NBA booms amid formula of shorter games and 'rock star' players: Houston Rockets owner

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose (25) shoots in the second quarter against Denver Nuggets at Target Center.
Brad Rempel | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters
Key Points
  • A combination of shorter games and "rock star" players are attracting a record numbers of basketball fans to NBA games, said Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta.
  • Attendance at games was more than 22 million during the 2017-2018 season. Television viewership also increased about 17 percent.
  • Forbes estimates the average basketball team is worth $1.65 billion.
Bob Levey | Getty Images

The business of basketball is booming and Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the NBA's Houston Rockets, suggests the league has a winning game plan for keeping fans tuned in.

"The NBA, it's just fun and interesting and the crowd is into it," Fertitta told CNBC during "Power Lunch" this week.

This season, the NBA set records for total attendance and sold out games. During the 2017 - 2018 basketball regular season, which ended April 11, attendance at NBA games was more than 22.12 million, compared with 21.99 million last year and 21.97 million during the 2015 - 2016 season.

More people are watching at home too. Combined average TV viewership — on ABC, TNT, ESPN and NBA TV — for NBA games was 1.4 viewers, according to Nielsen data. That's up 17 percent from last year, and the most-watch start to a season in recent years.

Meanwhile, Forbes estimates the average basketball team is worth $1.65 billion — a 22 percent increase since last year.

Fertitta, whose home base is in Houston but was in New York on Friday for the NBA Board of Governors meeting, said a combination of shorter games and a "rock star" line up of players is what makes basketball different from other sports.

"People can relate to the stars," he said. Fertitta pointed out that in basketball stadiums people are able to see players' faces — unlike in football where the players' faces are covered by a helmet.

The audience is also literally closer to the players in basketball stadiums, compared with baseball or football fields.

"And remember, in basketball, your star can touch the ball in every single play," said Fertitta, who also own Landry's restaurant chain and Golden Nugget Casinos and Hotels. "In football, how often does it happen, except for the quarterback?"

Basketball players have also acquired celebrity-like status, said the billionaire businessman, who purchased the Rockets last fall for $2.2 billion.

Tilman Fertitta, entrepreneur and host of Billion Dollar Buyer.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

"The way that basketball is, if you have one superstar you're always going to be extremely competitive and most likely get to the playoffs," Fertitta said.

"But you really have to have two superstars like we do, with Chris Paul and James Harden, and really a third one, like a [Clint N'Dumba-]Capela or an Eric Gordon, that really even takes you to the next level," he added.

And if that's not enough. sports fans don't have to be worried about being bogged down by long games. Basketball games are shorter than many other sports, averaging just two hours and seven minutes, Fertitta said.

"So you're able to get in and get out," Fertitta said. "It's not a four-hour ordeal."

This winning formula has helped propel the Rockets into the playoffs, which begin on Saturday. On Sunday, the Rockets take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The billionaire added: "I'd much prefer having 82 games to go to a year and a lot of night games, instead of having to get up and go to 16 games a year on a Sunday at noon." Fertitta said, referring to football's regular season schedule.