In light of the racist remarks attributed to Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner, on Monday we looked at the demographics of the NBA’s owners and players. Finding demographic information on NBA fans turns out to be more difficult.
In 2013, 47 percent of NBA head coaches and 81 percent of players were non-white. It’s likely that the majority of NBA fans are racial or ethnic minorities as well, according to our analysis. And the Clippers, which play in the cosmopolitan Los Angeles market, likely have among the most diverse fan bases in the league.
There’s no definitive resource for the demographics of the NBA fan base. Nor is there any one definition of a fan. Those who attend NBA games are undoubtedly different from those who watch the NBA on TV, or who follow the NBA on the Internet, or who buy NBA merchandise, or who emulate their favorite NBA stars in pick-up games.
But I did the best I could by averaging data from five sources: a Nielsen report on the demographics of NBA TV viewership; polls from Pew Research and the Public Religion Research Institute on Americans’ favorite sports; a Scarborough Research report on avid NBA fans, and a YouGov poll on which sports Americans follow regularly.
These sources provide estimates of how many Americans of different racial and ethnic groups follow the NBA as compared to the country as a whole. These tendencies can be expressed in the form of a multiplier. For example, the various surveys estimate that African-Americans follow the NBA at a multiple of somewhere between 2.2 and 3.3 times the national average. White Americans, by contrast, follow the NBA at rates between 0.6 and 0.9 times the national average, depending on the survey.
Estimates of NBA avidity among Hispanic Americans vary (perhaps, in part, because of the failure of some polling and research firms to conduct polls in Spanish). Hispanics overperform the rest of the U.S. population in NBA interest in some surveys, and underperform it in others. The consensus of the evidence, however, points toward Hispanics’ NBA avidity being about the same as the country as a whole. (For purposes of this analysis, I’ve taken “Hispanic” to be a non-overlapping category with both “white” and “black,” as most polls do. The U.S. Census Bureau, by contrast, treats Hispanic status as an ethnicity rather than a race — so in the census, someone can be both Hispanic and white, black or Asian.)
Only the Scarborough Research study contained a breakout for Asian-Americans. That study found that Asian-Americans are about 40 percent more likely to be avid NBA fans than the country as a whole.
We can estimate the racial and ethnic distribution of NBA fans by averaging the multiplier across the five studies, and then applying it to the overall U.S. population. I estimate — excluding those who identify themselves as Native American, or as belonging to “mixed” or “other” races — that about 46 percent of NBA fans are white, 31 percent are black, 7 percent are Asian-American and 16 percent are Hispanic. In other words, the league’s fan base appears to be majority-minority.
It’s also possible to come up with some crude estimates of the racial composition of fans for individual NBA teams. My process for doing this was as follows:
- I used Nielsen estimates of the racial composition of the population in each of the United States’ 210 media markets;
- I used the frequency of Google searches for each NBA team in each media market as a proxy for its per-capita popularity;
- I multiplied each team’s Google search frequency in each media market by the population by race there, then summed the totals to produce an overall estimate of the racial distribution of its fans;
- I recalibrated the estimates to ensure that the whole matched the sum of the parts. In other words, I added or subtracted from the fans assigned from each racial group to each team such that the sum total matched my estimate of the overall distribution of NBA fandom throughout the country (e.g. 46 percent white, 31 percent black, and so forth). The estimates were weighted by the overall popularity of NBA teams, according to their number of Google searches.
I estimate that the team with the whitest fan base, at 65 percent white, is the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Minneapolis-St. Paul media market is 85 percent non-Hispanic white, according to our estimates. So Wolves’ fans are white relative to those elsewhere in the NBA. But they’re not so white compared to the media market the team calls home.
What about the Clippers? They aren’t all that popular in Los Angeles. But they hadn’t been all that popular anywhere in the country until they began to play well recently. So LA, and surrounding metropolitan areas, represent the bulk of the Clippers’ fan base. The Los Angeles media market is among the most diverse in the country: It’s only 36 percent non-Hispanic white, according to our estimates. I estimate the Clippers’ fan base to be 40 percent non-Hispanic white, 27 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian-American. This implies that the Clippers have among the lowest proportions of white fans of any team in the NBA.
However, this estimate is crude. It’s based on the overall racial composition of NBA fans and the overall racial composition of various media markets. It won’t account for the historical relationship that each NBA franchise has with its fan base, or the different demographic groups that comprise that fan base.