By Barry Janoff
June 1, 2016: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," UCLA head football coach Harry "Red" Sanders was first quoted as saying some 65 years ago, a motivational phrase then made famous by legendary NFL head coach Vince Lombardi.
However, when it comes to fan loyalty in the NBA, winning is vital, but is only part of the equation.
“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 championship," according to Robert Passikoff, founder and president for Brand Keys, a New York-based brand engagement and customer loyalty research consultancy. "It adds to the loyalty bond, but you need the complete package.”
There are three other "emotionally based factors that must be taken into account" when measuring fan loyalty, according to Passikoff: Authenticity, Fan Bonding and History & Tradition.
Based on this criteria, the just released NBA 2015-16 Brand Keys Sports Fan Loyalty Index shows that the Oklahoma City Thunder have replaced the Los Angels Clippers as the team with the most loyal fans.
Oklahoma City, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, jumped to the top spot from No. 6 last season, but had been as high as No. 2 in 2014.
The Clippers, led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, slipped to a tie for No. 5 with the Chicago Bulls.
The San Antonio Spurs were second, the Miami Heat came in at No. 3 and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors No. 4 in the NBA Brand Keys Sports Fan Loyalty Index.
According to Brand Keys, making the NBA playoffs raises a team’s fan loyalty level by about 10%; winning the NBA title almost doubles that.
"When a team makes the playoffs, they always get a lift in fan loyalty,” said Passikoff.
The Warriors set an NBA record this past season with 73 wins; the San Antonio Spurs, which most recently won the league title in 2013-14, set a franchise record with 67 wins. The Thunder had 55 wins and reached the Western Conference finals against Golden State.
That led to more national TV game broadcasts, more marketing and more awareness for each team and their respective players.
According to Brand Keys, fan loyalty "correlates very highly with broadcast viewership, merchandise purchase and, to a certain degree, ticket revenues.
“Brand support has a lot to do with building concomitant fan loyalty and a larger viewer audience,” said Passikoff. “It becomes a symbol of genuine teamwork.”
In 2015, the top teams in the NBA Brand Keys Sports Fan Loyalty Index were the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.
In 2014 the top teams were the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks tied for fifth.
Neither the Knicks or the Mavs made the Top Five in 2016.
At the other end of the spectrum, the teams with the "least loyal" fans this past season were the New Orleans Pelicans (26), Utah Jazz (27), Milwaukee Bucks (28, following two previous Index's in which they were 27), Minnesota Timberwolves (29 for the second consecutive season) and Sacrament Kings (30 for the third consecutive season).
“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 championship."
How important are history and tradition?
“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 Washington Wizards. Only a reasonable level of history and tradition keeps them out of the bottom five," said Passikoff.
According to Brand Keys, teams need to meet some minimum levels on 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 Sacramento Kings.”
The Brand Keys Sports Fan Loyalty Index was "designed to help professional sports team marketers identify the key drivers of fan loyalty in their home and national markets by identifying emotional aspects surrounding the team that require strategic brand coaching."
Brand Keys said it assesses all of the teams in the league, interviewing 250 self-classified basketball fans from each of the 30 NBA teams’ immediate metropolitan areas.
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