Although some of the NBA's biggest names have recently retired, a family of four is paying on average $168.68 to attend a game, a 6.9 percent increase over last season, according to an annual survey by Team Marketing Report, a Chicago sports-business publication.
Much of the increase is attributed to a 7.7 percent rise in the average ticket prices, said Alan Friedman, who for four years has monitored fan expenditures as the publication's editor.
In devising the Fan Cost Index, Friedman tabulates expenses for a family of four by including tickets, two beers, four hot dogs, four soft drinks, two souvenir caps, two programs and parking.
Under this system, NBA prices have risen almost three times faster than the Consumer Price Index, which monitors the overall inflation rate in the country. Furthermore, the increases are much greater than in the NFL and baseball, which jumped by 4.8 percent in 1993. NFL ticket prices increased 1.7 percent, baseball 3.5 percent.
The most expensive NBA city is New York, where an average ticket for a Knicks' game is $39.66. A 14-ounce beer is $4.25, a hot dog, $3, and parking $12.50 for a family total of $232.62. Chicago is second at $215.79; Phoenix is third at $205.26, and Boston fourth at $203.30.
By comparison, the Clippers are professional sport's anomaly. They lowered ticket prices by an average of 41 cents. Friedman said it was the biggest decrease of any NBA, NFL or baseball team. At $22.45 a ticket, the Clippers are well below the NBA average of $27.12. They rank 20th among 27 teams in ticket prices.
But as guard Ron Harper might suggest, even at NBA bargain prices Clipper fans are investing a hefty chunk to watch mediocre performances. The Clippers rank 18th in the Fan Cost Index and have the league's 21st-best record.
Down the Century Freeway in Inglewood, Calif., the Lakers illustrate what happens when the freewheeling '80s meet the austere '90s.
The Lakers increased ticket prices by 1.7 percent this season, yet still rank fifth overall in the Fan Cost Index. A family can expect to spend $199.84 to watch a game at the Forum. With the team rebuilding, the Lakers have discovered the magic of marketing to keep some fans interested.
Still, much of the attraction comes naturally, said Brian Murphy of Sports Marketing Letter, a Westport, Conn., publication that analyzes professional sports. He said it is not surprising that the NBA continues to strengthen its fan base as costs escalate.
"The environment for a family is pretty nice, there never is a rain-out," Murphy said. "You don't see a lot of fights in the stands.
"Plus, you can see Jack Nicholson at absolutely no extra charge."
Of course, that's an L.A. phenomenon.
From Murphy's perspective, the NBA has not priced itself out of the market.
"This is the golden age of basketball," he said. "It began toward the end of Kareem's [Abdul-Jabbar] career and is still going full throttle.
"What is it worth for the fan to attend basketball when it's in its golden age? There are so many future Hall of Famers [playing], it's stunning. It's like Broadway. Why can a show command a $60 ticket? The quality is there."
Compared with fine dining, theater, a trip to Disneyland or a weekend outing, an NBA game is not off the entertainment scale, analysts say.
Only Boston charges more for parking, at $15 a car, than the Knicks. Chicago matches New York at $12.50, followed by the Clippers and Miami Heat at $7. But it is all part of urban landscape, particularly in the close quarters of Manhattan.
For example, most teams have parking lots operated by the arena, but the New York lots are individually run. And with limited space, demand far exceeds supply. "Often, people will pay $10 to $20 to park," said John Cirillo, the Knicks' vice president of public relations.
The parking situation embodies the overall problem of operating in big cities. If the cost of living is higher, then it stands to reason that the costs of operating a team will be higher. And the fan is expected to make up the difference.
None of this, however, has stopped Knick fans from displaying their loyalty. Last season, the team sold out 39 of 41 home games. This season, all their games are expected to be sellouts, team officials said.