Out of cold storage due to the pandemic’s fiscal impact, NBA expansion talk is heating up again

After most of a year with the primary focus of the NBA geared towards survival in the midst of a global pandemic, whispers of expansion are again on the lips of the league’s leading faces.

Speaking to the media at the start of the 2020-21 NBA season, league commissioner Adam Silver admitted the NBA had kicked up its level of interest in adding teams to the league — and related it was at least in part related to the financial windfall such a move might inject into a league, still working its way back from a historic drop in revenue.

While not on the league’s “front burner”, as Silver put it, the NBA has been re-evaluating its timetable for expansion, with the commissioner saying the pandemic has “caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion”, sharing that the league has “been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic”.

And for good reason. After the NBA was estimated to have lost nearly $700 million in anticipated revenue, the league’s capabilities for weathering any future political or social turbulence is considerably diminished. So too are plans for expanding the sports’ global reach through its academies, the delayed start of its Basketball Africa League joint venture with FIBA, uneven and uncertain future of the expansion of the G League.

A number of issues coalesce around one specific issue: A lack of depended-on funds caused by Covid-19 in a critical moment for NBA plans worldwide.

With franchise fees expected in the $1 billion range per team — with the likely number being two for a playoff-friendly 32 teams in full — the appeal to owners is obvious, as it is to the league.

The general consensus seems to be that there is already enough talent to support two more teams in the league, and awarding franchises to locations that could also boost the media market presence represents an additional way to boost league revenue at a moment when gate receipts are at best an uneven short-term proposition for this and the next season.

Cue the revival of the Seattle Supersonics, a ready-made franchise with a built-in feel-good narrative of righting a historic mistake. While some locations like Las Vegas, Nevada, might appeal out of novelty, no options could better inject cash via media rights deal than a Mexico City franchise, with 20 million regular NBA fans already extant in a country of over 120 million, with all of Latin America able to tune in via syndication.

As Silver alluded, expansion may not be on the top of the league’s to-do list, but with the league’s on-and-off turbulence with the Chinese market still a thing and the pandemic far from over, don’t be surprised if the NBA starts cooking with gas in the next year when it comes to adding teams to the league.