NBA’s History Of Relocation Is Tough Sell, But For Seattle, The Expansion Mold Fits


Dec 23, 2012; Seattle, WA, USA; General view of the Space Needle and the downtown Seattle skyline before the NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

In the past twenty-seven years, the NBA has relocated a franchise just three times – that’s it. In a way, it seems like the number should be greater – maybe perhaps due to the influx of expansion teams in ’88-’89 and ’95 along with the constant moans of contraction echoing throughout the league. Whatever the case, three times in nearly three decades. Not something that happens very often.

Many may point to the NBA’s relocation musical chairs during the 60’s and 70’s, but that’s no different than comparing great players of era’s gone by. The NBA was an up and coming league at that time, trying to establish itself alongside the NFL and MLB. The NBA has modernized itself, especially under the reign of David Stern and the era of moving franchises around at lightning speed has ceased.

The few franchises that have found themselves packing moving trucks in recent years have all had some common attributes – namely a lack of support, either politically or by the fan base – each scenario resulting in a financially struggling franchise or a city that is unable to build a modern arena.

Of the teams who’ve “recently” relocated, two of the three (Seattle and Charlotte) moved into essentially brand new arenas, as I touched on yesterday. There were no lawsuits holding up the construction of an complex. There were no financing problems. The scenarios couldn’t have been more perfect for the NBA as the arenas were already constructed and ready to go. As for the Grizzlies, the lone team not to move into a brand new arena (the Pyramid was 10 years old) – that was a bit of a unique situation as the 1998 lockout soured the Vancouver fan base. Their already iffy league average attendance dipped even lower and the franchise was struggling to stay afloat because of the weak Canadian dollar – losing a reported $40 million dollars during their final year in Canada. For the NBA, it was cut your losses and do so immediately. And with Memphis offering up just a decade old arena ready to move into within days, it didn’t take the league very long to accept that offer, simply to get themselves out of the massive hole they had dug.

Unlike the scenarios mentioned above, Sacramento – despite their recent attendance woes, has never had a problem with fan support like Charlotte did before the move, nor were they un-profitable like the Grizzlies nor have they struggled to put forth a plan to build a state of the art entertainment complex. Even dealing with the extremely difficult Maloof family, who refused to put any type of significant money into the construction of an arena, they along with the assistance of the NBA were able to agree on an arena deal before the Maloof family threw egg on the agreement (which again, was vetted by the NBA) at the last moment.

Point blank – Sacramento doesn’t have any of the issues that plagued the three most recently relocated NBA franchises. That is what has made this such a unique and difficult decision for the NBA. Everything coming from Seattle is great – there are no complaints. But really, there aren’t any complaints in Sacramento either. Teams that are usually put up for relocation are up for relocation for a reason – Sacramento is not. So how do you uproot a franchise who doesn’t fall under the typical relocation reasoning?

All that said – for Seattle – it’s not all doom and gloom. Unlike Memphis or Oklahoma City, they have the backing of already being a one-time NBA city, a long time, NBA city. The NBA has shown a desire to return to a franchises original roots, expanding into Charlotte after leaving and also allowing the move to New Orleans after the Jazz left for Utah in 1979. In addition to that, the Hansen-Ballmer group has been extremely pro-active in their desires to bring basketball back to the Emerald City and has put their money where their mouth is, purchasing land, etc, attempting to make the move back to Seattle as easy as possible for the NBA.

As I’ve said before, the NBA wants to make sure Sacramento and their plan for the Kings franchise is ironclad. That’s why the NBA has appeared to be holding their hand throughout this process – they want to make sure that if the Kings franchise stays in Sacramento, that it’s going to be successful and successful following the NBA’s blueprint. That’s no guarantee that the Kings will remain in California’s capital – just that the NBA is trying to find any potential weaknesses and see if the city/potential ownership group can repair them. Assuming they can – there’s little reason to move the franchise as it’s a franchise that is undeserving of the relocation. And for Seattle, assuming the Kings stay in Sacramento, there’s little reason for the NBA not to expand back to one of the league’s former homes as Seattle, despite their struggles to get an arena built before they were relocated, was one of the NBA’s premier markets.

Of the past seven NBA expansion teams, all but one has opened up a brand new arena. You know, like the one that’s on its way to hopefully being built in Seattle. The way its unfolding for Seattle isn’t new – it’s almost a carbon copy of past cities that eventually were granted an expansion team.

Relocation in the NBA is very tough – expansion, while not a cakewalk – is not nearly as difficult as relocation, especially when you have a high quality ownership group in a former NBA city who looks to be en route to opening a modern arena within the next few years.