NBA owners are raking in more cash than before the pandemic by charging higher ticket prices — despite lower TV ratings and increasingly empty seats at arenas, according to internal NBA data exclusively obtained by The Post.
The average “gate” per team, or dollars from ticket sales, rose 10.2% compared to the last pre-pandemic season (2018-19) with fans now paying an average of $109 per ticket, according to data from this past season. That’s an 18.6% increase since 2018-19 and is roughly double the rate of inflation.
However, the number of paid fans at arenas plummeted 7.1% to 13,603 per game, the exclusive data also shows. The Post calculated average ticket prices by dividing gate receipts by paid attendance.
The numbers are still worse for underperforming clubs, with some suffering declines of more than 30% in paid home attendance.
The troubling trend could pose problems for the NBA as it begins negotiations for its next lucrative TV contract, with the current $2.66 billion annual deal with ABC/ESPN and Turner Sports set to expire at the end of the 2024-25 season.
The league generates roughly 70% of its revenue through media rights and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is reportedly seeking a new, nine-year deal that will pay $8 billion a year. National TV ratings were slightly lower this season than in 2018-19.
“I’d be wondering if this is a canary in a coal mine,” a source who advises NBA teams said. “If I were Silver, I would be on the teams with the biggest attendance drops telling them it was unacceptable.”
Locally, the underachieving Knicks average ticket price rose to $185, a 14% increase since 2018-19 — despite the team failing to make the playoffs this year. The franchise’s paid attendance fell 4%.
Moe Dayekh, whose family has owned Knicks season tickets for six years, says he’s grudgingly coughing up for the hike. But he says other season-ticket holders are instead planning to buy tickets next season for select games on the resale market.
“I do think the prices are high, for sure, and you struggle to get your money back on the secondary market,” confirms Christopher Porcelli, a season ticket holder since 2014.
Insiders have floated varying theories on why attendance has dropped. While lingering COVID concerns and vaccine requirements kept fans away from some arenas during the first half of the season, teams have meanwhile hiked prices for tickets to compensate for the money lost. On top of the stiff increases, some insiders also have speculated that fans were turned off by the NBA’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an interview with The Post, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said it’s impossible to know which played the biggest role.
“I don’t think you can draw any conclusions in a season impacted by COVID,” Cuban told The Post. “We had customers … not come because of mandates. It was a different season that can’t be compared to anything.”
The Mavs, who are tied 2-2 heading into tonight’s Game 5 of their best-of-seven series against Phoenix in the Western Conference semifinals, saw their average gate climb 20%, and the number of paid tickets sold rose 3%, according to the data.
“Hopefully we will have a normal playoffs, and next year,” Cuban said. “Then we will have a better feel for demand and pricing elasticity.”
The NBA also blamed Covid for keeping fans away before the start of the playoffs.
“Overall attendance was down during the regular season because of the Omicron spike but since April we have had record attendance including 59 consecutive sell-outs to date during the playoffs,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said.
The Brooklyn Nets had the biggest increase in average net gate with a 109% gain, according to the data obtained by the Post. The Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers all posted increases of 40% or better.
The Nets’ gate was driven as its average ticket prices soared to $144, a 66% increase. Longtime Nets season ticket holder Dennis Lin — who just signed up for his 19th season, going back to the Continental Airlines Arena days — says his seats doubled in price.
“I think it’s a little bit too high. It’s not like I’m pitchfork outraged,” Lin told The Post. “That being said, there are a lot of season ticket holders that I do know that are outraged. It took them a long time to either consider renewing, or they’re definitely moving down to half seasons or just not renewing.”
While the Nets’ paid attendance also rose — up 26% from pre-pandemic levels — it was driven by the fact that the team had no superstars in 2018-19, but added Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving the next June.
Accordingly, the Nets may have lost the most money in the NBA – over $50 million this season – because of the steep increase in payroll.
“I know teams that hiked ticket prices to help climb out of the financial hole from the last two seasons while simultaneously being committed to enhancing the fan experience as events opened up,’” said Rick Allen, CEO of ViewLift, a tech platform for fan engagement and streaming for sports teams.
Still, the price increases might be hard to maintain. Gate revenue rose partly because NBA fans had cabin fever and were anxious to get out and see games after the pandemic waned, sources said. Unspent stimulus checks also helped fans pay for the higher ticket prices.
Despite having fan bases flush with cash, 10 of the 30 teams saw paid attendance drop by 15% or more. That includes the Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trailblazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the San Antonio Spurs. The New Orleans Pelicans and Houston Rockets both were down 32% each.
None of those 10 are still alive in the second round of the playoffs, and seven of them missed the postseason altogether. Many – like the Rockets, Trailblazers, Kings, Magic and Pacers – did not put a competitive product on the floor for most of the regular season.
“You are as strong as your weakest link,” the source close to the NBA said. “You can’t have nearly half your league with fans giving a big yawn.”
Average viewership this season across ABC, ESPN and TNT fell to 1.6 million. In 2018-19, there were 1.99 million viewers across ABC and ESPN, and 1.5 million on TNT.
Some have blamed the drop in eyeballs on the league’s embrace of the BLM movement in the wake of social unrest following the killing of George Floyd. The NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on all the league’s courts and allowed players to wear jerseys with names of police shooting victims.
“Half the country says this is not us,” the source close to the NBA said.
Other sports insiders believe fans care more about their teams than politics. More socially liberal fans still watch the NFL even though the league has arguably turned a blind eye to racial discrimination, and social conservatives will still want to see gravity-defying dunks.
Fan darling Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors, with a pricey new arena, averaged a league-high $4.2 million in gate, according to the internal data – a 19% increase. That put them well above even the second place Los Angeles Lakers, who generated $3.1 million. But Golden State’s paid attendance is off 12%, despite the new arena, the data show.
“Maybe they overcharged a little bit,” the source close to the NBA office said, before cautioning that the data is not a harbinger of dark days ahead for the league.
“I wouldn’t be alarmed by these numbers,” the source said. “But I would take this seriously.”
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