For more than a decade, bring up the idea of NBA expansion to a league official — on or off the record — and the idea was shot down before you could finish the sentence. There was no appetite among owners to further divide the revenue pie beyond the 30 existing teams.
That was until the NBA owners got hit by the economic crunch of the pandemic.
NBA Commissioner Adam Siver hinted at a possible change in attitude when he addressed the media Monday before the start of the NBA season.
“I think I’ve always said that it’s sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point,” Silver said. “I’d say it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic. But certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.”
That the NBA is even looking at expansion is a major shift.
The owners may suddenly see expansion as a needed cash infusion in the league rather than simply a further division of revenue. The league would charge an entry fee to new owners of $1 billion, maybe more, with that money split between the 30 teams (if the league makes that $1.5 billion per team, it would come to $100 million for each NBA team).
What NBA expansion would do to the competitive balance of the league is up for debate.
“One of our focuses as the league office is always on how do you create better competition. So that’s one of the things that we continue to think about as we consider expansion….” Silver said. “It’s an economic issue, and it’s a competitive issue for us. So it’s one that we’ll continue to study, but we’re spending a little bit more time on it than we were pre-pandemic.”
Any expansion would be years away, but it’s a topic now on the table.
If the NBA expands it likely would be to two cities, with Seattle being one — the NBA wants to return to that market (the Sonics left for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder in 2008). The Sacramento Kings almost moved there when the Maloof family sold the team in 2013, but Vivek Ranadive stepped in (with the help of Silver, then the Deputy Commissioner) and kept the team in Sacramento.
The other city would be up for bidding. Las Vegas, Louisville, Mexico City, and others would likely be in the mix. The mix of teams also would force conference re-alignment by the league, something that is needed.
The NBA last expanded when Charlotte was added and began play in 2004 (as the Bobcats, before eventually becoming the Hornets again when New Orleans was renamed the Pelicans).