It’s no secret the NBA has ambitious plans to expand the league, and in the last year a lot of what the Association has in mind in terms of a much bigger picture has come into focus. With big plans for an affiliate league run in conjunction with FIBA spanning the continent of Africa and some of the first alumni of the NBA’s seven global academies finding homes in the league, a vision quite literally spanning the globe has found itself suddenly cast into doubt after a tweet by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sparked a controversy threatening league ties.
Three of the seven international talent development academies located in China, and tensions are high while monumental investments and crucial revenue hang in the balance.
Whether the events that have already transpired are enough to shift the league’s plans regarding expansion, or if they depend on how things play out remains to be seen. This could, of course, radically alter the direction and viability of expansion itself, rendering the purpose of this series moot. But until we hear otherwise, we’ll continue updating any potential shifts in footing as they become available.
In this edition, we turn to what have been the two locations that seem to have gotten the most attention and support from the league as expansion options: Mexico City, Mexico and Seattle, Washington.
Mexico City faces similar challenges in that it is a region beholden to football, the “real” sort, as noted by my colleague, Josh Coyne.
While the travel distance might be shorter to Mexico’s capital for some than between many existing NBA franchises, the other cultural factors present a challenge of a similar sort.
Some stars are bonafide fans of the idea to put a franchise south of the Rio Grande – former Dallas Mavericks champion Shawn Marion lauded the potential of North America’s largest market in a recent NBA press conference, and Denver Nuggets big man Mason Plumlee has penned his own article advocating for the move – the challenges of playing and living in a city where most people speak a language other than English at home would likely be off-putting for many NBA players as the prospect of living in Europe was for Bradley Beal.
But that perception may be based more in a lack of information than fact, as most US foods and even major restaurant chains can be easily found in Mexico, as well as many popular retail outlets and a service industry already quite used to taking good care of English-speaking guests from the States.
Plumlee goes so far as to laud the city’s attractiveness as a free agent destination. He wrote: “Mexico City has great weather, a world-class arts and restaurant scene and has been ranked as high as number one on the New York Times’ global travel list of ‘Places to Go’”. He downplayed the adjustments necessary to survive in a new culture, and asked: “Who would have thought Kawhi would move to frigid Toronto and start laughing during interviews?”
While the cultural differences between Toronto and Mexico City are of an entirely different magnitude, Plumlee is correct that the city’s location is another advantage. “I’ve always seen travel time as an issue whenever London comes up as a possible NBA destination, especially with the time zone consideration, but Mexico City is closer and in an NBA time zone.” He’s also correct in noting the size of the market and already-existing fans of the NBA (currently estimated at over 20 million without even a team of their own) as advantages over competing locations.
Seattle losing the Supersonics to Oklahoma City has been held up as one of the worst decisions allowed by the modern NBA, but even with their long and storied history as a successful franchise and market, it may be some time before we see an NBA team back in that city.
When Microsoft magnate Steve Ballmer gave up his pursuit of the Sacramento Kings in 2013, after the league nixed his plan to relocate the team to Seattle, the city missed out on its best chance to revive the team.
Ballmer’s loss as a supporter to move a team back to the city compounded ongoing issues with developing a suitable arena for an NBA club (part of the reason cited for the move to Oklahoma was the poor state of the decades-old Key Arena, in need of major renovations of replacement). Without Ballmer’s deep tech industry pockets, an entirely new venue seemed impossible with little public appetite for so much spending.
However, the city’s government was able to arrive at a considerably lower-cost renovation alternative that may put it back into the NBA expansion or relocation conversation, should a team ever end up on the move again. It’s not inconceivable that one of the two-team markets (New York City and Los Angeles) could see a team think about greener pastures, but with the Brooklyn Nets and and Clippers investing in purchasing or building homes for their teams, it doesn’t seem very likely in the short term.
It’s also possible that another, small market team could relocate. The Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and other small-market teams might be induced to change homes, particularly if longtime Hornets owner Michael Jordan finally throws in the towel on what has been a decade-long rebuild with that franchise. But for now, there’s no real traction out there for any team to decamp to the Pacific Northwest, meaning expansion is the most likely path.
We spoke with CSN’s Kevin Nesgoda about the possibility of a Seattle NBA return. He’s one of the most plugged-in members of the greater Seattle media community for all things Sonics. The former Editor-In-Chief of Sonics Rising, a popular blog dedicated to the (hopefully temporarily) defunct franchise, Kevin has also been deeply involved with efforts to bring the team back.
“I’m obviously in huge favor of a team returning to Seattle. A lot of us did our best to keep the Sonics in Seattle, but they ultimately ended up going to Oklahoma City. I can not think of a single con for the Sonics to be returned to Seattle. There is nothing but pros there. Seattle has a huge appetite for the return of basketball and once again will provide the loudest and most raucous arena in all of basketball.”
Nesgoda’s interests are firmly focused on bringing the beloved franchise back to Seattle, but he also thinks about expansion more generally, noting he “would also really love to see Vancouver, Louisville, and Mexico City get teams as well”.
Privy to the machinations currently working the angles to get a Sonics revival from an aspiration to something more concrete, he added: “There have been some great behind the scenes things happening to get a team back in Seattle, but those can not be discussed at this time.”
While Nesgoda doesn’t think the expansive vision the league has been quietly assembling through its academies will help the Sonics especially, it does figure prominently in securing Mexico City as a viable long-term franchise destination, and is particularly interested in how those academies could transform the sport on a more global level in the years to come.
“I’ve always thought that the NBA could declare the first ever true world champion. After the NBA Finals I would love to see the North American team play the winner from the South American leagues and then they play the Europe/Africa winner for the World Championship. Adam Silver has made mention of this in the past and I would love to see it.”
Unfortunately for Kevin and his fellow Seattleites, the league has walked back rumbles of expansion that began to bubble up in 2017. This is perhaps due to the difficulties in getting those renovations to Key Arena accomplished as much as logistical challenges in Mexico, then considered the two most likely destinations.
This summer, the door to such expansion – which will likely occur in a pair of teams to move the league to a 32-game construction, much easier to fit into a playoff structure – closed ever so little in the near-term, as commissioner Adam Silver related the following at Las Vegas Summer League via the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Mark Anderson:
“[Expansion is] not on our agenda right now. Invariably, one day it will be again, but all of our attention has been focused on the performance of the 30 existing teams … There’s no doubt there are a number of cities in the United States that could host NBA basketball, but … we would want to make sure at the time we expanded we felt it would help grow the entire league and not just support the NBA in that particular city.”
On one hand, this could be a direct shot at the issues that have slowed Seattle’s candidacy to return to the league as a host city, but it could also point to the strengths of Mexico City, framed as a partner for a re-entry into the league.
What was interesting was the role of the Las Vegas, where that quote was issued, concerning its interest in hosting an NBA franchise, which we will discuss next.
Featured photo –Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington