SBJ/May 21-27, 2012/Franchises
The action’s on the floor
Tales from NBA courtside seats: Who gets them and how
Published May 21, 2012
Fifty feet across the hardwood, Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen perched next to the Sixers bench. Pippen’s appearance no longer stirs much of a reaction from the front-row crowd, given that the NBA hall of famer is a regular in what is considered to be the best of the 144 seats that ring the floor.
|The evolution of the Hollywood seat began in 2007, when the NBA allowed teams to shrink the size of their scorer's table to boost the number of revenue-generating seats.
“People call me all the time asking who the guy was sitting in Scottie’s seats,” said Joe O’Neil, senior director of tickets sales for the Bulls. “I joke with Matt all the time about that, but it’s the most unique seat in sports. Where else you can sit between the players and coaches?”
Whether perched in the “Hollywood seats” between the benches, like Pritzker and Nicholson, or settled in across the floor or along the baseline, those who secure spots in the front row at NBA games occupy real estate unparalleled in sports.
And, like their counterparts on the cliffs of Malibu or the sands of South Beach, they pay a premium for it.
Knicks floor seats are priced from $2,850 to $3,600 per game. Lakers seats are priced similarly. So are spots on the front row to watch the Three Kings in Miami.
Courtside-seat holders in Chicago and Boston pay less, but only slightly. Pritzker’s seats in Chicago carry full-season face prices of upward of $100,000 each, or $2,500 per game.
While prices and local star wattage may vary, the attraction remains the same.
“You’re right there in the thick of it,” said Kurt Schwartzkopf, chief marketing officer of the Denver Nuggets. “Once you sit courtside, that experience takes you to a different level when it comes to live entertainment. Nothing can really top it.”
On the last week of the regular season with the Knicks in town, the Atlanta Hawks’ vice president of ticket sales and services, Kyle Brunson, was visiting a suite when a staff member surprised him with the news that Spike Lee was behind the Hawks bench, trying to flag down a dance team member who handles in-seat service for the team’s 10 all-inclusive Hollywood seats.
“We had no idea he was coming, and I have no clue where he got the seats,” Brunson said.
Executives in Miami tell a similar story. They say Lee frequently makes the trip when the Knicks are in town, but they never hear about it ahead of time.
It’s really not such a mystery. Al Palagonia, a private jet broker who has been going to games with Lee for 20 years and appeared in several of his movies, has connections with players, agents and ticket brokers across sports. He typically secures Lee’s spot. They met at a Knicks game in Chicago in 1992. Lee had good seats, but Palagonia’s were better. Palagonia gave Lee his phone number and invited him to call whenever he wanted to put his feet on the floor.
“We have people looking for tickets who only want to come if they can sit up front,” Brunson said. “Oftentimes, it’s Row 1 or nothing. I’ll tell them we have fourth row, center court, and they say, ‘No, that’s all right.’ That blows me away a little bit. But I get it.
“There’s nothing like having your feet on the floor.”
While all teams will acknowledge that their floor inventory is their most precious, there are various approaches to how the limited seats are sold and distributed.
|NBA courtside seats deliver the action, and stars like Kevin Durant, directly to the fans.
Most of the floor-seat deals are in blocks of six and the team does not hold any in reserve, unlike other NBA teams that keep a handful of the pricey floor seats in their back pockets to dole out at their discretion.
“We don’t have a Hollywood history so the companies who sponsor the Thunder get access to the front-row tickets as part of their relationship to the team,” said Brian Byrnes, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Thunder.
Should any celebrities passing through town want to take in a Thunder game, Byrnes and his staff must appeal to the current floor-seat holders to give up their tickets to accommodate any special requests.
“We don’t have any internal inventory,” Byrnes said, adding that the cost of the seats is wrapped into individual team sponsorship deals. “We have to go to [current floor-seat holders] and ask if they’d like to host.”
That’s the route buyers must take in most NBA cities.
Teams like the Bulls, Celtics, Knicks, Heat and especially the Lakers are accustomed to dealing with floor-seat demands.
“We understand the market and the market understands us,” said Tim Harris, senior vice president of business operations for the Lakers, who deals with floor-seat ticket requests from some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
The Lakers are so hard-wired into the celebrity culture that catering to the 139 floor-seat holders has become routine. Some of the tickets come with privileges to the plush and very private Chairman’s Room just off the floor, where red-coat security agents guard the door.
“The [talent] agencies have the floor seats, the [record] labels have them and the studios have them,” Harris said. “We have been in the Finals in seven out of the past 12 years, so everyone has figured out how it works.”
How it works is that the Lakers hold eight floor seats for every game and they sell them — not give them — to a chosen few for a particular game. Typically, an agency will call on behalf of their celebrity client and Harris will tell them firmly but politely that they must pay for the seats.
“That is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “A lot of times they will want them for free, but it is an education for them. The favor is the access to purchase them.”
|Jack Nicholson (center), a Lakers fixture for years, is synonymous with courtside star power.
When it comes to floor-seat star power, the Indiana Pacers are a low-voltage franchise. But the Pacers this year had at least one night when they rivaled the Lakers in meeting the crush of celebrity demand for front-row tickets.
“We had a game Super Bowl Saturday night and that was a challenge,” said Todd Taylor, senior vice president and chief sales and marketing officer for the Pacers. “And celebrities typically call at the last minute and expect to sit where they want, but we did the best to accommodate them.”
The team has 115 floor seats priced between $650 and $850 per game for the regular season and up to $1,500 for the playoffs, with half of the floor-seat inventory tied up in the team’s sponsorship deals.
The Pacers, like many NBA teams, keep up to eight tickets for their own use for each game. The team needed all those and more for Super Bowl Saturday night when they hosted a home game against the Orlando Magic with a crush of celebrities in town.
So rapper 50 Cent got his floor seat, so did boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., and so did Nicki Minaj, who was in town to sing at the Super Bowl.
Taylor wheeled and dealed to secure Minaj front-row seats by offering a longtime floor-seat ticket holder four additional seats for the Pacers’ future home game against the Miami Heat. But Minaj, stuck at a Super Bowl dress rehearsal, never showed, leaving a hole in the front row during the sold-out game, a cardinal sin in the NBA.
The Pacers hurriedly sent four staff members to fill the sits until Minaj showed, but she never did, leaving four of 115 floor seats wasted during one of team’s biggest nights of the year.
“We had nothing to compare it to,” Taylor said, “because it was once-in-a-lifetime to have a game on the Saturday night before the Super Bowl.”
In Boston, the Celtics charge between $47,300 and $58,050 for a typical floor-seat season ticket. But the team keeps eight for their own use on a game-by-game basis, and those are carefully given to sponsors, celebrities or anyone else the team deems worthy.
“It depends on who it is, but if [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady comes in, we take care of him,” said Shawn Sullivan, chief marketing officer of the Celtics.
Owner Wyc Grousbeck sits in a floor seat on one baseline, with co-owner Stephen Pagliuca sitting across the floor on the other baseline. Grousbeck keeps a close eye on the game — and the floor seats controlled by the team. Sullivan sometimes runs the floor-seat ticket manifest by Grousbeck to keep track of who is in the team’s seats.
“Anyone Wyc wants to take care of shoots to the pole position,” Sullivan said.
Rarely do floor-seat ticket holders give up their prized ducats, despite the cost.
“One guy has had seats down there for 30-plus years,” Sullivan said. “He should have taken an equity stake in the team.”
In New York, the Knicks have 145 floor seats priced from $2,850 to $3,600 per seat per game, or between $122,550 and $154,800 for a typical full regular-season schedule at Madison Square Garden. All are sold out and the majority of floor-seat ticket holders are individual ticket holders. Yes, Lee owns his seats.
But one of the league’s most tenured sponsors in Gatorade doesn’t own seats in the Garden. Instead, it has floor seats with the Charlotte Bobcats, Bulls, Heat, Magic and Pacers.
“The point was to be able to wow important customers, and if they love basketball, you can do that by putting them in the front row,” said Bill Schmidt, who headed sports marketing for Gatorade from 1984-99. “If you aren’t doing it to promote sales, no business should have them. But we definitely used them to build relationships and sales.”
On the day of the 76ers’ first home playoff game this year, the team unveiled new and more plush courtside seats in the first four rows at the Wells Fargo Center, all the better to cushion the well-heeled individuals who would occupy those seats and justify the increase in price of the top ticket that next season jumps from $1,200 to $1,400 per game.
“What you are selling with courtside seats more than any others is visibility,’’ said Lara Price, the Sixers’ senior vice president of business operations. “The people buying courtside seats are people that want to be seen.”
That’s part of the appeal of the Hollywood seats, which put fans near midcourt, next to the coaching staff.
The evolution of the NBA Hollywood seat began in 2007 when the league allowed teams to shrink the size of their scorer’s table to boost the number of revenue-generating center-court seats. But not all teams have expanded to reach the limit of the league rule. The Hawks, for example, have held back because adding seats would mean cutting back on the length of the signs available on their scorer’s table, which is space that they’ve already sold in sponsorship contracts.
When the Memphis Grizzlies added eight seats between the benches and the scorer’s table this season, they found only one buyer for the new locations. Harrah’s Casino took the four next to the visitors’ bench to use as a perk for high rollers. At $850 a game — or almost $75,000 a pair for a typical full season — they were priced far higher than the $590 a game they charged for tickets on the opposite side of the floor, a steep price for relocation.
So the Grizzlies started offering the seats for $950 per game in packages of five games. They sold a few to sponsors and suite holders. But they still were left with plenty of openings, especially for softer games. When the lockout settled and the season started, demand picked up.
“The first time they look across the floor and see their friends, they want to know how they can get there,” said Dennis O’Connor, vice president of ticket sales and services for the Grizzlies. “Coaches are talking to you. Players are patting you on the head. It’s a completely different experience than you have on the other side [of the floor]. Once people saw what it was, they were willing to pay for it.”
The few times that the seats didn’t sell, the Grizzlies upgraded fans who had been in the other floor seats the longest. After the upgrades, the fans ended up buying the marquee packages.
“They’d come up at halftime and say — ‘You got me. My wife says I have to buy them for four more games,’” O’Connor said. “We were doing it on the service side, but it turned into more revenue.”
Like some of their counterparts, the Grizzlies grapple with the fact that the only way to move toward center court is by priority, and the people who have the money to sit courtside aren’t willing to start out near the baseline. That problem is magnified when a team goes through a bad stretch. After a poor four-season stretch, the Grizzlies went into the 2010 season with center-court seats available in the eighth row and lots of others to be had throughout the first 10 rows.
“You could be center court, eight rows up for $129 or spend $590 to sit in the last four seats on the front row,” O’Connor said. “The seats that are available on the floor aren’t the cream of the crop. You start at the end and then slide. A lot of people don’t want to wait.”
Once a team turns it around, the equation shifts. Coming off of last season, the Grizzlies had 12 seats on the floor available. Now, having made the playoffs back-to-back years, they don’t anticipate any will open up.
Courtside seats for Hawks games were easy to come by until the 2008 playoffs. Since then, the market has tightened. Still, even with increased demand, selling season rights to those that come open hasn’t been a layup. The Hawks haven’t encountered much price sensitivity. Their most expensive seats sell for $59,000 for the season. The rest of the sideline goes for $35,000 each, and seats on the baseline are less than $15,000.
The team often encounters potential buyers who would willingly write the $35,000 check to sit between the free-throw lines, but won’t accept a spot on the corner at any price.
“When somebody is making that investment they want to be closer to center,” Brunson said. “That takes time. And some people don’t want to wait.”
Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.