Since 2001, the NBA has relocated four franchises – the Vancouver Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets, Seattle Supersonics and New Jersey Nets – though, the Nets really aren’t a true relocation since they essentially just moved arenas, for the sake of the argument.
Prior to 2001, the last time the NBA had moved a franchise was in 1985 when the Kansas City Kings were moved to Sacramento. Needless to say, it’s not a common practice but there is a common theme with all of the moves. Arenas. New, ready to move into, arenas.
Both Sacramento and Seattle have expressed very fluid optimism that they will be the first ones to complete a modern entertainment/sports complex that will house the Kings franchise, with both sides attempting to gash holes into the opposing plan. And while both are beautiful blueprints, going off of history, the NBA appears to want more than just ideas and talk – they want an already furnished residence that they can move into, without any type of legal roadblocks.
Take the Charlotte Hornets for an example. The city of Charlotte was well on their way to passing their own arena deal (an arena that would eventually become the current Bobcats home) before former Mayor Pat McCrory vetoed a living wage ordinance just days before the arena vote. The result of the veto was a massive, instant stir-up of the community – the stir-up so grand that it caused the referendum to fail, many saying that it as immoral for the city to build a new venue when city employees weren’t making enough for a sustainable wage. The city eventually found a way to not involve a community vote on the arena and that led to the eventual construction of Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Bobcats now play (another ready to move into arena for the expansion franchise). But back to the point – the Hornets were unable to secure the needed arena that the NBA coveted so badly, which gave owner George Shinn the ammunition he needed to file for relocation. But where? There were a handful of cities coveting the Hornets but only one presented the NBA with a deal they couldn’t overlook. New Orleans. Why, you ask? An already built, ready to go, modern arena. No – maybe the Bayou wasn’t the perfect place for NBA basketball in terms of numbers. I mean, after all, the NBA had already left once – there were other potential destinations that had a bigger market and the lure of more money and popularity, but they didn’t have that already constructed venue.
Opening in 1999, the arena was just over two years of age when the Hornets moved in – free and clear of any legal obstacles or construction issues. It couldn’t have been better for the NBA. It was literally like buying an already furnished home – little effort required. A modern, state of the art arena with no obstacles in their way. Perfection.
The same can be said for the Seattle Supersonics, who much like the relocation’s before them, were backhanded by the NBA. Unlike Charlotte, who did quickly find a solution to their arena woes, Seattle struggled to find common ground. Between recent public subsidies for new NFL and MLB venues, locals weren’t going to throw more money into another arena. That was all the NBA needed to find a new home – sad as that is to say – and when Clay Bennett came calling, it was a no-brainer move for the NBA, at least according to them. Sitting pristine in Oklahoma City was the Ford Center, more commonly known today as the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Breaking ground in 1999 and eventually opening its doors in 2002, the venue was only six years old when the Sonics moved to OKC and again, like the New Orleans arena before it – sat essentially free of any legal hurdles. There were a few small local burdens, like increased taxes to give the arena a complete modernization, but they were relatively minimal in terms of impact to the NBA and the six year old arena essentially became brand new with the modifications.
Like the move to New Orleans, it was a perfect scenario for the NBA – free of any lawsuits or drama. Move in, un-pack, wash hands.
For the Vancouver Grizzlies, their relocation was a bit different as they moved into Memphis’ Pyramid Arena in 2001, an arena that was already ten years old at the time. However – at only a decade old, the arena was still relatively “new”, especially compared to Sleep Train Arena (currently 25 years old) or Key Arena (opened in ’62 but renovated in 1994, good for 19 years of age) and the city of Memphis was well into building the arena before the Grizzlies came to town, though it took a while for construction to start. Now, in fairness to Seattle, the Hansen-Ballmer group has put a solid amount of money into Key Arena for improvements if the Kings are to relocate, but neither arena is worth much of an argument over in its current form. The BOG certainly isn’t going to make a relocation decision because Key Arena is the more updated of the two grandfather arenas.
Unlike the scenarios in New Orleans or Oklahoma City, the NBA wont have a ready to move into venue – something they clearly prefer if given the option, a fact that other cities and franchises on the relocation block may want to look a bit closer at. Even looking at the history of expansion, the NBA opted to place their franchises in ready made, move in arenas. In Vancouver, the Grizzlies opened up the Rogers Arena. In Toronto, the Raptors opened in a five year old Skydome, the Orlando Magic opened the Orlando Arena and the Minnesota Timberwolves opened the Target Center.
For Sacramento and Seattle, who essentially sit in the same boat in terms of an arena – predicting what the NBA will want will be tough. They don’t have the easy option of just moving in, something they obviously favor. More likely, the arena with the quickest estimated date of completion and with the lowest number of potential legal roadblocks (assuming both deals are okay financially in the NBA’s eyes) will give that side one up on the decision. Will it be the ultimate deciding factor? Probably not – though, it will most certainly be one of the heaviest and one that will swing the pendulum to one side.