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NBA teams can still pack in the fans, even if they don't win

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers battles for a loose ball in a game last February.
Getty Images
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers battles for a loose ball in a game last February.

U.S. fandom's love of basketball was borne out in a memorable 2015-16 season that saw a National Basketball Association star retire on a high note—even as his team finished with the worst record in the league.

This past week, as Kobe Bryant exited the game in record-breaking fashion and the Golden State Warriors set a record for the most regular season wins, the NBA shattered attendance records for the second consecutive season. The league said that nearly 22 million fans filled arenas across the country, while setting new records for viewership, social media engagement and team gear purchases.

It's often assumed that the principle behind selling game tickets is relatively simple: A successful team generates more fans, and ticket revenue increases. Yet for the NBA, that formula doesn't always hold up, according to some experts.

Winning by itself is not enough to bring fans to the arena. NBA ticket sales and attendance for some franchises are heavily influenced by the market and marquee players, according to ticket sales site StubHub.

As a result, even some of the worst teams can draw big ticket sales. This means that the Chicago Bulls, a team that just missed the playoffs but features star point guard Derrick Rose, was the top-selling team of the 2016 season. In fact, the Bulls — who have made the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons — have been number one in season attendance for the past decade.

"The NBA has a lot to do with star power; they call it 'the LeBron James effect,' StubHub communication manager Cameron Papp told CNBC recently. Because of that dynamic, winning is not always the most effective way to bring in revenue.

"Anytime he comes to an opposing team's area, sales boost by usually 15 percent," Papp said. "The same thing is starting to happen for the Warriors, whenever they are in town."

The New York Knicks — who finished far outside of playoff contention this year with only 32 wins out of 82 games — was one of the top five teams in terms of attendance this season. Conversely, the playoff-bound Indiana Pacers ranked near the bottom.

The Big Apple's intense sports media coverage, combined with the star power of Carmelo Anthony, has kept the team near the top of the league's attendance rankings for the past three seasons despite the Knicks' lengthy playoff drought.

"The New York Knicks are the highest selling team on the site in terms of actual sales," said Papp. "Madison Square Garden sells the tickets compared to the basketball team."

According to StubHub data, after the Knicks traded for Anthony in 2011, the team's ticket sales increased by a whopping 258 percent over the previous season.

StubHub shows the same boost after Bryant announced his retirement in November. Despite a woeful last 2 seasons, the Lakers consistently rank among the top 10 in terms of attendance. Meanwhile, ticket sales jumped by 6 percent this year after Bryant returned from a shoulder injury.

After the star announced this would be his final season, StubHub saw Lakers ticket sales more than double.

Have team, will travel

With a league that's driven by certain markets and star players, data have shown that overall season records may not have the biggest impact when it comes to ticket sales.

Teams like Chicago are among the exceptions, but in other markets, teams that have shown consistent success — such as the perennial playoff-contending San Antonio Spurs, who are near the middle of the pack in attendance — may not see the same results in ticket sales.

Chris Matcovich, vice president of data and communications at TiqIQ, told CNBC that success can make some fan bases jaded.

"When some teams show multiple years of success, the ticket sales actually go down because people have that 'Been there, done that attitude,' and they're less willing to purchase high-priced tickets again," he said. "They have that mentality that they already had the fan experience."

In an effort to boost ticket sales and interest, some teams have been forced to pack their bags and leave a venue or a city. Within the last decade, teams like the Brooklyn Nets and the Oklahoma City Thunder have relocated, and were rewarded with better ticket sales.

According to data from TiqIQ, the end of the year average for Nets ticket sales when they were based in New Jersey was $32, but that skyrocketed to nearly $220 in the first season in Brooklyn. Still, Nets' regular season ticket sales languish near the bottom of the league despite its presence in a bigger market.

"It really depends on the market. … There are just some markets that cannot sustain teams," Matcovich said. "One of those markets is Florida. There are certain geographic locations that struggle to hold teams."