While an NBA expansion team in London won't be coming soon, don't write it off forever

While an NBA expansion team in London won't be coming soon, don't write it off forever

While the world celebrates the rise of basketball success outside the borders of the United States, with an NBA champion hailing from Canada and a FIBA World Cup winner based in Spain, the NBA continues to lay long-term groundwork to deepen the international talent pool with an eye to expansion.

But, for those of us with dreams of a truly global NBA, such an expansive expansion is, while not off the table, probably a decade or more away. Any new teams in the NBA will almost certainly be located in North America. Some of the hurdles to a globalized league are cultural, as basketball tries to make inroads in nations where other sports have historically ruled supreme, but most are logistical given the sheer scale of any such undertaking.

The seeds have been planted with the NBA’s new Basketball Africa League, a partnership with FIBA still in its infancy that might one day serve as a sort of division, whose champion could compete with the North American champion, and perhaps Europe and South American leagues yet to be created. For now, though, the main idea is to have additional locations within the league’s purview to send the new waves of prospects currently being funneled into the league’s seven global academies located in China (where there are three), Australia, Africa, India and Mexico City.

One can see the roughest outlines of a future, with six or seven global divisions largely following the locations of the academies and traditional strongholds in Europe and North America, taking shape if you squint very hard. But there will be many hurdles between this dream and such a reality, ranging from those other, more established sports to competing leagues in many of the locations that will into go quietly into the night.

However it plays out, the NBA has been playing a long game for maximum stability in whatever shape such plans materialize, prioritizing the overall health of the sport over a flashy move like adding a European team, despite all the games the league has held on that continent over the last three decades.

To illustrate the necessity of why the league might be taking such an approach, Josh Coyne laid out in detail the difficulties that would arise with bringing a franchise based in London into a more traditionally-structured NBA as a test case in the second edition of our end-of-summer series on NBA expansion.

London

On a frosty January night in London, I sat in the O2 Arena for the second year in a row, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver conducted his London press conference. He was bombarded with a series of questions around league expansion and the possibility of an English franchise.

Silver wasn’t alone. In an unassuming, multi-purpose gym in central London, I watched Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards address reporters from the middle of a scrum. The idea of a London team was posed to the All-Star guard and he politely expressed his uncertainty as to how it would work, before stating that it may a bit too far from home for him personally.

The league’s relationship with the city of London is the primary reason for these questions even being asked. 2020 will be the first year since 2012 in which an NBA game doesn’t take place in the English capital. With the previously annual event, the increasing coverage of the sport on this side of the Atlantic, ever-growing League Pass subscription and the development of the Jr NBA program across the country, ties between the NBA and British fans have never been stronger.

A reasonable argument in favor of a London team would be the UK’s rich history of hosting sporting events and running elite competitions. Take football – real football, not the one with helmets – for example; Britain plays host to the aforementioned English Premier League (EPL) – the most highly regarded division in the world’s most popular sport, as well as several further tiers of professional teams. The city of London itself boasts a staggering 13 of those clubs, with their own stadia, fan-base and unique cultures, who, for the most part, predate even the creation of basketball by James Naismith.

So, between the EPL, the highly popular year international rugby events in mega-stadiums, the success of the 2012 Olympics, the prestigious Wimbledon and more, the British have positioned themselves in good stead to attract any elite league to the country.

A franchise in London would provide the country with a 3-point shot in the arm, potentially opening the eyes of the British masses, who generally don’t share the same level of passion for the sport with the rest of Europe – apart from a sleep-deprived, nocturnal subset of obsessives. 

However, there are blatant hurdles in the way. 

Firstly, there may just be more deserving cities elsewhere on the continent. Basketball is fiercely followed by a great deal of Europe, who have founded and developed their own high-level professional leagues and fostered NBA-level talent.

Britain’s professional basketball landscape is much bleaker than that of Spain, Turkey, Germany, Italy, France, Greece, Lithuania and many other nations. Beside the ‘special relationship’, why else would London deserve a team above these basketball-crazed nations? It should also be noted that Britain has desperately attempted to isolate and financially restrict itself recently, which could be another sticking point.

Location is a huge issue. As Beal said, many of the top current NBA players would consider London ‘too far from home’. With Britain’s elite basketball representation stretching to the likes of OG Anunoby, there would be no homegrown stars ready to lead a competitive franchise either, so there would be a heavy reliance on American talent.

If a London franchise was founded, it would spark a wider discussion around the divisional format of the NBA. Teams that shared a division with a British team would be at a serious disadvantage, due to their regularity of travel. When London hosted NBA teams annually, a week is set aside for both teams to adjust to the time difference, recover from their travel and practise in brand new surroundings; a fleeting mid-week visit to the UK would be a completely different challenge for American teams altogether.

An affiliate league would make more sense than a London franchise, but it would have to be stretched across Europe as it will be in Africa, in conjunction with FIBA. This presents another set of challenges, as European basketball is already established, with the EuroLeague boasting a great deal of talent under lucrative contracts. Teams such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Olympiacos are major names in the game and would make the European basketball scene a difficult market for Silver to penetrate.  

The next article in this series will take us south of the US border, where Justin Quinn will outline the pros and cons of placing a franchise in North America’s biggest market – a market long dominated by football (soccer for you Yanks). CSN’s Kevin Nesgoda will join Justin to help update us on how Seattle’s bid to revive its beloved Supersonics is looking, and the two will discuss how each may be linked in any longer-term expansion plans… for now.