The analytics of NBA fans

To witness an NBA game in person is to be swaddled in an incomparable atmosphere. Over 15,000 people cram themselves inside a really large space, and almost by accident manage to magnify the game’s excitement, manufacturing an authentic and unequaled energy. As a side effect of all the clapping and shouting, your ears, hands, and throat are all throbbing by the fourth quarter. You simply can’t find that environment anywhere else, including a musical concert, because in basketball everyone’s reacting to the same thing at the same time. There’s nothing like it.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

At least that’s the the belief of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Because of a scheduling conflict, Cuban could not participate in the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference's Fanalytics panel on Saturday afternoon, but during a live BS Report just a few hours later, Cuban made a few points that were different from what established officials in other professional sports had just said.

While baseball believes its beauty lies in the fans' ability to have a “social experience” during the “leisure time” of a game, and football seems to be working its way through a multi-million-dollar wifi dilemma, Cuban said he wants his paying customers at basketball games looking at the actual game in front of them.

Since buying the Mavericks in 2000, Cuban has upgraded American Airlines Center’s sound system and installed the league’s largest 1080 high-definition video replay system in an attempt to bring people in. Despite losing two fan favorites to free agency this past offseason in Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, Dallas currently ranks No. 2 in overall attendance.

Why does this matter? Using various new-age strategies, such as placing usable barcodes on tickets that extract information from downloaded iPhone applications and interacing with people through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, professional sport organizations are making more of an effort to know what’s ticking inside the brains of their collective fan bases. A consumer’s decision to purchase a ticket and attend a basketball game is becoming more and more of an “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” type of relationship. Here are a few reasons why getting people to attend NBA games is important, from both points of view:

  • First presented at the conference in a paper titled “Effort vs. Concentration: The Asymmetric Impact of Pressure on NBA Performance,” studies have shown that crowds are able to influence the mindset of certain players when the stakes are raised in a pressure situation. For example, home teams show a statistically significant improvement in offensive rebound rate; from this data an assumption could be made that supportive crowds subconsciously make players try harder. Obviously, if true, this is a big deal.

  • You’re able to view the raw athleticism of players who are, for practical purposes, naked -- absent of bats, gloves, helmets, shoulder pads, sticks, or skates. It’s 10 large men battling it out on a large wooden rectangle, and from a fan's perspective this is where you're able to learn a great deal about players that you can't observe from a television.

  • Despite a large difference in physical dimensions between the average player and the average observer, fans in attendance are capable of relating to the sweating competitors on stage before them. When a player gets tired or doesn’t exert the proper amount of effort, everyone sees it, and there’s no dugout or clubhouse to crawl inside and use as a safe haven. Conversely, when he's giving his all there's opportunity to give thanks.

But one common issue that all sports are currently struggling with is their ability to identify who, exactly, is attending their games. With recent advancements in the aforementioned bar code ticket technology, organizations have made strides to identify attendees, but where things currently stand it’s still an incredibly difficult task.

According to Tim Brosnan, president/CEO of Major League Baseball Enterprises, last year, in a certain section at Quicken Loans Arena -- also known as the house LeBron James built, then introduced to a wrecking ball -- the average ticket changed hands nine times, from its first purchase to game night. Identifying why this is is an ongoing mystery, and one that analytics are still being used to figure out.

As was previously stated, the NBA’s stance with fan interaction and technological involvement is impressive and growing. The league's use of the internet as a communicative tool has been amazing, adaptive and really fun. But as they head into the future a main issue they share with everyone else is discovering who exactly it is that loves their product. Once teams are able to do that, and price their tickets/concessions at a level that consistently makes sense, one might assume that fans will reciprocate the favor and come out to support their teams, which has a small yet cyclical effect on the way players perform.

It's been a widely accepted fact throughout time that the more games you win, the more people will come. But what if the relationship is a bit more complicated? What if things are the other way around?