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How Thunder Became Hottest Ticket in NBA

Forward Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
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Forward Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

When the Seattle Supersonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder, there likely wasn’t a single person who would have predicted that the team would become the hottest ticket in the NBA.

But that’s exactly what has happened.

Tickets on the secondary market have soared for the Thunder all season and the NBA Finals is no exception.

StubHub reports that tickets to Game 1 and Game 2 on Tuesday and Thursday in Oklahoma City are selling for an average of $708 and $827 a ticket, respectively. Compare that to Miami, whose Game 3 and 4 on Saturday and Tuesday are selling for an average of $617 and $472 a ticket.

Sure, Miami’s American Airlines Arena has about 1,400 more seats in its arena compared to Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, but the price differential has to do with much more than that.

First of all, there’s obviously not the same amount of entertainment options in Oklahoma City as there is in Miami. That makes the Thunder basketball game pretty much the only place to be.

But the greater factor is that tickets owned by season ticket holders, which makes up about 80 percent of the Thunder’s capacity, just don’t leave their hands. StubHub tells me that the Cavaliers, the Raptors and the Rockets are the only teams that had fewer tickets on the site this year than the Thunder. The Cavaliers have their own secondary ticket marketplace and the Raptors are known to have higher ticket prices (and therefore fewer overall season ticket holders).

The Oklahoma City Thunder had four times fewer tickets on StubHub this season than the league average. Besides the game being the thing to do in town, the team also did its part to make sure that those that bought tickets were fans.

One ticket broker in Texas tells CNBC that his supply was cut off years ago as the team preferred to do business locally instead. The Thunder continued that philosophy this postseason as single home game tickets were only sold to people whose credit card billing addresses were located in Oklahoma and parts of Kansas and Arkansas.

What makes Oklahoma City’s high priced tickets so remarkable is that there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of money floating around in the metropolitan area. If a person with the average per capita income in Oklahoma City ($37,533) decided to spend money on the average ticket to game 1, it would represent an astounding 1.8 percent of his or her salary. That’s a lot of money for one day of the year.

Despite the team spurning Texans who might be fans, money from the state is certainly driving up the price of the few tickets that do reach the secondary market. Thunder ticket buyers of tickets being sold on StubHub are mostly from Oklahoma (58 percent), but Texas makes up the next largest contingent of any state (14 percent). Dallas is about 200 miles away from Oklahoma City.

There is perhaps one factor somewhat artificially inflating the Thunder ticket market. Arena sponsor Chesapeake, whose maligned CEO Aubrey McClendon owns 19.2 percent of the team, has purchased a significant amount of tickets.

Chesapeake recently disclosed that it bought $3.2 million worth of regular season tickets this year and $1.4 million in playoff tickets last year. The company would not say how many tickets that was equal to or describe what the company did with the tickets.

While it is not unusual for a naming rights partner to make an investment, the size of the investment Chesapeake made is large. The ticket purchases do not include the suite that the company already has.

Having roughly 3 percent of the arena bought out by a corporation which is either using or giving away its tickets could have something to do with the lack of Thunder tickets that hit the secondary market.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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