No team in Los Angeles defines success quite like the Lakers. “Showtime” packaged glamour and excellence into a civic happening. Adoring fans embraced a series of superstars so beloved that they were known by their first names: Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe.
Those five players delivered 11 championships; no other professional sports team in Los Angeles has won more than five.
Yet no professional sports team in Los Angeles has gone longer without making the playoffs — and the Lakers play in a league in which more than half the teams make the playoffs. Only two of the 30 NBA teams — the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns — have gone longer without making a postseason appearance.
After the Lakers’ trade for star forward Anthony Davis there was no run on season tickets because almost all of them were sold already.
Fans and sponsors have stuck by the Lakers. Their record might be disappointing, but their business is thriving.
“Our fans seem to start with the word ‘when,’ Tim Harris, the Lakers’ president of business operations, said last month. “When are we going to compete for championships again?
“A lot of teams, they probably get ‘if.’ If we make the playoffs.
The Lakers last reached the playoffs in 2013. From 2014 to 2019, the Lakers’ annual revenue increased by one-third and their annual profit more than doubled, according to Forbes estimates. In the same time period, the Lakers’ average ticket price increased from $102 to $140, according to Team Marketing Report.
Harris said the percentage of season-ticket holders that have renewed for next season is in the “high 90s” — with a payment deadline two months before the Davis trade, and with a price increase he said was in “double digits.” The Lakers maintain a waiting list “in the thousands,” spokes Alison Bogli said.
Every game sold out last season, even with season-ticket payments due long before the team signed LeBron James.
The Lakers sell their single-game tickets without buying advertising, Harris said. Their corporate sponsors have not canceled, he said, because their interest is less about wins and losses and more about reaching potential customers.
“Here’s where they would have a problem: if, instead of 19,000 people every game, there’s 9,000,” Harris said.
The Lakers and Dodgers remain the dominant teams in the market, but there are signs of erosion in the Lakers’ fan base.
In a 2014 survey, 43% of Los Angeles county residents selected the Lakers as their favorite pro sports team and 30% selected the Dodgers, according to the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, based at Loyola Marymount University.
In a 2018 survey, 38% favored the Dodgers and 30% favored the Lakers. No other team hit 10%, although the survey — the most recent available — was taken before the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl.
“Everybody has their core fans,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Leavey Center. “The Lakers and the Dodgers go way beyond the core fans, and those are the fans whose loyalties are not as strong. Those fans are the ones that are going to move.
“We would make the argument that they would be moving away from the Lakers no matter what, because of their losing record. But the fact that they’re just about all moving to the Dodgers is because of the Dodgers’ winning record.”
Among newcomers — those who had lived in the county for five years or less — the percentage choosing the Lakers as their favorite team dropped from 60% in 2014 to 27% in 2018.
The Dodgers replaced the Lakers atop the list, but the Angels, Clippers, Galaxy, Kings and Rams each were favored by at least 10% of newcomers in the 2017 and/or 2018 survey.
“We see them as the most volatile in allegiance,” Guerra said. “They’re still trying to figure out their favorite team.”
The Clippers have targeted the next generation of fans in their community outreach programs.
They have outfitted every child in a city basketball league and in other L.A. County leagues in Clippers gear, reaching more than 120,000 youngsters. They have donated $10 million toward refurbishing 350 city basketball courts, affixing their logo to each one, according to spokesman Chris Wallace.
They also have partnered with Vision to Learn to screen more than 375,000 children in the Los Angeles, Long Beach and Compton school districts for vision problems, with more than 25,000 pairs of glasses prescribed and provided, at no cost to students.
Still, for all the seeds the Clippers are planting in the community, and for all the promise their team holds, they have to win. In the six consecutive seasons the Lakers have missed the playoffs, the Clippers have made it five times. But L.A. measures success by championship banners. Next season will be the Clippers’ 50th and they never have even made the conference finals.
“In a marketplace that prizes winning, class, quality and a bit of bravado, they’ve got an incredible window of opportunity,” said Andy Dolich, a San Francisco Bay Area sports consultant and former president of business operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. “But, based on the incumbent and their incredible record of dominance, you’d better be on it 24/7, or it could reverse itself pretty quickly.”
The Angels could testify to that. In 2011, for the first and only time, they sold more tickets than the Dodgers. The Angels had won the World Series in 2002, for the first and only time, then won their division five times in six years, through 2009.
In 2010, former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt took his team into bankruptcy. In 2011, a fan boycott so depressed attendance that 10 teams in the major leagues sold more tickets than the Dodgers.
The Angels have not won a playoff game since then. Their window slammed shut as the Dodgers, under new ownership, won their division and led the majors in attendance every year since 2013.
The San Francisco Giants won the World Series three times in five years, most recently in 2014, and yet their attendance has plummeted. Their ownership last winter nudged their baseball executives to bid on star outfielder Bryce Harper, out of concern that season-ticket sales would be damaged by the cratering resale market for what has become a last-place team.
“For us to assume that it doesn’t matter what we put out there and the cash register is just going to ring,” Harris said, “I think that would be naive.”
He said Lakers fans believe winning is a matter of when — and not if — because the Lakers have rebuilt and won more than once.
“If history is a road map, well, that’s when the ‘when’ comes in,” Harris said.
Davis is a huge step toward ‘when.’ But the Lakers are on their sixth coach in the decade since their last championship. Their winters have regularly deteriorated into the hope of signing a marquee free agent come summer, and yet every marquee free agent, except James, has spurned them.
Perhaps with James and Davis, the Lakers are able to lure another star or two this summer, and all is right again. Or, perhaps, the stars sign with the Clippers, and a city starts to align with them.
“If you and I are sitting here in six years and saying, ‘Boy, it’s been 12 years since you’ve been to the playoffs,’” Harris said, “I don’t know if I would say to you that our fans are saying, ‘when.’ ”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin