In the NBA, teams have always been more than just their name, mascot, or city. Star athletes and rock-solid players draw in fans and help to elevate certain teams to the level of spectacle that supercharges a franchise. Today, with millions of followers on social media and extensive press coverage, the most popular NBA athletes drive a lot of the fans’ interest.
But what happens when a team’s star athletes leave the franchise? When forced to make a decision about rooting for your home team versus your favorite point guard, which side of the line do you fall on? The question is this: Which matters more, player loyalty or team loyalty?
To gauge the balance of player fans versus team fans in the NBA, we surveyed over 1,000 league supporters to explore loyalty patterns.
- About 43% of NBA fans considered themselves to be a bigger fan of their favorite team than they were of their favorite player, compared to only 28% who preferred their favorite player.
- LeBron James was the most followed player in the NBA, but Kevin Durant’s fans watched the highest percentage of his games.
- According to our ranking system, Boston Celtics fans were the most loyal in the NBA. They’re also the fan base donning the highest percentage of team logo tattoos.
- The Brooklyn Nets had the most bandwagon fans out of the top 10 most-followed teams in the league.
- The Boston Celtics gained the most new followers in 2021, but the Atlanta Hawks were the team with the biggest slice of brand-new followers in its fan base: 75% of those following the Hawks only started in 2021.
Team Loyalty Takes the Cake
First, we investigated whether fans are more loyal to their favorite team or favorite player. Although there are plenty of player-obsessed fans in the league, 43% of fans reported a higher loyalty to their favorite team. Only 28% chose their favorite player over the team, and when asked if they would rather see their favorite team win a championship or their favorite player be named MVP, over 60% of respondents chose their team.
Interestingly, 29% of fans said that their favorite player does not play for their favorite team. More than a quarter of fans chose to split their cheers between their favorite team and a star player elsewhere in the league.
Player-focused fans were prepared to jump ship on a team that loses their star player: More than 1 in 3 fans (36%) said they would be extremely or very likely to change their favorite team if their favorite player were to move elsewhere. Among these, fans supporting younger players such as Luka Dončić or Giannis Antetokounmpo would be twice as likely to support their favorite player over the team.
If you’re looking for places with a focus on team loyalty, head to Atlanta or Houston: The teams with the highest percentage of team-favoring fans were the Atlanta Hawks and the Houston Rockets.
Digging Into Player Loyalty
When it comes to the players most likely to inspire loyalty, NBA fans clearly put LeBron James and Stephen Curry on top of their list, along with Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić, and Giannis Antetokounmpo – out of all the players in the league, these five were the most frequently mentioned favorites.
Whenever an underdog team bucks expectations and upsets the league, there’s sure to be an influx of “bandwagon” fans coming to get a piece of the glory. It can be challenging to tell whether fans are earnest followers of their favorite team or player, or just hopping from winning team to winning team every year, but a key indicator of a bandwagon fan is the number of seasons for which they’ve been following their favorites. This is the metric we used to toss fans into bandwagon-or-not buckets: Depending on how long they have been following their favorite player, respondents were classified as “bandwagon” fans (less than two years), “loyal” fans (two to five years), or “die-hard” fans (over five years).
It makes sense that younger players like Luka Dončić or Giannis Antetokounmpo have fewer die-hard fans than an established player like LeBron James – fans have had less time to get to know them and what they’re capable of. However, despite being in the league for fewer years, Giannis Antetokounmpo had more die-hard fans than Kevin Durant, who’s been playing for 14 years, showing a strong fan base. LeBron James and Stephen Curry were the players with the most die-hard fans, but Kevin Durant’s fans viewed more of his games than any other player’s fan base.
While all NBA fans can name their favorite player easily, some go beyond watching their games or following them on social media. Over 40% of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant fans had bought their jersey. Purchasing products endorsed by favorite players was also popular among fans.
Team Loyalty Rankings
In order to assess team loyalty, we looked at various fan behaviors relating to their favorite team and weighted them depending on their importance. After tallying the scores, we came up with a loyalty ranking for the fan bases of the 10 most-followed teams in the NBA.
We used factors such as time spent following the team versus total time spent following the NBA, the percentage of the team’s games watched per season, and the proportion of fans that had bought merch or game tickets (you can find a complete list of factors and other details about the methodology at the end of this article).
According to our meta-ranking, Boston Celtics fans were the most loyal in the NBA (and also the fans with the highest percentage of team-related tattoos). Out of the 10 most-followed teams in the league, the Nets ranked last.
As we did with player fans, we also ranked team fans from “bandwagon” to “die-hard” depending on how long they’d been following their favorite team. In addition to this, we also took into account the length of time they’d been following the NBA in general.
The New York Knicks had the highest percentage of die-hard fans (63%), while the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls came in right behind with 59% each. On the opposite end, the Brooklyn Nets had the highest percentage of bandwagon fans – 45% of Nets fans reported following the team for less than two years.
While watching games and remaining loyal throughout the years are important indicators of team loyalty, there’s one thing fans can do that directly funnels financial support to the franchise: buy merchandise. LA Clippers fans had spent the most money on merchandise, with an average of $304 per year per fan. Boston Celtics fans only spent half that, on average, despite being rated as the most loyal fans overall.
Followers in Flux
We ranked the top five teams with the highest number of new followers in 2021, and, once again, the Boston Celtics came out on top. Although the Celtics gained the highest number of new fans in 2021, the Atlanta Hawks stood out for a different reason: According to our survey, three-quarters of those who pay attention to the Hawks only started following the team in 2021.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Cleveland Cavaliers lost the most fans in 2021 at 10% apiece.
Fans were asked what would be the most compelling reasons for them to stop following their favorite team. Almost half said relocating to a new city would be reason enough to switch allegiances. Team performance is also a key factor for many fans: A sharp decline in the team’s results could put off up to 35% of them.
When it came to their favorite players, reasons for fans to stop supporting them were linked to the player’s actions off the court more than anything else: A criminal scandal or a political statement that goes against fans’ opinions were ranked higher than a declining performance or team transfer as strong reasons to stop following their favorite player.
All these findings point toward a majority of NBA fans considering themselves bigger fans of their favorite team than their favorite player. Boston Celtics fans seem to be some of the most loyal in the league, and the Celtics were also the team with the most new fans in 2021. When it comes to players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were the most followed players in the NBA, both on social media and in terms of the players most likely to be cited as fan favorites.
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Methodology and Limitations
Data used in this analysis came from a survey of 1,004 NBA fans ranging in age from 19 to 76 years old with an average age of 36.9 years. For breaking down responses on the topic of fans’ favorite teams, we included only the 10 most-followed teams with fan base samples ranging in size from 36 to 148. For breaking down responses on the topic of fans’ favorite players, we included only the top five most-followed players, with fan base samples ranging in size from 25 to 209. All respondents passed an attention-check.
To calculate the ranking score for team loyalty as seen above, we calculated the weighted average of several key metrics of fan behavior. Categories and weights are as follows:
- Time spent following favorite team as a percentage of total time spent following the NBA (Weight: 50%)
- Average percentage of team’s games watched per season (Weight: 25%)
- Percentage of fans who have bought team merchandise (Weight: 5%)
- Percentage of fans who have bought tickets to a game (Weight: 5%)
- Percentage of fans who have followed their team on social media (Weight: 5%)
- Percentage of fans who have a tattoo of their preferred team logo (Weight: 5%)
- Average dollars spent on merchandise by fans each season (Weight: 5%)
Please note that survey data used in this report rely on self-reporting, which can lead to issues including telescoping, survey bias, recency bias, attribution error, and others.
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