NBA expansion: the likelihoods and the long shots

NBA expansion: the likelihoods and the long shots
Joe Murphy / Nikki Boertman / Getty / Miles Brown behance / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

It seems eons ago since we began this series on NBA expansion in early fall, with an existential threat to the league’s global expansion plans rising and then (mostly) subsiding in the interim. And recently, news broke that some the most sweeping changes to the NBA’s calendar in decades hit the headlines.

Undeterred, we’ve forged ahead in our efforts to try and convey where and how the NBA might grow, starting with London, moving on to top candidates Seattle and Mexico City, followed by an upstart entrant in Las Vegas.  We then followed these up with some of the more fringe (but still possible) options generating buzz among those who have ties to the NBA’s still-expansive plans.

So, get out your maps, open Wikipedia or Google, or whatever you use to navigate cities that, until now, probably weren’t on your radar unless you already know a local. Dive into a handful of smaller-market cities in the US and Canada that might be able to pull off the upset and land the league’s 31st or 32nd franchise. At the end, we’ll tip our hand at where we see the odds most favorable for a shorter-term expansion, and how they might play into even bigger plans for growth.


Louisville and Kansas City

There may be no part of the country with a more intense basketball culture than Louisville, Kentucky, but it has been a collegiate stronghold, with Louisville based in the city and the University of Kentucky and Cincinnati both a short drive away. Yum Center is an NBA-ready venue, but even with all the sport’s roots in the region, it remains a small market with few guarantees an NBA franchise would “…help grow the entire league and not just support the NBA in that particular city”, as Silver set the bar earlier this summer.

Kansas City, on the other hand, happens to have an NBA-ready arena already used for other sports as well, and the success of the Chiefs and Royals in other sports suggest there may be support for another pro team in the market. But it’s an even smaller market without an established appetite for professional basketball, which struggled to support the Kings for a decade in the late 1970s and early 1980s before that team moved to California.

Vancouver

Vancouver is another popular market mentioned when discussing possible expansion markets, as the league may have jumped the gun by allowing the relocation to Tennessee. Temporary economic conditions and player reticence to relocate to Canada were cited as major reasons for the move to Memphis, where that team has since continued to struggle to establish itself as a major draw for fans and free agents alike. 

Today’s success of the Toronto Raptors and the strong dollar against the Mexican Peso suggest an international move southward may be a wiser decision today than perhaps at any time in NBA history, but the Grizzlies’ original home doesn’t seem to have much traction at the moment for garnering a new franchise, apart from Commissioner Silver’s regrets (via the Daily Hive’s Rob Williams):

“In retrospect, I wish we had a team in Vancouver right now. I think Canada could handle two NBA teams,” offered Silver.

“I think we were a bit ahead of our time. There was a moment in the league where prospects seemed down in terms of the team. Attendance was down, ratings were down. I understood from an economic standpoint why the then-team owner [Michael Heisley] wanted to move the team.”

While it remains to be seen whether that’s enough to rekindle serious attempts to put a team back in British Columbia, another option that might be explored is the aforementioned Kings’ approach in their early days in Missouri. That iteration of the Kings split their time between Omaha, Nebraska and Kansas City, and a similar split with nearby Seattle might kill two birds with one stone.

Extreme long shots

Anaheim, California, Hampton Roads, Virginia, Montreal, Canada, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have all mounted bids in recent years to attract an NBA franchise. But of them, only Anaheim figures as a major market, and one already occupied by two NBA teams (the Clippers and Lakers in nearby Los Angeles). 

Pittsburgh would be the smallest market by far in the league, and only Virginia would offer a market north of a million souls, dispersed among neighboring municipalities that could complicate building and maintaining adequate facilities. While these locations may not be impossible ones in terms of having league success, they are also all far from what Silver has made clear are his priorities in any potential expansion market.

Best odds for a new (or old!) franchise

With the NBA making expansive moves to grow the sport worldwide while also signaling a priority to developing the league itself as a prerequisite for expansion, many, if not most of the aspiring markets simply do not make sense in the foreseeable future. Non-major markets without an existing NBA team stand little chance of landing one without identifying some kind of special edge, absent from competing markets.

Only a few of North America’s top 20 media markets are still without an NBA franchise – namely, the greater Tampa Bay area and Seattle – and the latter probably has the best case of any for a future franchise to call home within the next decade. Quite possibly linked to Seattle, as noted earlier, is Mexico City. It makes by far the most sense as a partner franchise to bring the league to 32 teams while also setting the stage for a broader, truly global league structure hinted at by recent league projects.

These two locations are by no means assured, as local contexts, league developments and politics may shift suddenly and in unexpected ways that could vault one or more alternative options to the forefront. One or more franchises relocating from any of several small markets could shift the current odds in favor of a Las Vegas, Vancouver, or even a darkhorse candidate like Montreal, Canada.

Those of you close to London, however, may be in for a bit of a wait for inclusion in a broader, continental NBA system that could, in truth, take a decade or longer to construct.

If the NBA has proven anything over the last three decades, though, it’s that it listens to its fans and finds ways to incorporate their interests in ways that catalyzes the growth of the sport in surprising ways.

This is another way to say that despite all the labor that went into making this article come together (to say nothing of the years-long projects underway by the league concerning expansion), predicting the future of such a fiscally and culturally expansive organization often proves both wildly wrong even when consulting directly with the league itself.

Buckle up, because the NBA’s future – one way or another – is going to be even more massive than it is today.