NBA Expansion: Best Places for New Franchises

Although this is a basketball-focused blog, a big story in the NHL (my favorite sport/league) got me thinking. To give a quick overview, the Vegas Golden Knights are the newest expansion team in the NHL and are the first one since 2000. After receiving a fair amount of criticism this offseason, the Golden Knights have taken the league by storm and are currently one of the best teams in the NHL.

This peaked my interest about the NBA and its expansion history. While there have been some teams that have changed names (Bobcats->Hornets) and cities (Seattle->Oklahoma City), the NBA has not expanded since 2004 with Charlotte. While the talent pool in the league and the current economic structure don’t necessarily present as a good time to expand in the NBA, it made me wonder what some possible destinations could be if a team or two were to be added to the league.

Here are some of my selections and honorable mentions for cities that would be solid candidates for new NBA franchises.

Seattle, WA

Population: 608,660 (2010)

Market Size: 17th biggest in U.S.

Other Sports Teams: Seahawks (NFL), Mariners (MLB), Sounders FC (MLS)

Prior NBA History: SuperSonics (1967-2008), now currently the Oklahoma City Thunder

This blog would be egregious if I were to leave out the top expansion candidate in the Rainy City. Seattle had a fairly successful team for many years in the SuperSonics that was heartlessly taken from them in 2008. Ever since this move, Seattle has been a town that has been seemingly “next in line” to get a team if the NBA were to expand. The SuperSonics had a rich history and a devoted fan base that are waiting for them to comeback. These fans would be over-the-moon if a team would return there, giving the franchise a highly likely chance of succeeding there again. Another factor that makes this city appealing is the economic boom the city has felt in recent years. Seattle is one of the biggest cities in regards to business and many large-name companies (such as Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Costco and Microsoft) are based in this area. This would give the franchise a huge opportunity to sell these companies on suites and ticket packages that would help make them a profit quickly (like we see with Golden State and the Silicon Valley businesses). The money and population size/potential Seattle could offer the NBA is staggering and it would make for a very mutually beneficial relationship. Silver would be smart to right the wrong of his predecessor by bringing the SuperSonics back and making Seattle an NBA city once again.

Cincinnati, OH

Population: 296,943 (2010)

Market Size: 65th

Other Sports Teams: Reds (MLB), Bengals (NFL)

Prior NBA History: Royals (1957-1972), moved to Kansas City in 1972 and now currently the Sacramento Kings

While Cincinnati may be the second smallest team on this list, it presents as a city with some of the highest amounts of potential. Cincinnati is a tri-state area that not only has a rich basketball history but has a firm basketball love at all levels. Both of the area college teams in the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University have devout followings and have been successful in recent years. This is in addition to the massive amount of fandom that the University of Kentucky (a blue blood college basketball powerhouse) and the University of Louisville (a for-profit basketball program) has in the city. While college fandom does not exactly correlate with NBA success in a city (the NBA won’t consider Durham, NC or Lawrence, KS anytime soon) it has worked for some markets that are similar to Cincinnati (see Oklahoma City Thunder). Cincinnati also has history in regards to being an NBA city. They not only fostered one of the G.O.A.T.s of basketball in Oscar Robertson (played at the University of Cincinnati and is one of the greatest college players of all time) but he played for their NBA team, the Cincinnati Royals, from 1960-1970. The team competed for championships throughout the 1960s thanks to Robertson and Jerry Lucas. Though Robertson had most of his mainstream success as a member of the Bucks, but his time in Cincinnati is still held highly. While the town doesn’t have as much to offer in population size and economic potential, it is a city on the upswing that has no where to go but up. In the 20+ months I have lived in this area I have seen the positive changes the city has made to its downtown area and what it could become if the NBA saw its potential.

Louisville, KY

Population: 597,337 (2010)

Market Size: 29th

Other Sports Teams: No Major League sports teams

Prior NBA History: None

Louisville, KY stands as the third largest city in the U.S. without a major professional sports team. The city had stakes in the NFL (three different brief NFL franchise in the 1920s and 1930s) and ABA (Kentucky Colonels from 1967-1976) but has ultimately never had sustained success in major league sports. This is not to say this town couldn’t some day be a good home for an NBA team. Louisville has blossomed in recent years economically and would have a lot to offer the NBA financially if they decided to consider Louisville. In addition to that, Louisville has a potential fan base waiting for the NBA. The University of Louisville basketball program has a large following in the area and would be very likely to adopt NBA basketball. While the city has never been able to keep a major league team, an NBA franchise in this day and age would present a solid opportunity to propel Louisville to the next level as a sports town. Louisville has developed in the time they have been team-less and now show themselves worth of consideration for NBA expansion (if the league were to actually expand).

Las Vegas, NV

Population: 586,756 (2010)

Market Size: 28th

Other Sports Teams: Golden Knights (NHL), Raiders (NFL) in 2020

Prior NBA History: None

Las Vegas, who was barred from having professional sports for many years due to it’s gambling associations, has become a hotbed of professional sports as of late. The Golden Knights are doing well and there is a tremendous amount of hype surrounding the Raiders’ move to town in 2020. Going from nothing more than a town that supports UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas) whenever they are good to fostering a successful NHL team and pulling an NFL team is truly amazing. The local fans these teams have found are a big help in their success and would also be key to an NBA franchise success if they were to expand to Vegas. The added bonus that comes with the local fan potential you could develop is the traveling fans. If you as a sports fan went on a bachelor/bachelorette/weekend getaway and saw your favorite NBA team was in town as well, wouldn’t that be awesome? You could do Las Vegas-type things and catch you team! It sells itself. And has worked for the NHL (anywhere from 20-30% of fans at the Vegas home games are fans of the other team). While this does not work for every sports fan that comes through McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas has a unique marketability and opportunity as a sports town that is unlike any other in the U.S.. An NBA team in Vegas would have the potential of being a hit like the Golden Knights and is an appealing option for expansion.

Honorable Mentions

Vancouver, BC, Canada

Population: 631,486 (2010)

Market Size: 8th in Canada (Between Memphis, TN and Baltimore, MD; would rank in the top 30 in U.S. markets)

Other Sports Teams: Canucks (NHL), Whitecaps (MLS), Lions (CFL)

Prior NBA History: Grizzlies (1995-2001), now currently the Memphis Grizzlies

The first honorable mention would be the second Canadian franchise in the current NBA. Vancouver was the first international city to be awarded an NBA franchise in 1995 with the founding of the Grizzlies. While the team ended up moving the Memphis, TN in 2001, the team’s run in Vancouver was impactful as it showed Canada’s basketball potential. It helped spark the creation of the Toronto Raptors and was potentially involved in helping influence some of Canada’s new talent that is currently out there (such as Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett). While Vancouver is worthy of attempting another franchise run, there are two major disadvantages that give me pause. The first being the Seattle issue. In all likelihood Seattle would be the next city to get a team, which would be great for them but would damage Vancouver’s chances of getting a team. Both cities had franchises during the Grizzlies era but it seems unlikely that the NBA would elect to have two brand new teams contest for fan bases when they are less than 150 miles away from one another. It could work with some time but would ultimately be a risky move for the NBA right off the bat. The other factor is the Canadian monopoly. Since the Grizzlies exit at the turn of the millennium, the Raptors have developed a rather large fan base due to the Air Canada era and this recent stretch of postseason success. The unique thing the Raptors have is they don’t have any competition within their country for fans and media attention. Could you imagine if your favorite team was the only franchise in America? That would be a massive advantage for them. That being said, I am not sure how likely the Raptors would be willing to share what they have become with another NBA team. While Toronto and Vancouver are on opposite ends of one of the largest countries in the world , it would be interesting to see how the Raptors would feel about this expansion. All in all, Vancouver has what it takes to be an NBA city again but it yet to be seen if they would be fully considered for expansion at this time.

Kansas City, MO

Population: 459,787 (2010)

Market Size: 37th

Other Sports Teams: Royals (MLB), Chiefs (NFL), Sporting KC (MLS)

Prior NBA History: Kings (1972-1985), now currently the Sacramento Kings

The second to last stop for the well-travelled Kings franchise was in Kansas City, MO. While no current NBA team resides there, it could be an excellent spot for an expansion franchise. One factor that makes it an appealing NBA location is it’s proximity to the basketball-crazed state of Kansas. The University of Kansas is another big name program in college basketball and its fans would likely be receptive to an NBA team. If this happens, it could create a very passionate base the team could rely on to make them successful and profitable. While there are lots of positive aspects to an NBA franchise in Kansas City, there are some negatives. Kansas City has a lot of sports history with the Royals and Chiefs and it is unknown whether they would be able to fully adopt an NBA franchise. Surely there are some people chomping at the bit to have their own basketball team to follow, but if the NBA would have thought this city could have worked out, don’t you think they would have tried it again? Either way Kansas City has the potential to be a solid NBA city but it would not be one of the first towns the NBA would consider in expansion.

San Diego, CA

Population: 1,307,402 (2010)

Market Size: 8th

Other Sports Teams: Padres (MLB)

Prior NBA History: Rockets (1967-1971), now the Houston Rockets and Clippers (1978-1984), now the Los Angeles Clippers

The only city to have two former franchise on this list in none other than San Diego, CA. This large city was home to both the Rockets and Clippers at various points in their history. San Diego has had some recent tragic sports history (RIP the Chargers) and surely would be excited to welcome another team to their town. They are a massive market that could also draw from both the Los Angeles area and potentially from a Mexican market if one were to exist. They have a large population and are in an area that could give their team plenty of potential fans and interest. Unfortunately this area’s strength is also one of its weaknesses. With two NBA teams already being in L.A. plus the California takeover that is the Golden State Warriors, it is hard to tell if a team in San Diego would stick out or get lost in the wash. Quality NBA basketball would be able to sell in this market but surely there isn’t enough money to support the Clippers, Lakers and a San Diego team all at once. While San Diego had its hearts broken by the NFL (mostly Dean Spanos though but nonetheless), they could potentially look forward to an NBA team if the league were to expand.

Richmond, VA

Population: 233,170 (2010)

Market Size: 98th

Other Sports Teams: No Major League sports teams

Prior NBA History: None

Here is a fun fact: the State of Virginia is the most populated state that does not have a major league sports team. While they are in close proximity to Washington D.C. and many of their residents support their teams (Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, their football team), Virginia itself does not have a team of it’s own. This factor along with their rich basketball history (home of some of the best high school basketball programs in the country such as Oak Hill Academy and Paul VI H.S. and the birthplace of star NBA players like Dell Curry, Ralph Sampson, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson) make this state a solid place to consider for NBA expansion. Richmond, being the state’s capital and one of their largest cities, seems like the best location for a Virginia NBA franchise. While the city is small compared to other markets in the NBA, it is bigger than Salt Lake City (123rd in 2010) and could find success as a small market darling. One factor that is holding Richmond back from being more highly considered is their history. Like I stated, there aren’t any other major league teams in this area and most of the fans that could be potentially interested in this franchise are already likely fans of another area team like the Wizards or Hornets. This is not to say that a large amount of people wouldn’t defect from this fandom and align with Richmond, but with its already very small market is that a risk the NBA is willing to take? That remains to be seen. Richmond deserves to be considered for NBA expansion, just not very highly at this point.




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