Inside The NBA's Aggressive Strategy to Combat Violent Fan Behavior

    • NBA encourages all 30 teams to collaborate with police and legislatures to create stiffer penalties.
    • League wants to avoid another 'Malice at the Palace' melee between players and fans.

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Near the end of Game 7 of the Atlanta Hawks vs. Philadelphia 76ers Conference Semifinals, a fan threw a can on the floor at the Wells Fargo Center — and the days of just an ejection are over. The spectator may face serious legal consequences similar to Boston Celtics fan Cole Buckley, who allegedly hurled a water bottle at Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving in May.

Not only did Buckley get ejected, but the NBA and Boston-area law enforcement teamed up to make an example out of him. Rather than a slap on the wrist, the 21-year-old college student was hit with a felony charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. He’s been banned from TD Garden for life.

“We commend the NBA, and specifically Commissioner [Adam] Silver, for really being at the forefront of these issues and willing to think creatively and protect his workforce,” Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins told Front Office Sports.

“A lifetime ban is good,” she added, “but I also think having criminal charges filed when they are appropriate and necessary is a step that needs to be taken.”

It’s not just aggression toward players. Hours prior to the Hawks-76ers incident, a wild brawl broke out among fans of the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers during Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. In attendance was Nick McKellar, the “Suns in Four” fan who went viral for pummeling two Denver Nuggets supporters in a previous playoff series. McKellar was given a hero’s welcome.

The Suns asked fans to “keep their cool” off the court. “We will not tolerate the violence that erupted following Sunday’s game at Phoenix Suns Arena,” the club stated.

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the $8 billion league knows fans are its financial lifeblood. But the league recognizes attacks on players are unacceptable and could spark another “Malice at the Palace,” the infamous 2004 brawl that culminated in the suspension of nine players for 146 games and $11 million in lost salaries.

Although there are applicable laws already in place, the NBA is encouraging all 30 teams and arenas to work closely with local law enforcement and state legislatures to pursue out-of-control fans as violators of criminal law. 

Front Office Sports obtained internal NBA memos sent to all team presidents, general managers, and arena security directors. Among sweeping new league guidelines, all NBA teams are encouraged to:

  • Place fliers in the first six rows warning fans that violation of the league’s Fan Code of Conduct in the “Courtside Zone” could result in ejection and possible bans.
  • Recite the league’s Fan Code of Conduct on PA systems at least three times every game.
  • Work closely with law enforcement to aggressively pursue incidents as crimes. Possible charges could range from disorderly conduct to criminal trespassing. “It’s important that when somebody trespasses on the court, they don’t get a $500 fine and that’s it,” said a source. “Move it up to a higher-level misdemeanor — so it could come with jail time.”
  • Collaborate with local politicians to pass stiffer penalties for unruly fans. “The legislature has an incredibly important role in this process,” Rollins said. “The sense of sort of entitlement that we are seeing here by some of these fans, it needs to be stopped.”
  • Identify perpetrators by name and record their contact information prior to warnings or ejections. Prohibit signs or clothing that display offensive or disparaging messages.

Buckley was released from custody after he posted $500 bail.

Messages left with his family members and his listed attorney, Stephen Neyman, by Front Office Sports were not returned.

He’s not the only fan making news for the wrong reasons.

Russell Westbrook has been a particular target of fan ire over the years. On May 26, a 76ers fan dumped popcorn on the Washington Wizards star. Westbrook had to be restrained by security. A New York Knicks fan spat at Trae Young of the Hawks. 

(Both were banned for life from Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center and New York’s Madison Square Garden, respectively).  

A few days later, another fan ran onto the court during Game 4 of the Wizards-76ers first round matchup. (He was banned from Washington D.C.’s Capital One Arena.)

In February, Juliana Carlos was ejected from her courtside seat at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena for removing her mask and cursing out LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Carlos apologized. She was back in her front-row seats for the Hawks-Sixers series.

“Courtside Karen was MAD,” tweeted James

It’s not lost on Rollins that fans are mostly targeting African-American players.

“The NBA is overwhelmingly Black men, and the level of vitriol is just really rising,” Rollins warned. “Fans believe that they are entitled to engage this way.”

After the NBA’s revenue dropped 10% to $8.3 billion for the 2019-20 season due to the pandemic, the league hoped fan attendance at games would help recoup the lost dollars. 

Now, the NBA finds itself in a “challenging” position, according to Justine Gubar, author of “Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan” and executive director of the Sports Emmy Awards. 

Cracking down on customers could cause a backlash just as pro sports regains its financial footing. 

“There’s a lot of missed revenue to be generated, and no one in the sports world really wants to call out paying customers for acting like jerks,” Gubar said.

Still, Vassilis Dalakas, Professor of Marketing & Chair of the Department of Marketing at California State University San Marcos, warns some fans are going way beyond inappropriate. 

“People’s lives now can be in danger,” Dalakas said.

Despite recent incidents, the NBA does not plan to move back courtside seats or install plexiglass barriers, said sources.

Courtside seats are a big money-maker. These seats can range in price from $300 to $50,000, depending on the team’s popularity, market, and status. They play an intrinsic role in the NBA brand. 

Courtside NBA seats offer the closest, most unique view in sports. They’re the place to see and be seen by celebrities like Jay-Z, Spike Lee, Jack Nicholson, and Drake. 

“Those seats separate the NBA product from everybody else,” said one former league executive. “They give the NBA a visual selling point the other leagues just don’t have.”

Fan violence is not exclusive to the NBA. On June 6, 30-year-old Pablo Ibarra Fuentes was arrested for allegedly throwing a bottle at U.S. men’s national team player Gio Reyna during the championship of the inaugural Concacaf Nations League.

Still, frustrated NBA players are demanding protection. 

After the bottle-throwing incident in Boston, Irving blamed “underlying racism” for fan aggression toward NBA players.

“As a Black man playing in the NBA, dealing with a lot of this stuff, it’s fairly difficult. You never know what’s going to happen.”

— Michael McCarthy and AJ Perez contributed to this report.