Kobe Bryant was once again a trending topic as his jerseys ascended to the rafters of Staples Center last night. The 20-month period since his retirement felt like a prolonged absence from the spotlight for a man whose shadow had dominated the sport for so long.
I spent the 2015-16 season getting increasingly fed up with the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour—especially as it contrasted so starkly with Tim Duncan’s final chapter. Duncan’s goodbye was a silent point to a road crowd; Bryant’s entire season was a media extravaganza.
My displeasure evaporated on that final night as I realized what it actually meant to bid adieu to a constant of my NBA fandom. Though I greatly admired the lack of fanfare surrounding Duncan’s retirement, Bryant’s 60-point outing was yet another reminder of how he welcomed being the face of the league.
Bryant was more than the sum of his points. The league’s popularity and resonance has always been driven by its superstars, and Kobe relished that role. Like his idol (Michael Jordan), Bryant captured the imagination of a global audience and promoted the NBA across the world while building his own powerful brand.
As I reflected on his retirement and the media circus that accompanied it, I grew curious about the financial impact of his final season. The numbers are eye-popping. Per ESPN, Bryant’s final season drew more road fans than any team in the past five seasons1. This is all the more noteworthy considering how awful that team was.
Almost every single team in the above table (sorted by attendance drawn on the road) was considered a legitimate contender powered by a superstar. There are five obvious exceptions:
- 2016-17 Minnesota Timberwolves (#18): The Wolves were a highly anticipated team with new coach Tom Thibodeau, but they still wallowed in sub-.500 basketball. A fascinating quirk about this team is the massive discrepancy between home (76.5%) and road (95.4%) attendance.
- 2016-17 Los Angeles Lakers (#16): The Lakers brand is strong, even without Kobe Bryant.
- 2015-16 New York Knicks (#12): How much of this was Kristaps Porzingis? The then-rookie surprised everyone, and the Knicks with any semblance of optimism are a huge draw.
- 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder (#10): Russell Westbrook’s triple-double-palooza and MVP campaign certainly attracted fans on the road.
- 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers (#1): Bon voyage Kobe!
All of these examples speak to the appeal of stars, but the 2015-16 Lakers’ ranking on this list is remarkable. I also calculated the teams’ road attendance relative to the league average for that season and estimated the revenue generated by Kobe’s farewell tour.
My method of calculating revenue added2 is far from perfect considering the limited data available to me, but it hints at Kobe’s vast monetary influence—even for an aging, past-his-prime Kobe. These rough calculations peg the added value of Kobe’s retirement tour at $2.49 million, and that’s just in ticket sales alone. When you include the money those added fans spent on merchandise, parking and concessions, Bryant’s farewell tour was an even juicier cash cow for road teams.
The Bryant boost didn’t extend to the television screen, as the Lakers experienced their lowest local TV ratings in franchise history (per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times), but it did help with merchandise sales. The NBA doesn’t release actual sales totals, but Bryant remained No. 3 in player jersey sales from 2013-14 through 2015-16. The Lakers were still one of the most coveted teams in terms of merchandise despite winning an average of 22 games over this period. The buying frenzy only picked up as Kobe’s swansong neared.
According to Ananth Pandian of CBSSports, Kobe-related merchandise sales were up more than 100 percent for his last year and increased by 500 percent over the final 30 days of his career. On his last night alone, the Staples Center sold $1.2M of Kobe merchandise (per ESPN’s Darren Rovell), which was a single-day sales record for any arena in the world (the previous record-holder was Led Zeppelin in 2007).
Mamba’s farewell tour was about connecting with fans and paying respects to a legend. But it was also phenomenal business for Bryant, the Lakers and the NBA. The game is about buckets, but THE game is about dollars. Kobe Bryant was excellent at accumulating both.
1. I wasn’t able to definitively figure out what a percentage of over 100 means. My guess is that it includes attendees using standing room-only tickets, press passes and/or luxury suites. The “Farewell Tour Lakers” and “Perhaps the Greatest Team Ever Warriors” are the only teams of the last five seasons to sell out (to capacity) on the road.^
2. I’ve shown my methodology using the 2015-16 Lakers and a road game in Denver as an example. I used this approach to calculate fans added, % change and revenue added for the entire season:
Fans Added = Attendance for Lakers game – Average attendance at road venue. The average attendance for a Denver Nuggets home game that season was 14,095. For the Lakers game, the crowd was 20,096. Fans added = 20,096 – 14,095 = 6,001.
% Change = Fans Added / Average home attendance = 6,001 / 14,095 = 42.58%
Revenue Added = Average ticket price * Fans added = $52.38 * 6,001 = $314,332.
Average ticket price doesn’t account for dynamic ticket pricing (i.e. pricing for the popular teams is probably higher than the average ticket price) but it’s the best I could do without more specific data.^