A great kerfuffle

I’d been thinking for a few weeks about creating this blog to track news on the potential rebirth of NBA basketball in Vancouver, and then the whole issue exploded this week.

Once again it was a David Stern appearance on the BS Report podcast that did it. Stern mentioned that he had been approached by Vancouver interests about the possibility of getting an NBA franchise.

Much has been written and discussed on this issue in the last few days, but here’s a quick summary of what we know:

  • The Aquilini family, owners of the NHL Vancouver Canucks, and/or their representatives, approached the NBA to discuss the possibility of securing another NBA franchise for Vancouver.
  • Stern emphasized in his podcast remarks that the Canucks have been very successful.
  • The NBA currently owns the New Orleans Hornets, having taken over from the previous owners to ensure the franchise continued to be operated competently.

And that’s about it for real information. The rest has been an explosion of commentary. For starters, Vancouver was not the only city mentioned by Stern as having interest in an NBA franchise, and there are multiple cities with suitable arenas that do not currently have a team. These include Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Anaheim (along with Vancouver), and other cities that do not currently have an arena have also expressed interest (including Seattle and Las Vegas).

So where are we?

Why it might work

Vancouver will get another NBA team only if there is a very strong probability of it becoming a successful franchise. The arguments in favour include:

  • Assuming the Aquilini family would own the team, the Vancouver franchise would have strong local ownership committed to Vancouver. Their success managing the Canucks in the last few years must seem very attractive to the NBA, which has many markets losing money and struggling to sell tickets.
  • The current NBA collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the owners and players expires on June 30, 2011. The next CBA is expected to be more favourable to owners, both in terms of reducing total player compensation and making player movement more restrictive. Whether this includes a hard salary cap remains to be seen, but at minimum there are expected to be fewer exceptions that currently have most of the league’s teams operating above the cap. More restrictive player movement might be as severe as a “franchise tag”, which would allow a team to retain a free agent’s rights even after his contract expires. Again, this may not occur but most owners would be in favour since there is a strong trend for the best players to want to move themselves to a handful of desirable teams (such as the Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers).
  • The Canadian dollar is now roughly equivalent in value to the US dollar, whereas during the Grizzlies tenure in Vancouver it was worth less than 70 cents US. Forecasts suggest the Canadian dollar will likely be even more valuable over the next few years.
  • Vancouver continues to grow and thrive as a major North American gateway to Asia, while the American economy has been hit much harder than the Canadian economy by the recession that started in late 2008. And of course New Orleans is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. What all of this means is that in relative terms, Vancouver is now a larger and wealthier market than it was in 2001, and is likely to continue getting larger and wealthier than many existing markets.
  • The NBA talent pool is increasingly international, including not just European players but also South Americans, Africans, Asians, and even Canadians. The reluctance of American players to play in Vancouver would probably not be an issue for international players.
  • After the successful 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Vancouver has more international awareness, particularly for sports, than ever before.
  • The team could not possibly be less competitive than the Grizzlies, whose best record in Vancouver was 23-59 in their final season.

Why it might not work

The NBA was not successful in its first six-year run in Vancouver, and it might fail again. Why?

  • The interests of Vancouver’s professional sports fans are overwhelmingly devoted to hockey. Basketball is a foreign game to many fans.
  • Vancouver is not a major corporate centre, yet corporations are critical to big-league sports through their purchases of luxury suites and sponsorships.
  • There is still significant animosity toward the NBA after the Grizzlies debacle. Much of this negative feeling is based on the number of players who clearly despised the notion of playing in Vancouver. The locals are pretty proud of their city (don’t these players know that the Mercer survey ranks Vancouver one of the five best cities in the world for quality of life!), so the rejection by players like Steve Francis (who refused to play in Vancouver) and the very reluctant tone of Mike Bibby, Othella Harrington, George Lynch, Doug West, and many more was extremely off-putting to Vancouver fans. There is different food in the grocery store, there’s no ESPN on TV, it’s too cold, it’s too rainy, going through customs is a drag, there’s no nightlife, etc. etc. were some of the complaints. Toronto still suffers from some of these issues.
  • LeBron James and Chris Bosh started a trend of star players choosing to combine forces in favourite cities. Carmelo Anthony now wants to leave Denver and play in New York, and there are strong suggestions that Chris Paul will leave New Orleans for New York as well. Dwight Howard may not want to stay in Orlando, and there is doubt that Deron Williams will ever sign another contract in Utah. If some of these smaller, colder cities that lack a winning tradition are unable to keep their stars, what chance would Vancouver have?

I’m sure I’ve missed some of the arguments on both sides of this issue. But overall the situation is much better now than it was in 2011, but is the chance of success enough to convince the Aquilini family and the NBA to give it another shot?

Establishing a new CBA with the players will be the first step. After that situation is clarified, probably following a work stoppage that costs at least part of the next NBA season, all current and potential owners will re-evaluate their positions. Sacramento, for example, needs a new building to replace Arco Arena, and some resolution will come to their situation in the next few years. (Interestingly, the Maloof brothers who own the Kings have interests in Las Vegas. Hmmm.) Nothing is likely to happen until a new CBA is in place, unless the 29 owners quickly tire of losing money in New Orleans.

So this story will likely be ongoing for a long time, and may periodically erupt as it did this week. But the positives seem to be in ascendance, while the negatives are fading over time. At some point it will make sense for the NBA to return to Vancouver. Some of us will be waiting.

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About JamieVannStruth

Consulting economist based in Vancouver, BC. Specializes in local economic development, economic impact analysis, and developing analytical tools in Excel. Crunches stats in sports, movies and life.
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