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Fair Weather City: Are Grizzly fans really disloyal?

Analysis done by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective ranks Grizzlies fans 26th out of 30 NBA teams in fan loyalty. So, do the numbers tell the whole story?

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC), a student-run organization at Harvard College, published an article seeking to answer one of the NBA’s most quintessential questions: Which team has the most loyal fan base?

Obviously, this is a difficult question to answer. There are ways to quantify fandom, but there’s plenty of gray area for interpretation. But there are certain metrics that can be looked at to get a decent estimate of how fans react to their team.

For the purpose of their study, the HSAC measured fan loyalty by game attendance. Per Nicholas Heath, who wrote the article:

The results are presented in a table, ranking teams with the lowest correlation (or the “most loyal”) at the top and the highest correlation (“least loyal”) at the bottom. The Grizzlies, sadly, rank toward the bottom of the list, 26th out of 30 teams. Only the Jazz, Rockets, Nuggets, and Clippers finished with a higher correlation between win percentage and attendance percentage.

So, what does this study tell us? Are Memphis fans really disloyal, as these numbers would seem to indicate?

First, I think it’s important to point out the broader flaws in this sort of study. Heath recognizes the shortcomings of this sort of simplistic form of measurement and notes:

The last point is the biggest issue I have, and the one that is the most relevant to the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies play in one of the smallest and least affluent NBA markets. Their economic reality when it comes to filling stadiums is far different than, say, the Knicks, who, in spite of their recent struggles, have managed to maintain attendance due to the size and wealth of their market, Madison Square Garden’s appeal to tourists, and the sideshow attraction that is the possibility of Charles Oakley tearing James Dolan limb-from-limb in the stands.

The Grizzlies, without those luxuries, don’t have as much margin for error when it comes to the product on the court. In other words, teams like the Knicks, the Lakers, and the Celtics have large, relatively wealthy markets and franchise gravitas that the Grizzlies can’t match.

I think it’s also worth wondering how Memphis’ relative “newness” to their market affects the results. The study was conducted based simply on the teams’ time in their most recent stadium (for the Grizzlies, that’s 2004 through the present). But if we track the data from the time they moved to Memphis, it looks like this:

Per Microsoft Excel, it turns out that the Grizzlies’ earliest iterations, which played in the Pyramid, were less “dependent” on on-court success (.7667 vs. .7446 correlation coefficient*). But there’s only three seasons of data there, which hardly qualifies as a large sample size, and that makes it difficult to draw any sweeping conclusions.

The more interesting question for the Grizzlies will be what happens once this era of Grizzlies basketball finally comes to an end. What will attendance look like when the team is no longer fighting for a playoff berth? How much goodwill has Grit and Grind built up, and how well will that goodwill translate into ticket sales?

It’s also worth wondering how well today’s fandom will carry over to the next generation. How will young fans, who’ve only known Memphis as the home of the Grizzlies, support the team once they’ve reached adulthood?

When it comes to the Grizzlies and fandom, there’s almost as many questions as there are answers.

So, what conclusions can we draw from the HSAC’s report?

There’s certainly some interesting observations that can be made, and a few items that might be worth a deeper dive, like the Mavericks’ negative correlation between winning and attendance, the Knicks’ third place finish, or the fact that the Clippers finished last.

But overall, it’s hard to reach any sort of concrete conclusions based simply off win percentage and its correlation with attendance. Each team (and market) brings its own nuances and caveats, and these have to be noted when making any broad, overarching conclusions.

As far as loyalty among Grizzlies is concerned, I think you have to take this with a (very large) grain of salt. While I certainly won’t try to convince you that Memphis doesn’t have its issues with opposing team fans infiltrating FedExForum, I still believe that we need more time (and more data) before we’ll really know just how loyal the Grizzlies fan base truly is.

*Footnote on author’s stupidity: The correlation coefficient I calculated using Excel for the Grizzlies’ time in FedExForum (.7667) didn’t match the number given by the report (.7493). The people who published this report are going to Harvard, and I didn’t go to Harvard, so maybe you should trust their number.

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