are fourth, the Lakers fifth, and the Celtics sixth. The New York Knicks are a respectable eighth, despite their abysmal record over two of the past three years. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Philadelphia 76ers post the worst attendance capacity, followed closely by the New Jersey (soon to be the Brooklyn) Nets, and the Memphis Grizzlies, despite their solid season and playoff performance. Attendance capacity, not surprisingly, tracks closely with winning: There's a strong correlation (.67) between the two (see the scatter graph below).

Presented by

Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here

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