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13 possible NBA expansion cities, ranked

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South of the border? Sin City? A return to Seattle or Vancouver? Where should the NBA set up shop next?

Seattle fans holding up signs to “Save our Sonics”
A charge to return the NBA to Seattle started almost as soon as the SuperSonics left.
Courtesy of Seattle Sportsnet

On Monday, we delved into what it would take for the NBA to consider expanding the league from 30 teams to 32. There’s been no indication from the league itself that expansion is coming — in fact, the indication from the league has been quite the opposite. But with the NBA’s new labor deal set and business booming like never before, it’s a hot topic of conversation.

At the risk of putting the horse well before the cart, let’s talk about which cities stand to be top candidates for expansion. Here’s one person’s ranking of the top 13 candidates for NBA expansion, with a list of 11 more that don’t quite make the cut.

1. SEATTLE

Why Seattle? Seattle was an excellent NBA city for 41 years before a multi-state conspiracy led to the SuperSonics being moved to Oklahoma City. Seattle is rich with Fortune 500 corporations, humans, and basketball fans. Arena funding problems led to the OKC move — that and the aforementioned conspiracy — but there have been solid funding plans since.

Why not? Chris Hansen, who came up with the strongest arena plan when it looked like the Kings would be moved to Seattle, seems to be persona non grata in some NBA circles. In addition, the former white whale benefactor behind Seattle basketball, Steve Ballmer, bought the Clippers for $2 billion. Paul Allen, another Seattle sports mogul, already owns the Blazers.

Suggested Team Name: SuperSonics. No other options exist.

2. MEXICO CITY

Why Mexico City? The Mexico City metropolitan area is home to 21 million people. It’s the 19th-biggest city in the world. And it’s only a three-hour flight from Dallas! Beyond that, no professional league American teams call Mexico City home. The NBA would have the market (and really the entirety of Mexico) to itself, with the exception of high-level Mexican league soccer. There’d also be a huge market among Mexican-Americans without strong NBA allegiances. Plus, Mexico City Arena is fairly new (built in 2012), has hosted regular season games, and features loads of rich investors (Carlos Slim, NBA owner?). This is the big money play for the NBA.

Fans gather around Dirk Nowitzki at a game held in Mexico City Arena
Mexico City has already hosted NBA games featuring enthusiastic fans
EFE-USA TODAY Sports

Why not? Convincing NBA players to live in Mexico City might pose a problem, and the union could fight. There are also transportation issues — nothing the NBA couldn’t work around, but complicating nonetheless — and that whole thing with the current President of the United States taking anti-Mexico stances, risking potential alienation down the line. Finally, there’s not as significant of built-in fan community ready to plug in as there are in Seattle and a couple other cities under consideration. Mexico City is definitely a high-risk, high-reward choice.

Suggested Team Names: This is one where you definitely want to let the locals decide. Down with mascot colonialism.

3. LOUISVILLE

Why Louisville? Louisville is the biggest city in basketball-crazed Kentucky. Most importantly, it’s one of the bigger American cities without a Big Four pro sports team. This is an NBA sweet spot: It loves to have teams in mid-sized cities with no other pro sports. Look at Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Sacramento, Orlando, and Salt Lake City. Most of those teams do brisk business, too. Louisville would fit the mold and bolster the NBA’s already strong presence in the South. (Is Louisville the northern-most southern city?) Finally, Louisville has an NBA-ready arena — the KFC Yum! Center, host of the Louisville Cardinals.

Why not? Louisville is roughly the same size as Memphis and Oklahoma City, so the NBA would really be going all in to stick another team in that general region of the country in a truly mid-sized city. One would imagine there’s a relative dearth of billionaires ready to purchase a team (likely necessitating a messy group project), there are relatively few major corporations to buy up arena suites, and the Yum! Center has already been subject to lease drama from the university. The Pacers could also object. Louisville is only about 100 miles away.

Suggested Team Names: The Kentucky Colonels were one of the ABA’s most successful teams, and that team name is awesome. There might, however, be legal issues using the name now. The best other options tie to Louisville’s favorite son, Muhammad Ali (the Louisville Lips probably won’t work, but the Brawlers or Champs might), or its historic old gym (the Louisville Freedom).

4. HAMPTON ROADS

Why Hampton Roads? Like Louisville, the Hampton Roads area (essentially Virginia Beach and Norfolk) has a sizable population and no pro sports. Unlike L’Ville, there isn’t even high-level college sports in the region. (No offense to Old Dominion.) There’s a massive spectator sports vacuum! The entire state of Virginia lacks pro sports despite being the 12th-most populous state in the union. (All four leagues have a presence in Washington, D.C., but the District is 200 miles from Norfolk.)

Why not? There’s no arena and the metropolitan area would skew toward the smaller side in the NBA. (Hampton Roads is bigger than Louisville, though.) When the Maloofs flirted with moving the Kings to Virginia Beach a few years ago, state funding for an arena fell through. There didn’t seem to be an energized local movement pushing for construction.

Suggested Team Names: Bring back the Virginia Squires!

5. VANCOUVER

Why Vancouver? Vancouver is a large city (roughly as big as Seattle) and has an NBA arena (albeit one that is 20 years old). Vancouver never really got a chance to make the Grizzlies a home. That whole episode in the late ’90s — when the Grizzlies left town for Memphis — was a sad moment for the NBA’s Canadian movement, one the league might want to rectify. Also, Vancouver is extremely popular among sportswriters. That matters, right?

Greg Anthony and Bryant Reeves, playing for the Vancouver Grizzlies, huddle.
Do it for Bryant “Big Country” Reeves (right).
Getty Images

Why not? The Raptors have carried the mantle as Canada’s team and might oppose this. Basketball fans in the Vancouver area might also get away with being served by a reborn Sonics team in Seattle, and is there a real need to add two teams to the Pacific Northwest? Vancouver is an international choice without the financial upside of Mexico City. It’s also worth noting that much of NBA ownership has turned over since the first Vancouver debacle, so there may not be any strong feelings of guilt over how that went down.

Suggested Team Names: Sorry Memphis, but you have to give up the Grizzlies moniker. We’re not doing the Utah Jazz thing again. The good news is that then the current Grizz can become the Memphis Sounds and we can get these amazing Vancouver Grizzlies uniforms back.

6. ANAHEIM

Why Anaheim? There’s a suitable NBA arena in place (the NHL’s Ducks play there) and plenty of rich investors to fork over a massive expansion fee. L.A. has enough people to support a thousand sports teams. An Anaheim NBA team would provide a geographic base — the populous Orange County and parts of San Diego County — the little-brother Clippers do not. Did I mention all the money?

Why not? The Lakers and Clippers will fight tooth and nail. Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion for his L.A. team; there’s no way he’d let someone else buy in for less than that without kicking and screaming. (And we sure know he can scream.) It’s also been a long time since a major sports league added a new team to a city already represented in said league. It worked in the 1960s. Would it work these days? It’s tough to imagine the Anaheim NBA team pulling a huge following early on.

Suggested Team Names: For the love of Walt, please nothing Disney-related. We already have to deal with the Magic.

7. AUSTIN

Why Austin? Austin is the biggest city in the United States (No. 11) without its own Big 4 team. It’s also the fastest-growing city in the top 50. It’s kind of insane that Austin does not have a major pro sports team. The demographics — young, diverse — also fit the NBA’s target audience.

Why not? Austin is 80 miles from San Antonio and hosts the Spurs’ D-League team. Austin is, for better or worse, Spurs country. There’s also the matter of a lack of an pro-level arena and the daunting presence of the University of Texas Longhorns semi-pro athletic program.

Suggested Team Names: The D-League team is called the “Austin Spurs.” I fear we’re going to have to do better than that.

8. SAN JOSE

Why San Jose? San Jose is the 10th-biggest city in the United States and is officially home to only the NHL’s Sharks. (The San Francisco 49ers also play in Santa Clara County.) It is also the capital of the tech world, which means it is filthy with very rich Americans. (In fact, the owners of multiple non-San Jose NBA teams are very rich Americans from Silicon Valley.)

Why not? This is Warriors territory. Even though the Bay Area can support two NBA teams, the Warriors just won’t let it happen.

Suggested Team Name: The San Jose Cloud.

9. KANSAS CITY

Why Kansas City? There is an arena just waiting for the NBA. It’s paid for and everything. Just waiting, lonely as a concrete building can be.

Why not? Kansas City is a mid-sized American city that already has an NFL team and an MLB team. The NBA prefers to be the only game in town for these types of cities. Why pick K.C. when you could have the smaller but more exclusive Louisville?

Suggested Team Names: To be honest, the Kings moniker fits in with Kansas City better than with Sacramento given the alliteration and the presence of the Royals. Go with the Kansas City Kings and unveil the Sacramento Boogie.

10. LAS VEGAS

Las Vegas Strip 'Business as Usual'
Will the NBA finally end up in Sin City?
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Why Las Vegas? Vegas is a large city with lots of money and ties to the NBA through Summer League and USA Basketball. It’s also fairly exclusive: the NHL’s Golden Knights (seriously?) haven’t debuted yet, and there is uncertainty on whether the NFL’s Raiders will in fact end up in Vegas.

Why not? If the Raiders do end up in Vegas, adding an NBA club there would be a major market risk. Also, did the 2007 All-Star Game teach us nothing?

Suggest Team Names: The Las Vegas Regrets.

11. OMAHA

Why Omaha? Omaha! A mid-sized American city without pro sports. It’s also on the Nebraska-Iowa border. (Hello, Council Bluffs!) Iowa has a deep and abiding love for basketball beyond its D-League team and Fred Hoiberg.

Why not? Omaha and Council Bluffs are pretty damn small as far as pro sports markets go.

Suggested Team Names: The Omaha Omaha has a nice ring to it. We would also accept the Iowa Ethanol Subsidies.

12. ST. LOUIS

Why St. Louis? St. Louis is pretty big and there’s likely to be a solid market for high-level basketball there.

Why not? St. Louis is a baseball town, and already has a major league winter sports team (the NHL’s Blues).

Suggested Team Names: It would have to be the Spirit of St. Louis in honor of the ABA. Too bad that team name is tainted by Charles Lindbergh. Another demerit for St. Louis!

13. CHICAGO

Why Chicago? Chicago is massive, supports two baseball teams fairly easily and is a huge basketball city. Chicago competes with L.A. for the title of best basketball city in American right now in terms of the youth game. There are plenty of rich people there, as well. (President Barack Obama, NBA owner?)

Why not? As with Anaheim, starting up a new team in a city that hosts an NBA team already is tricky. The Bulls would gnash about slicing their market up, and converting lifelong Bulls fans — folks who watched Michael Jordan wearing that uniform in his prime -- is a tough sell.

Suggested Team Names: The Wizards were once known as the Chicago Zephyrs. A zephyr is a gentle breeze. It’s the Windy City! Bring back the Zephyrs!

* * *

MORE WHY NOTS

Baltimore: Close to both D.C. and Philadelphia, and it hosts two Big Four teams already.

Nashville: A sizable southern city with two Big Four teams. Nashville can’t really compete with Louisville here.

Pittsburgh: I love the idea of the NBA in Pittsburgh ... except for its three Big Four teams, including a prominent winter sports team (the Penguins).

San Diego: San Diego taxpayers do not seem interested in building sports palaces for billionaires (good on San Diego), but San Diego is not enough of a sure thing for a billionaire to pay an exorbitant expansion fee and build an arena there. This is too bad, because San Diego is wonderful.

London: Europe would be really difficult schedule-wise, and Brexit complicates matters further.

New York: Let’s let the Nets figure things out before we add an NBA team to Queens or the Bronx.

Columbus: Columbus presents an interesting opportunity as an NBA city, except that the Cavaliers have truly claimed all of Ohio as their own. Blame LeBron.

Birmingham: The NBA belongs in either Mississippi or Alabama. But the major cities are too small or spread out. I suppose Memphis and its northern Mississippi D-League team will have to do.

Greenville: See above. It’d be great to be the only pro sports team in South Carolina. There just isn’t the population in Greenville to support it.

Fresno: Fresno is, next to Austin, the sleeping giant among cities without pro sports. It’s not much smaller than Sacramento, has a population flush with the NBA’s target demographic and is far enough from the other California teams to have some real fan independence.