The NBA is an enormously popular league that grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 2010s. The 2019-20 season, however, brought about serious financial difficulties that have put the league in a surprisingly tight spot.
First, prominent general manager Daryl Morey (then of the Rockets, now with the 76ers) put out a tweet in support of protests in Hong Kong. This infuriated many in China and led to temporary boycotts that cost the NBA hundreds of millions in revenue. Then, of course, the pandemic came. And while the NBA was able to soldier on and finish the season within a shockingly successful “bubble” in Orlando, the losses from ticket sales, stadium revenue, and missed games were immense.
In short, the NBA has a lot less money than it’s used to having. And one solution to this problem that’s been floated is expansion. A Bloomberg article on NBA expansion just this past December quoted league commissioner Adam Silver openly stating that the issue was being considered more than it had been pre-pandemic. The same article recapped an appearance by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on The Bill Simmons Podcast, during which Cuban supported expansion (though he had doubts about using it as a fix for lost revenue).
That’s certainly a start. Silver is an innovative and well-liked commissioner, and Cuban is the most influential owner in the league. The mere fact that the two of them are on board is an indication that expansion is coming before too long. And that begs the question for basketball fans: What would expansion actually look like?
One way to answer that question is to look at recent examples of expansion in major sports. The NBA and NFL haven’t seen new teams since 2002 (when the New Orleans Hornets-turned-Pelicans and Houston Texans came into existence). Professional baseball hasn’t expanded since welcoming the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now just Rays) in 1998. And while the MLS has seen a significant expansion of late, it has looked more like the building up of an emerging league rather than the typical one- or two-team adjustment; 11 new professional soccer teams have emerged since the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Where we do have recent examples, however, is in the NHL. Pro hockey introduced the Las Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, and the expansion has been a resounding success. The Golden Knights topped the Pacific Division and entire Western Conference and finished third in the entire league in points in 2017-18, ultimately losing to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals. They returned to the playoffs the following year, and in 2019-20 led the Pacific Division once again.
Vegas has caught on with fans as well. Before the pandemic, the Golden Knights had established themselves in the top half of the NHL in attendance (ranking 12th in 2018-19). And perhaps even more impressive is that the team has put itself on the map in a city with about a million other things to do! Recently, a list of Vegas recommendations by Poker.org even included attending a Golden Knights game among the more traditional Sin City activities. As the article put it, everyone in Vegas “seems to be all-in on the local hockey team.”
That’s the example the NBA will likely be looking to, not necessarily for predictive purposes, but with respect to ambition. Aside from the Seattle Kraken (who debuted at the outset of the current NHL season), the Golden Knights are the only truly modern example of an expansion team in one of America’s four “major” sports leagues. And everything has gone well: The team is competitive, it’s selling tickets, and it’s generating local interest. The NBA would be thrilled with a similar outcome.
Naturally then, the next question is where the NBA could bring about such an outcome.
Concerning our immediate interest, we can almost certainly write off New York. While the city and surrounding area have had three (or more) teams in one sport before, there’s little demand for more basketball at the moment. The Brooklyn Nets are spending ambitiously to establish themselves in the outer boroughs, and the Knicks are better than expected, raising hopes that the dark days may finally be slipping into the past. New York is all set on hoops at the moment.
But there are some locations that make an awful lot of sense. One, naturally, is Las Vegas. There’s been vague chatter about NBA expansion in the Nevada desert for years, and the example of the Golden Knights will be difficult for Silver and Co. to ignore. Plus, the NBA already has familiarity with the city. It regularly hosts its Summer League in Vegas, and players from all different teams are known to frequent the city recreationally.
Louisville is another city that comes up frequently in these conversations. An arena is already in place (the KFC Yum! Center, where the University of Louisville plays games). Kentucky is about as passionate a basketball state as there is in the country (due to the quality and history of the college ball there). And one-item NBA star Dan Issel, who played at the University of Kentucky, is known to be working on bringing an expansion team to the city.
And then of course there’s Seattle — a team that has dreamed of expansion ever since its own SuperSonics departed for Oklahoma City (and became the Thunder). Many NBA fans have long assumed that the next new franchise will be in Seattle, and this still seems fairly likely. Earlier this year, in fact, a piece on expansion by USAToday.com noted that Jenny Durkan, the Seattle mayor, is “pretty optimistic” about the idea.
There are other possibilities as well. Vancouver has had a team in the past and could support one again. Kansas City has made it onto some lists. And there have been indications of league interest in expanding into international destinations like Mexico City or London.
All in all, though, this conversation is beginning to take shape. The NBA needs a boost, and expansion may help provide it. The most recent example of major sports expansion has been a resounding success that provides a handy example. And a handful of cities make perfect sense for what would certainly be a two-team expansion.
It won’t all happen immediately, but the conversation may come up soon, and it’s beginning to look clear how it will go.