OAKLAND, Calif. — As soon as I got to Oracle Arena last week for the first game of the N.B.A. finals, I started scanning the floor for tech bigwigs.
Basketball has always been accommodative of celebrity culture — the small arena and the courtside seats make seeing and being seen one of the central perks of high-dollar tickets. In an earlier time, Jack Nicholson became a fixture at Lakers games, while the Knicks claimed Spike Lee and Woody Allen as all but official mascots.
Now, in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors have … Eddy Cue.
Who is Eddy Cue? He is Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services — blame him for iTunes. He was the first boldface name I spotted, courtside center, bouncing up and down like a giddy 10-year-old as Stephen Curry and the Warriors gang took their warm-up shots. A few nights earlier, when the Warriors beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a come-from-behind miracle, Mr. Cue ended up on the cover of The San Francisco Chronicle looking gleefully unhinged in his celebrations.
With Silicon Valley just a short Tesla drive away from Oracle Arena, Mr. Cue is far from the only techie losing his mind over the Warriors. The team is owned by a coalition of tech investors, and on any given night, you will find a passel of executives, venture capitalists and other assorted billionaires cheering from the sidelines.
Longtime fans suffered decades of heartache with this team, but for many here now, especially the transplants who came to the Bay Area to work in software and hardware, the Warriors seemed to come out of nowhere. They are a juggernaut with a modern, disruptive style of play that is consuming everything in its path — an ideal mascot for an industry whose defining mantra is to mercilessly eat the world.
Yet success has had its costs. Thanks to bandwagon fans like me, ticket prices have soared, leaving longtime ticket holders fuming. Gentrification has already begun, and it is bound to get worse. Soon the team will move to an exclusive new arena in San Francisco, abandoning its roots in an industrial area of Oakland.
In other words, you can almost see the Warriors as a metaphor for the way the tech industry improves, but also unexpectedly risks ruining, pretty much everything it touches.
“One of the tensions that exists with the Warriors now is the owners seem to have a feeling that, ‘Oh, we bought this team, they got really good, but we do live in a market where there are people who are accustomed to paying ever-increasing prices for everything, so let’s raise the prices for our tickets,’” said Josh Williams, a designer and basketball fanatic who holds Warriors season tickets. “I do have a real concern that we might price out the quote-unquote real fans.”
Mr. Williams is a recent convert to Warriors fandom. He moved to the Bay Area from Austin, Tex., a few years ago after selling his start-up, Gowalla, to Facebook. His seats, in the upper corner of the arena, cost about $50 a game, and are set to go up by about 40 percent next season.
Prices have become a bigger issue in the last few weeks, as the Warriors landed in the finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the finals, the team sent prices through the roof.
Mr. Williams’s not-great corner tickets rose to $400 from $50. Pretty good first-level seats — which during the regular season go for under $200 — are selling for a face-value of $1,000 to $2,000. On the secondary market, the tickets are going for much more. One anonymous fan purchased a pair of courtside seats for Game 7 of the Western Conference finals for $58,000. ESPN reported that several members of the Cavaliers declined to purchase tickets for their families at Game 1 and 2 of the finals because prices were just too high.
Given the prices and the team’s connection with tech, I expected the crowd at Warriors games to resemble a venture capital firm’s cocktail party — young, vaguely geeky, demure business types, mostly white, mostly men. I also felt a sense of embarrassment for jumping on the bandwagon. A couple of years ago, I barely knew the rules of basketball, but as the team kept defying odds and breaking records, I got a bad case of Warriors fever.
Yet the crowd at the two games I attended this year, including the first finals game, was not a bunch of bandwagoners like myself. Warriors fandom is one of the few Bay Area experiences that still seems to cut across a wide swath of the population. The people who attend the games seem diverse in just about every way — by race, age, willingness to yell out and make a fool of oneself — except one: pretty much everyone wears a yellow Warriors T-shirt, and pretty much everyone looks overjoyed to be there.
Katie Jansen, the chief marketing officer of a start-up called AppLovin, which owns a suite at the arena that it shares with employees and customers, echoed that idea.
“I’ve met the owners of a suite a few suites down from us, and it’s literally a bunch of Oakland natives, a group of men who’ve been Warriors fans their whole lives, and they’ve owned this box for 30 years,” she said.
Many of the techies who now flock to Oakland told me they love this vibe. “There is a real die-hard fan base there in Oakland, and there’s something special happening in that arena right now,” said Craig Butler, Spotify’s newly hired vice president for engineering, who owns season tickets with a few of his buddies. “The energy level at Oracle right now is double what it is anywhere else — it’s just the best show in town.”
And according to the team, the fan base isn’t changing. Despite price increases, about 99.5 percent of season ticket holders decided to renew for next year — meaning only 23 people did not renew. The wait-list for season tickets is now over 30,000 names long. Many fans are likely gratified by the fact that their tickets are a good investment even at current prices.
On average last year, Warriors tickets could be resold for 119 percent above face price, so a $100 ticket would fetch $219 on the secondary market, meaning that if you bought a season’s pass and sold half your tickets, you would most likely recoup your investment.
But how do you preserve the fan base as the entry price rises? The problem for the Warriors resembles, in broad strokes, the problem of housing in the Bay Area. There is a finite supply of tickets to the games, and in an industry that produces astonishing wealth, there will always be enough people with enough money to pay nearly any price for tickets.
Basketball is a business, of course, and it is within the Warriors owners’ rights to profit from the team’s amazing success.
“Most people who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on something, they want to get a return on their investment,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economist who studies sports at Smith College, told me with some exasperation when I asked him if there was some way for the team to avoid raising prices and changing its fan culture now that it has found success.
But there is a way. Owners could simply not try to suck up every available penny they can find. With insane TV deals, corporate signs and many other revenue opportunities, there is a lot of money in basketball besides in tickets.
Another plan would be to increase ticket prices only on the wealthy. Mr. Williams, a lifelong fan of the Dallas Mavericks, pointed out that when Mark Cuban, another tech billionaire, purchased and revitalized that team, he went out of his way to keep ticket prices low.
“One year my season tickets cost $24 a ticket, and I got my renewal package and they had dropped the price to $14,” Mr. Williams said. “It turned out what Mark was doing was jacking up the price on the lower bowl, where he knew the purchases were corporations, and reducing the price on the real fans upstairs.”
In an email, Mr. Cuban confirmed that strategy.
“We have decreased prices across the board multiple times,” he said. “The only tickets that have gone up marginally are our best seats.” He added: “I don’t run the Mavs to maximize profits. We now make money. But it’s more important to me that fans can always afford to come to games.”
Well, how’s that for disruption?
News: THE NEW YORK TIMES
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