By Barry Janoff
April 27, 2015: LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past season and led the team to the playoffs (and, to date, a first-round sweep over the Boston Celtics) for the first time since 2009-10, when James last played for the team before leaving for the Miami Heat.
However, despite Cleveland's 53-29 record (also its best since 2009-10) and an NBA second-best 20,562 average home attendance, the Cavs did not have the most loyal fans in the NBA this past season.
That distinction went to the Chicago Bulls, which led the league in average attendance at 21,343, and made the playoffs with a 50-32 mark.
The Bulls moved up from No. 5 and replaced the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as having the most dedicated fans in the league, according to the just-released "Sports Fan Loyalty" fan survey from brand engagement and customer loyalty research consultancy Brand Keys, New York.
The Bulls were followed by, in order, the Los Angeles Clippers (up from No. 4 in last year's survey), the Spurs, Heat and Dallas Mavericks (up to No. 5 from No. 6).
The Heat, although still Top Five, dropped a spot from last year, corresponding with James' departure from Miami to Cleveland. Thanks in large part to James, the Cavs moved up from tied for No. 20 with the Washington Wizards in last year's poll to Top 15.
Conversely, the Oklahoma City Thunder dropped from No. 2 last year to out of the Top Five.
According to Brand Keys, the "Sports Fan Loyalty Index" was designed to "help professional sports team management identify the key drivers of fan loyalty in their home and national markets and allows management to identify areas, particularly emotional aspects that need strategic brand coaching."
“Winning may be the only thing when it comes to a playoff championship, but when it comes to winning fan loyalty it’s not the only thing," Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, Inc., said in a statement.
Brand Keys also takes into account what it calls three other "emotionally based factors" when measuring fan loyalty: Authenticity, Fan Bonding and History & Tradition, with all the loyalty drivers.
For its 23rd annual "Sports Fan Loyalty Index," Brand Keys said it assessed all the teams in the league, interviewing "250 self-classified basketball fans from each of the 30 NBA teams’ immediate metropolitan catchment areas."
According to Brand Keys, overall league and team rankings — no matter which league — "correlate with viewership and merchandise sales, ticket sales and game attendance, and since rankings can be influenced depending upon how loyalty drivers are managed, it’s critical that team marketers act as strategic as the coaches."
“That's the secret of fan loyalty in basketball,” said Passikoff. “Have five great and admired players and as many fans as possible.”
In a separate earlier study, Brand Keys said the the NBA came in third in fan loyalty among the Big Four pro sports in the U.S., behind the NFL and MLB and ahead of the NHL.
Not all of the NBA's teams fared as well as the Bulls and Clippers in this year's fan survey. The Bottom Five were: the Detroit Pistons (down from No. 23 least year to No. 26), Orlando Magic (down from No. 24 to No. 27), the Milwaukee Bucks (down from No. 27 to No. 28) the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings, which remained No. 29 and No. 30, respectively, in the Brand Keys survey.
The Bucks might be looking at better days ahead in Brand Keys surveys. The team went from the worst record in the NBA last season (15-67) to 41-41 and the playoffs this season. Among the factors that leap that toward the bottom of the 2015 survey: The average home attendance was14,907, fourth lowest in NBA, in 18,717 BMO Harris Bradley Center.
The Timberwolves had second-lowest average attendance (14,528), ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers (13,940).
“It’s important to keep in mind that teams don’t leap to the top of the loyalty roster just because they win a playoff or a championship," said Passikoff. "It adds to the loyalty bond, but you need the complete package."
According to Brand Keys, fan loyalty "correlates very highly with broadcast viewership, merchandise purchase, and to a certain degree, ticket revenues." Teams can count on some “lift” to fan loyalty from making the playoffs (about a 10% lift) or a championship win (about 20%), both of which fall into the “Pure Entertainment” category loyalty driver, per Brand Keys.
How does Brand Keys break down its four key factors?
Authenticity: "How well they play as a team. Sometimes a new arena and, often, a new manager, can lift this driver. Which brands sponsor the team can matter as well." “As brand support has a lot to do with building concomitant fan loyalty and a larger viewer audience, it becomes a symbol of genuine teamwork," said Passikoff.
Fan Bonding: "Are there players who are particularly respected and admired? More is always better and it helps if that bonding extends beyond just a player’s ability to sink a three-point shot. If you have to think about whom that might be on your team, or can only come up with one, your team’s Fan Bonding is likely to be low." According to Passikoff, “We know that all these players are supposed to be the best of the best, but the roster that fans really bond with on individual teams ends up being relatively small.”
History & Tradition: "Have the game and the team become part of fans’ and community rituals, institutions, and beliefs?" “That’s one of the strongest drivers when it comes to fan loyalty in any major league sport,” said Passikoff. “For some teams it accounts for the lion’s share of loyalty they possess. Think about a team like the Utah Jazz, only a reasonable level of History & Tradition keeps them out of the Bottom Five.”
Brand Keys said that teams need to meet some minimum levels in all four factors to create reasonable levels of fan loyalty. If one of those drivers weakens, or disappears, so do high levels of loyalty. “Want proof? asked Passikoff. “Look at the New York Knicks.”
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