Going to an NBA game can be damn expensive, or it can be incredibly cheap, depending on which city you're in and where you want to sit. But which cities and teams will let you see a game from a decent seat for less than your car payment?
Although it's more than feasible to get some cheap tickets through a team's box office through special package deals, the average fan is best off hunting for individual game tickets on the resale market. Moreover, the secondary market is a more accurate representation of the actual demand for a team's tickets than box office prices, as resale trends typically reflect how much fans want to pay for the on-court product.
Overall, the demand seems high, given the rising prices of tickets. NerdWallet recently published a report ranking the NBA's 30 teams according to the overall affordability of the home game experience, taking into account median resale ticket prices as well as other categorical prices associated with attending a game at each arena. The study found that the average median resale ticket price across the NBA was $96.57.
But that number is broad enough to not give you a sense of what buying any given ticket will cost. What about fans who only care about how much the average nosebleed seat costs, or a once-a-year splurge on prime, 100-level seats? And which teams' tickets on the secondary market charge the highest premium for lower level seats compared to cheaper options?
As with the examination of road draws, we used ticket prices from Vivid Seats as of Dec. 16 and crunched some numbers to break down average resale ticket prices for each home team by three arena levels:
- Upper Level: nosebleeds and general seating in the highest sections of an arena
- Middle Level: seats in sections located between upper level seating and sections closest to the court
- Lower Level: best seats in the house – excluding clubs, suites and the most expensive courtside options (i.e. not next to Jack Nicholson in LA or Spike Lee in NYC)
Upper Level Seats
The Detroit Pistons have the lowest average resale ticket price for upper level seats. For an average of $19, fans can watch the deeply constipated, underperforming Pistons. The rest of the five cheapest upper level teams are less lamentable: the Pelicans (an ascendent Anthony Davis), Nuggets (over .500 and Nate Robinson), Jazz (Trey Burke!), and Bobcats (Kemba, Bismack) all have at least something to offer fans. But none of these teams play in a top market or have players that are instantly recognizable (yet).
On the other end of the spectrum, Knicks fans can expect to pay an average of $110 to watch the miserable circus-orgy that is somehow just a half-game out of a playoff spot, from the worst seats in Madison Square Garden. At an average of $94, the second-highest priced upper level seats belong to the Miami Heat, which makes more sense. The Lakers, Clippers, and Nets are also among the teams with the most expensive "cheap" seats in the NBA—four top market-size teams and the best team in the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, who hold the best record in the East, have just the 12th-lowest average price for outer level seats. At $28, upper level seats in Indiana cost less than they do in Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto, and fifteen other teams. The team's success and their low ticket prices have resulted in increased attendance compared to last year, but the Pacers are still only near the NBA average in terms of home game attendance percentage.
The Spurs are another great value—the average price for the highest seats in San Antonio is $26, the 9th lowest of all teams and quite a bargain compared to the league-wide average upper level price of $45.
The mid-level is where you start to see some value propositions popping up. The Clippers' average middle level ticket costs $87, only 18 percent higher than the average upper level ticket. That difference between the two levels is the lowest of all 30 teams, which means that fans wanting a better view of Lob City may want to consider paying the small difference in price. It isn't a weirdo quirk of the Staples Center, either—the Lakers have a regular jump from upper- to mid-level ticket prices. It should further be noted that the Lakers, who feature Swaggy P as an offensive fulcrum, have more expensive tickets at all three levels than the exciting, contending Clippers.
For pure lowest price in the midsections, the Pistons also have the lowest average resale ticket price for middle level seats at $38, less than half of the NBA average of $82. The Bucks, Cavaliers, and Timberwolves aren't far behind—middle level seats at these teams' home games cost less than $50 on average. Philly and Denver both have lower-than-average jumps from the nosebleeds to the 200-sections.
Bulls fans pay more than anyone else for mid-level seats—at the United Center, they cost an average of $189, which is 172 percent higher than the average price of Chicago's upper level seats. The Thunder, Knicks, Lakers and Nets follow the Bulls as the teams with the most expensive middle level seats.
The biggest difference between upper and middle level ticket prices is in San Antonio, where the average middle level price of $80 is 213 percent higher than the cheaper option. This fits a noticeable trend of (generally talented) teams in smaller markets compensating for their cheap nosebleeds by charging a higher premium for game experiences closer to the court.
Yep, the best seats in the house are expensive. Lower level tickets (excluding courtside) average $180 per seat.
At the top of the list of teams with the most expensive lower level tickets is the Chicago Bulls, once again, with an average price of $379. Despite these high ticket prices (or perhaps reflecting them), the Bulls lead the league in attendance percentage this season. Although Derrick Rose's injury again hurts this team on the court, it likely won't have too significant of an effect in terms of ticket prices and attendance. How? Chicago led the league in attendance and was one of the most expensive per ticket last year, when Rose didn't play at all. Chicago is almost impossibly dedicated to going to Bulls games, it seems.
What happens when a team's best player begins the season in terrible form and then tears a ligament in his thumb in a bar fight? Larry Sanders and the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks know the answer: the worst record and some of the lowest ticket prices in the NBA are the results. As a direct reflection of the team's play, lower level tickets for Bucks games on the secondary market are the least expensive of all 30 teams at $101.
Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks have the highest difference between the prices of upper and lower level seats. The average lower level ticket for a Mavs game costs $234, which is a whopping 652 percent higher than the average upper level price of just $31. Dallas is playing well this season but that's still quite a hefty premium to sit closer to an improved Monta Ellis and an aging yet effective Dirk Nowitzki.
If you want to charge top-five prices for your best seats, you better be in a top market, or have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That more or less holds true for the entire top 10, except for Toronto, which has fantastic fans and is also the only NBA team in Canada.
Despite being home to some of the most expensive lower level seats in the NBA, the Miami Heat ($278 for a lower level seat) and New York Knicks ($372) are among the teams with the lowest percentage difference between upper and lower level prices. This makes sense, given that even the "cheap" tickets for these teams are extremely pricey, and also because, as ever, the Knicks defy basic causality and exist in a state of logical anarchy.
Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum
All data gathered by NerdWallet and current as of Dec. 16