NBA expansion is inevitable, Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols last month, two days after the 2020-21 season began. It’s the 16th straight season without an expansion franchise, the longest drought in league history, and while the most focus remains on a return to Seattle, it’s unclear to which city or cities the league might expand.
The Charlotte Bobcats were the most recent expansion team, joining the league in 2004-05, nine years after the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined in 1995. The Bobcats replaced the Hornets, who departed the much larger Charlotte media market for the NBA’s currently second-smallest market, New Orleans, in 2002. Only Memphis, which landed the Grizzlies in 2001, is currently a smaller market. And each of the top 11 media markets in the United States has a team, led by New York, where the Knicks continue climbing NBA odds during an unexpectedly decent start.
“Within the league office, sources said officials have floated the price tag of $2.5 billion each for two expansion teams in the near future.” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported last week. “Unlike other major revenue streams such as TV and ticket money, expansion fees are not split with players. Such a haul could mean about $160 million per team, a windfall that could wipe out the massive debt load that's piling up, and that alone has perked interest in the expansion path.”
The expansion path won’t get “serious consideration” until the 2021-22 season, a team executive recently told The Athletic’s David Aldridge. “The league likes to keep such things close to the vest, but trust me: The door is open, for the first time in a long time.”
If the door remains open, Seattle is most often mentioned as a target city, but what other cities could land a team? If the league opts for an untapped larger market, what city might get a team?
Here are the 10 largest markets in the United States without an NBA team:
10. Hartford & New Haven
Per Nielsen, Hartford & New Haven (Conn.) is the 33rd-largest designated market area in the United States.
Hartford has been the permanent and temporary home to major professional franchises over the last century, including the Boston Celtics, who played 66 games at the Hartford Civic Center (now XL Center) from 1975-95.
9. Kansas City
Home to the Kings from 1975-85 (and shared with Omaha as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings from 1972-75), Kansas City has long been floated as a potential expansion destination, particularly since T-Mobile Center (previously Sprint Center) was completed in 2007.
"It's a real thing I've heard from multiple sources," one NBA executive told the SEC Network in 2018. "Just a matter of time. Seattle and K.C. to me are the most valuable markets for league expansion when it makes sense."
Kansas City ranks 32nd among markets, directly below Salt Lake City (No. 30) and San Antonio (No. 31).
8. San Diego
The Buffalo Braves arrived in San Diego in 1978 and were renamed the Clippers. The marriage lasted for all of six years before the Clippers, without league approval, bolted for Los Angeles in 1984.
“The final caretaker of full-fledged professional basketball in San Diego was Sterling, an eccentric Beverly Hills real estate tycoon who envied the ownership spotlight enjoyed by the Lakers’ Jerry Buss and Al Davis of the NFL’s Raiders,” Bryce Miller wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune in December 2019. “Instead of modeling those franchises, Sterling engineered a strange run and equally astonishing exit.”
Thirty-five years after the astonishing exit, the NBA hasn’t returned to the nation’s 29th-largest market sits without an NBA team.
Nashville is a larger market than Memphis, as it was in 2001 when Vancouver Grizzlies’ owner Michael Heisley picked Memphis as the franchise’s new city. Nashville landed the Houston Oilers in 1997 and debuted the Predators in 1998, and was pursued by potential investors as the Grizzlies’ new home.
Two decades later, the country’s 28th-largest market doesn’t have an NBA team and is rarely mentioned in expansion musings.
In March 2019, city officials and potential investors in Raleigh launched an MLB expansion campaign. As MLB expansion talks have cooled over the last year, there’s been no serious talk of Raleigh as a possible destination. Same for the NBA.
There are no indications the city, the largest piece of the 27th-largest market, would pursue an NBA team to pair with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Baltimore Bullets played in three different leagues from 1944-54, including the NBA from 1949-54, before folding after 11 seasons. The NBA returned to Baltimore in 1963 when the Chicago Zephyrs arrived and were renamed the Bullets. Like before, it lasted only 11 years, and since departing for Washington, D.C., in 1973, Baltimore hasn’t been home to an NBA team.
Rarely mentioned in expansion conversations, Baltimore is the nation’s 26th-largest media market.
Casually mentioned as a potential expansion city by David Stern in 2013, Pittsburgh is the former home of the BAA’s Ironmen (1946-47) and ABA’s Pipers (1967-68) and, Condors (1970-72). It’s the 24th-largest market in the United States and already home to three major professional franchises.
3. St. Louis
St. Louis has retained the Cardinals since their birth as a minor-league team, the St. Louis Brown Stockings, in 1882, and the Blues since expansion in 1967. The nation’s 23rd-largest market hasn’t managed to retain NBA and NFL franchises, however.
Long before Stan Kroenke bolted for Los Angeles with the Rams, the city lost two NBA teams: The St. Louis Bombers disbanded in 1950, and the St. Louis Hawks left for Atlanta in 1968.
The NBA didn’t want to leave Seattle for Oklahoma City in 2008, but they had no choice, according to Adam Silver, David Stern, and dozens of other officials within the NBA and SuperSonics’ organization. The most commonly cited reason for the Sonics’ departure: Key Arena wasn’t suitable for an NBA team.
Thirteen years, Key Arena, now Climate Pledge Arena, is very suitable for an NBA team. In the final stages of a $900-million renovation, the arena is the most commonly cited reason for an NBA return to Seattle, the country’s 13th-largest market.
1. Tampa-St. Petersburg
Tampa has an NBA team...for this season.
The nation’s 12th-largest media market, Tampa-St. Petersburg is the temporary home of the Toronto Raptors, who are playing home games at Amalie Arena for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
In 1993, Tampa lobbied the NBA for an expansion franchise but was rejected because of the Orlando Magic’s footprint in the region.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.