NBA commissioner Adam Silver has flagged the potential for expansion in the first time in his tenure.
The 30-team league hasn’t added a new franchise since 2004, when the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) were introduced. Before then, you have to go back to 1995, when the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies entered the league.
But the financial impact of COVID-19 has seen the NBA more aggressively consider adding new teams.
“I think I’ve always said that it’s sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point,” Silver said this week.
“I’d say it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic. But certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.”
The key driver of expansion, as you can probably guess, would be money. Any new NBA team owners would likely be charged between $US1 and $US1.5 billion – the average value of an existing franchise – to enter the league.
That cash would then be split among the 30 current owners. If you’re adding two teams at the larger price point, that’s $US100 million to each owner, which they’d obviously gladly accept.
THE IDEAL SCENARIO
You really want to add two teams, in order to keep an even number of 32 across the league, with 16 in each conference.
To balance out the Eastern and Western Conferences geographically, it makes the most sense to add two teams in the western half of the US.
That would allow a team like Memphis, New Orleans or Minnesota – who are basically all as close to the east coast of the country as Milwaukee and Chicago – to switch conferences from the West to the East.
Adding a team in the west (such as Seattle) and a team in the east (such as Louisville, Nashville or Montreal) would essentially keep the conferences as they are but with an addition each, which would be fine as well.
THE LEADING CONTENDER
Population (metro area): 3.98 million, 15th-most in US
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has hinted over recent weeks that league expansion could be imminent this decade, with a former professional basketball city — Seattle — a frontrunner to gain a team.
Not surprisingly, Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan welcomed the news, and told Seattle television station KING 5 on Thursday that she is “pretty optimistic” a team will return to the city, which lost the SuperSonics after the 2008 season when the organization moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.
Durkan and Silver spoke on the phone before the holidays, the mayor said.
“It is very good news for the city of Seattle that they are thinking of an expansion team,” Durkan told KING 5. “And I was honest with him. He knows Seattle wants to be at the front of the line. We’re where the team should be. But we will be respecting them as they move forward to their ownership because the (owners), you know, has to approve it.”
It’s almost impossible to imagine the NBA expanding without returning to Seattle, who saw their SuperSonics relocate to become the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008.
The league almost returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2013, when the Sacramento Kings were up for sale, though they ended up remaining in California.
Their old home court, the KeyArena, has been renovated to bring it up to modern standards and allow for the new NHL team – the spectacularly-named Seattle Kraken – to play there.
It’s also a city well-suited for expansion because it’s home to many major tech companies, like Amazon, who would buy up the most expensive seats and luxury suites, plus billionaires who could easily become the new owners.
THE CHASING PACK
Las Vegas, Nevada
Population (metro area): 2.26 million, 28th-most in US
The NHL broke the seal on pro sports expanding into the gambling hotspot, with the Vegas Golden Knights finding immediate success, while the NFL’s Raiders are now there as well.
The NBA already spends plenty of time in the city via the Summer League, and it’s the type of sport that would draw plenty of casual fans and tourists in for games, so attendance wouldn’t be an issue.
Plus, Vegas has a perfect venue in T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights play.
The question of course is whether such a tourist-heavy city will have the money to spend on an NBA team when tourism has been so negatively impacted by COVID. However it’s easy to imagine a casino owner bankrolling a new franchise, isn’t it?
Vancouver, British Columbia
Population (metro area): 2.46 million, third-most in Canada
Much like Seattle, the NBA could return to the northwest of the Americas if it hands a franchise to the former home of the Grizzlies.
However the team only lasted six years in Canada’s third-biggest city, struggling both on and off the court before being relocated to Memphis in 2001.
Being in another country certainly adds a degree of difficulty – when the Canadian dollar weakened, it made running the franchise much more expensive. Many players also didn’t want to move to Vancouver, most famously with 1999 No.2 draft pick Steve Francis refusing to play there.
Still, it has the advantages of a large, relatively wealthy population and an existing arena – the Rogers Arena, where the Grizzlies played and the NHL’s Canucks continue to play.
Of course if you bring Vancouver back, you either need to take back the Grizzlies name from Memphis, or you get the Utah Jazz scenario where they’re stuck with the wrong nickname (they moved from New Orleans which is, ahem, much more known for jazz).
San Diego, California
Population (metro area): 3.38 million, 17th-most in US
The southern California city has hosted two NBA teams before, the Rockets in the late 60s/early 70s and Clippers in late 70s/early 80s, but more recently teams have been leaving rather than coming there.
It’s arguably underserved by US pro sports now that only baseball has a team there (the Padres), following the NFL’s exit when the Chargers moved north to Los Angeles.
But the problem has been venues, across multiple codes. The Chargers wanted a redeveloped stadium and didn’t get it, and without an NHL team or major university providing a suitable arena, there isn’t an existing venue to use.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern said San Diego wouldn’t be considered by the league until it built a new arena. In August this year, the city revealed plans for a “world-class” venue, but that’s still a long way down the road.
Population (metro area): 1.26 million, 46th-most in US
There are no pro sports teams in Kentucky, but it’s a basketball hotbed, with both the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville finding success at the college level.
Louisvile previously hosted an American Basketball Association (ABA) team, the Kentucky Colonels – yeah! we know! – who were extremely successful. The city was in the running for the Grizzlies when they relocated from Vancouver, as well as hosting the 30th franchise which ended up being placed in Charlotte.
There are also existing arenas to use, including the 22,090-capacity KFC Yum! Center – the city is home to Yum! Brands, which runs some 43,000 fast food restaurants around the world, so it has the corporate backing needed too.
Mexico City, Mexico
Population (metro area): 21.3 million, most in Mexico
Further international expansion is a dream of most US sports leagues, with the NFL’s ventures into Europe the most adventurous so far.
But there would be a definite first mover’s advantage for whichever league first heads south to populous Mexico, and its capital Mexico City.
The NBA has already played games in the city, and in late 2019 an agreement was struck to enter the Capitanes de Ciudad de Mexico – the Mexico City Captains – into the developmental G League.
The problems are relatively obvious – it’s harder to expand internationally than domestically, and it’s still pretty far away from most NBA cities, being a four-to-five hour flight to each coast. There’s also the question of whether players would feel happy and safe living there.
THE DARK HORSES
Population (metro area): 1.93 million, 36th-most in US
A sizeable city with an emerging technology scene, which would help with corporate backing, but it already has two pro sports teams (the NFL’s Titans and NHL’s Predators) and probably isn’t big enough for three. Plus, Memphis is three hours down the road in the same state.
St Louis, Missouri
Population (metro area): 2.80 million, 20th-most in US
Much like Nashville, it already has two teams (MLB’s Cardinals and the NHL’s Blues), and it’s not really an emerging city – more a biggish city that has teams because it always has, kind of like Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Population (metro area): 4.09 million, second-most in Canada
It’s a bigger city than Vancouver, but returning there probably makes more sense if you’re putting a second team in Canada again.