By Pete Baxter
In a December 2020 press conference, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver captured the imaginations of NBA fans around the continent. He announced that, due to the league’s massive financial losses taken during the Covid-19 pandemic, the league was looking into the potential economic benefits of expansion. All signs seem to be pointing to 2022 as the target year.
The last expansion team to emerge in the NBA was the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) in 2004.
It should be noted that, for competitive parody between conferences, it makes the most sense to in fact add two expansion teams (one per conference).
This was the case in the 1995 expansion into Canada. That year saw the Vancouver Grizzlies join the Western Conference and the Toronto Raptors join the Eastern Conference. With 32 current teams, adding just one team would create an imbalance between the conferences.
So, what cities would make sense for Adam Silver and company to consider for expansion first?
Let’s Cross These Off the List Immediately
Before we look at the true contenders, let’s break some hearts right off the bat. These are the cities that, while populous enough and with an existing sports culture, almost certainly won’t be considered for expansion at this time.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is a relatively small city considering it is the home to both an MLB and NHL franchise. The Rams of the NFL abandoned ship for more lucrative waters in 2015.
As Nathan Rubbelke of the St. Louis Business Journal wrote in January, there does not appear to be any local grassroots effort to bring an NBA team to the city. Similarly, there is no evidence that the NBA is exploring St. Louis as an expansion opportunity. In fact, Before the Vancouver Grizzlies eventually landed in Memphis, the NBA blocked a transaction that would have moved the squad to St. Louis.
With mutual disinterest, St. Louis appears to be a no-go.
Buffalo is a small market with a consistently declining population. It has appeared on Forbes Magazine’s list of fastest dying cities.
Amazingly, they have a rabid fan base that support long-running NFL and NHL franchises. They were the first home of the Clippers (then the Buffalo Braves) through most of the 1970’s.
However, it is not encouraging that the NBA did not seem to seriously consider a temporary relocation of the Raptors to Buffalo this season. Buffalo is less than a two-hour drive from Toronto. However, the NBA did not appear to serious consider this option.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City is an enormous urban area with a population of over nine million (a total metro area population of over 21 million). It is the twelfth largest city in the world and the second largest metro area in the Western Hemisphere.
Unfortunately, it is essentially a minimum four-to-five-hour flight from any NBA cities on either U.S. coast. Logistically this would create an assortment of challenges for teams.
Toronto, the only current NBA team based outside of the continental U.S., has enough trouble attracting and maintaining free agents. It would be hard to imagine top-flight NBA stars clamoring to sign with a team in a city with a poor reputation for safety and a language barrier.
That said, the NBA will be adding a G-League squad in Mexico City for the 2021-22 season. This would appear to be the league dipping their toes in and testing the waters for potential future development and expansion in our neighbor to the South.
Let’s check back in a decade.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Been there, done that. By the end of the Grizzlies’ six-year stint in Vancouver, attendance was already consistently at-or-near the bottom of the league. Very little occurred during that span to encourage the NBA to try again.
It would be more likely, should the NBA consider a second Canadian team to join the Raptors north of the border, that they look to a new city like Montreal, Quebec.
With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at a select list of cities that seem to stand a realistic chance of bringing on an NBA franchise.
#1: Seattle, Washington
Seattle is far-and-away the favorite here. The city successfully supported a franchise (the Seattle Supersonics) for 41 years before they moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. There has been consistent conversation ever since about bringing professional basketball back to the city.
A decade-ago there were rumblings that the Sacramento Kings could potentially be relocated to Seattle. While that never came to fruition, in the wake of Adam Silver’s comments on potential expansion, the cries for an NBA return to the state of Washington are louder than ever.
The money is there. The interest and built-in fan base are there. This is a no-brainer. If I was a betting man, I would put my money on the dawning of a new era of Supersonics basketball in 2022.
#2: Las Vegas, Nevada
Already known as the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” Las Vegas is quickly developing into a major sports city. With the NFL’s Raiders making the move from Oakland a year ago, it would be a logical next step for the NBA to explore its options in Sin City. The city also hosts a successful NHL franchise, the Golden Knights.
Las Vegas is a rapidly growing city in terms of population and, with a constant influx of tourists to boot, would have no problem keeping stadium seats full. It would also likely become a preferred free agency destination for players who enjoy the night life.
Bryan Horwath of the Las Vegas Sun reported last month that a group headed by local businessman Jay Bloom (and including motivational speaker Tony Robbins) is actively pursuing an NBA franchise for the city and has the resources to make it a viable possibility.
Las Vegas appears to be a true contender.
City #3: Tampa, Florida
Tampa became the temporary home for the Toronto Raptors this season due to Covid-19 related border closures. Unfortunately, with capacity limitations at NBA games, the city did not really get a fair try out as an NBA city.
That said, Tampa is a relatively small market, especially for a city that has MLB, NFL, and NHL franchises. Their MLB franchise is consistently at the bottom of the league in terms of attendance, though the NFL’s Buccaneers and NHL’s Lightning (both current reigning champions of their respective leagues) have seen a great deal of recent success.
There are already two NBA franchises within the state of Florida. Will the NBA consider adding a third? As noted, the fact that Tampa became the temporary home for a franchise this year seems to show that the NBA is at least open to the possibility.
City #4: San Diego, California
San Diego is worth keeping an eye on purely for the fact that it is the largest media market in the country that does not currently have its own NBA franchise. The city itself is growing steadily and has a population of nearly 1.5 million. It is the eighth largest city in the country. City leaders are in the process of developing plans for a brand-new sports arena, which seems to show an interest within the city to bring in a major professional sports team in the future.
However, the city struggled to keep an NFL franchise viable and lost the Chargers to Los Angeles. Los Angeles is less than a two-hour drive away and already hosts two NBA franchises. One of these LA franchises, the Clippers, were based in San Diego from 1978 to 1984.
However, with such a gigantic potential market, regardless of past failures, I would imagine that San Diego will get another shot at an NBA franchise in the future. However, they are a major longshot at getting a team in 2022.
City #5: Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville is certainly a longshot. Kentucky has no current major professional sports teams.
However, Louisville has a metro population of over one million. It already has a major college stadium that could host an NBA franchise in the KFC Yum! Center. This sports arena has a capacity of over 22,000.
Most importantly, the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky are chocked to the gills with passionate basketball fans. The state hosts two of the most storied college basketball programs in the country already.
Louisville was rumored to have been considered as a temporary home for the Toronto Raptors this year before they eventually landed in Tampa. That seems to show that the NBA has their eye on the city as a potential expansion opportunity in the future. However, it most likely will not be as soon as 2020.
Perhaps a G League team would be a better first step as Kentucky works to acquire their first high-level professional sports franchise.
The Most Likely Scenarios
As noted, to maintain a level playing field in both conferences, it makes the most sense to add two teams if the NBA opts to expand. Adding one team to each conference would maintain an equal 17-team balance.
With that in mind, rewarding Tampa, Florida and Seattle, Washington with NBA franchises makes a great deal of sense. A Tampa franchise would join the Eastern Conference while a revived Seattle Supersonics squad would enter the Western Conference. The leagues would remain balanced, and both of these cities have been proven to have the resources and infrastructure to successfully maintain professional sports franchises.
The next most likely scenario is that Adam Silver and company go with the two top choices on this list; Seattle, Washington and Las Vegas, Nevada. This would be a considerably more complex process, as both teams would initially join the Western Conference.
To maintain balance in the league at 17 teams per conference, two Western Conference teams would need to shift to the Eastern Conference. Geographically, the two eastern-most teams in the Western Conference are the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. These teams could make a natural shift to the Eastern Conference without causing any logistical problems. It may, in fact, wind up being a beneficial shift for both squads.
Do the Seattle Supersonics make their triumphant return in 2022? Does the Las Vegas sports renaissance continue? Does Tampa get yet another championship-level professional sports franchise?
More to come.