The NBA has experienced growth like no other US sport over the last several decades, and that growth has been mirrored in the league’s slowly expanding geographical footprint, growing from just eight teams in 1961 to 17 a decade later, all the way to 30 teams in 2004, growing roughly four teams per decade.
The league’s presence in broadcast media also exploded in this era, most notably in the late 1980s and 1990s when cable and broadcast media began paying handsomely for the broadcast rights to the sport, funding and further accelerating the NBA’s expansion. This culminated in the NBA securing a deal with ESPN, ABC and Turner Sports in 2014 second only to the NFL worldwide in terms of total value, and equivalent to a deal secured by the UK’s Premier (soccer) League in terms of annual revenue.
Perhaps no greater evidence of the sport’s growing popularity was evidenced by the Toronto Raptors becoming the first team based outside of the United States to win a championship in the league’s seven-decade history. Additionally, increasingly larger numbers of international players are joining the league, encouraging yet-larger audiences to get involved with and eventually play the sport abroad.
So, adding more teams ought to be the priority to grow the sport even further, right?
Not exactly; while there have indeed been rumbles of expansion in the league, most notably involving Mexico City and Seattle, a number of logistical and other hurdles have seemingly moved those aspirations to a longer-term approach that looks to further entrench the sport abroad, securing an even greater amplification of international players as has been done in the past with the development of a series of global academies designed to create a new path for international talent to join the NBA.
What’s more, those academies don’t appear to be only way the league plans on growing abroad; the NBA plans to run an entirely separate league spanning the continent of Africa in conjunction with FIBA, perhaps a prelude to a broader network of affiliate leagues to serve in a developmental role at first, and then later, perhaps, as part of a wider network of competition.
This doesn’t mean that expanding within the NBA proper is out of the question, but in the North American market, there’s not much room for expansion apart from one – more on that shortly – that isn’t already occupied by an existing NBA team. Adding more could cause harm to the league as a whole if local interest isn’t enough to offset the relatively smaller size of most remaining markets still without their own team.
With Mexico City, the draw is clear – a nation of 125 million could generate a huge boost in league interest and revenue, especially if the franchise becomes successful. During Toronto’s run to a title, roughly half the country’s population tuned in to watch, and that with just 37 million souls to consider. Even with all that promise, there’s no guarantee the sport will catch on given cultural differences, the national obsession with the non-US variety of football (soccer) being among one of the larger obstacles among others we’ll discuss later.
Seattle, the other often-mentioned city in expansion rumors, has hit a number of snags in providing a suitably modern facility to host a reborn iteration of the Supersonics. It may also be waiting on the emergence of another market (such as Mexico City), as the league would likely expand in pairs just to avoid the ungainly solutions that would be required in scheduling regular season and postseason games.
A number of other cities have expressed interest in being alternatives, including Las Vegas and Kansas City among others. Some cities, like London, have long been a favorite for holding the league’s longtime flagship overseas event, the Global Games, but are unlikely to end up on the map as a future franchise location because of the logistical issues its location presents, though that hasn’t stopped some from dreaming.
To this end, Josh Coyne, Mike Miller and Justin Quinn teamed up with Cascadia Sports Network (CSN)’s Kevin Nesgoda to share their thoughts on the pros, cons, hurdles, and outlook for some of the most popular markets when it comes to expansion rumors. We’ll also touch briefly on some of the fringier cities with a realistic case for an expansion or relocation team before revealing our thoughts on which markets (if any) are likely to have their own team by the end of the coming decade.
The league’s big plans with its seven new academies was created not only to grow the NBA’s audience around the world, but also to improve its talent base enough to make expansion possible, whether in the traditional means of adding new teams to the existing leagues, or the longer-view possibility of creating entirely new global divisions or affiliate leagues to help populate — and eventually compete against — a North American NBA.
Stay tuned to Double Clutch’s expansion series to find out more about the most appealing markets.
Featured photo –Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington