The Paul George trade skyrocketed the Oklahoma City Thunder back into the top tier of the Western Conference contenders. But June 30 wasn’t exactly a launching point for the team’s ticket sales.
It’s hard to receive a boost when you’ve maintained the popularity the Thunder has, even with the arrival of a four-time All-Star.
“That really doesn’t change when you acquire Paul George because there wasn’t really a lot of inventory available to sell or to market, which is a really good sign,” said Brian Byrnes, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Thunder.
“It’s an odd thing to say when you acquire somebody the stature of Paul George.”
A year after the loss of Kevin Durant in free agency, the Thunder continues to thrive in season ticket sales, so much so that George’s off-court impact so far is hard to measure.
For the last seven seasons, per Byrnes, the Thunder has had a season-ticket renewal rate between 94 to 96 percent. Following Durant’s departure to Golden State in free agency in the summer of 2016, it remained at 96 percent and is at 94 percent going into this season.
Even with that number slightly lower than last summer, there is immediate success in re-selling season-ticket packages due to the abundance of fans on the season-ticket waiting list. Most NBA teams average renewal percentages in the mid-80’s.
“Really, it’s had no impact since Kevin left,” Byrnes said.
The continued loyalty of Thunder season-ticket holders is reflected in attendance figures. According to a 2009 Oklahoman report, nightly attendance figures are based not on who comes through the gate, but “on tickets sold and complimentary tickets supplied to the NBA, players, coaches and community groups.” So while you may see a few empty seats on the broadcast, those seats are still sold.
According to sportsbusinessdaily.com, the NBA set an attendance record for the third-consecutive season with an average of 17,884 fans per game. The Thunder was one of 14 teams to have either no gain or an increase in average attendance. In comparison, Houston improved 14 games in the win column from the previous season, but reported an average attendance decrease of 5.6 percent, the biggest drop in the league.
That’s prior to the George Factor. For the Thunder, moments like the draft or a massive trade acquisition don’t deliver run-to-the-box office impact since there’s simply not ticket inventory available. NBA teams typically have a window from April through June where their sales team is attacking a wait list of season ticket holders. By the time the draft arrives in June and free agency in July, the Thunder’s major season-ticket sales efforts are complete.
And while the release of the NBA schedule last week may have been a blip on the radar of casual sports fans, to the league’s teams their retail business starts to see an uptick.
Off the court, that’s where the true measure of George’s arrival will come in the fall. Don’t be surprised if George is occupying the same Top 15 merchandise sales lists as Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Kevin Durant once the NBA releases its figures around the holiday season.
“The question of how do we see the impact of Paul George on the business … we’re probably not there yet,” Byrnes said. “There’ll be an opportunity in the fall when merchandise sales, where television ratings might be indicators.
“It’s still a little early. We’ve seen a lot of demand for Paul George t-shirts and those things, but sometime around training camp or so we’ll be able to show what the last two or three months have looked like and the impact.”