Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Perils of the Tactical Man

For all of the shit that David Stern gets as commissioner of the NBA, he is more responsible for the NBA becoming a globally popular league than anybody else, except for maybe that Michael Jordan fellow. You only need to read stories about the NBA Finals being showed on tape delay in the late-1970s to realize how massively the league was wasting its potential. Today the NBA is the second most popular American sports league, it draws the best players from around the world, and with the exception of some soccer stars, has the most marketable athletes in the world. David Stern has truly shown that he possesses a keen sense of how to shape the league for the future. But you only had to hear the words “Virginia Beach Kings” uttered to be reminded of Stern’s failings in regards to relocation and stadium issues.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another story about the Sonics moving to Oklahoma City. This is a story about demographics. If you were building the NBA from the ground up today, where would you locate the 30 teams? A pretty smart bet would be to locate them in the largest metro areas of the country. Doing so gives each team a large fanbase to draw from, and the hopes of a lucrative television contract. Assuming you want two teams in both New York and Los Angeles, that puts teams in the 28 largest markets in the US (and for this exercise we will count Canada too). So how many of those 28 largest markets are missing a team? Go on, guess.

Nine. Nine! 9 of the 28 largest markets (Orange County, Montreal, Seattle, San Diego, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Vancouver) in the United States/Canada don’t have an NBA team! Now, some of these make a certain amount of sense. Perhaps Orange County (Los Angeles) and Baltimore (Washington DC) are close enough to other major metropolitan areas that they don’t need their own team, and if baseball is any indication, Montreal and Tampa Bay have trouble supporting professional sports franchises.

The flipside to this is that there are therefore nine small markets that have NBA teams: Orlando (29th largest market), Cleveland (31), Charlotte (36), Indianapolis (38), Milwaukee (42), Memphis (44), Oklahoma City (46), New Orleans (51), and Salt Lake City (54). Once again, some of these markets have credible arguments to have an NBA team (historically Indianapolis and Salt Lake City have supported basketball well), but certainly not all nine. On this list alone Charlotte, Memphis and New Orleans have had major struggles attracting fans to their games, and what will happen to the Oklahoma City market when the Thunder aren’t fresh and Kevin Durant is older than Uncle Drew?

Under Stern’s tenure, we have seen the Grizzlies move from Vancouver to Memphis (25th largest market to 44th largest), the Hornets move from Charlotte to New Orleans (36th to 51st) and the Sonics move from Seattle to Oklahoma City (17th to 46th). Considered tactically all of these moves make sense, but strategically it is poor business for the NBA. Long-term, the stronger play is to locate teams where the people are. Will any of these markets may be able to sustain a team for 5, 10 years, but what about 50 years?

Oklahoma City, 1960s

Currently it looks like the Kings will be leaving Sacramento sooner rather than later, the Grizzlies will be staying in Memphis and the Nets completed their long awaited move into Brooklyn. The New Orleans Hornets relocation plans were an object of much speculation in the past, but they’ve since been bought by Tom Benson, who also owns the Saints, and won the lottery to draft Anthony Davis, making it look like they will stay put. The next couple of years will be a time of relevant calm on the relocation front, but it won’t stay that way for long, and I implore David Stern to think about the long-term sustainability of any potential market rather than the $50 million tax break it will give an already wealthy owner.

Remember when you heard (ever briefly) that the Kings were going to move to Virginia Beach, and you laughed at the report? Virginia Beach! And then remember when you went to Wikipedia to figure out where Virginia Beach actually was, and you saw that it had half a million residents, and you thought “that’s bigger than I thought”? Virginia Beach is the 39th largest market in the United States/Canada, bigger than the markets of five current NBA teams.

Wasn’t as ridiculous of an idea as you thought.  


  1. Thank God, I was worried until I got to the end that you were going to accuse Va. Beach of being too small a market for an NBA team, which is what every other article I've read on the issue says or implies. It's generally referred to as "the resort city of Virginia Beach" by media sources, which is just a bit off the mark. Having grown up there, I'd call it more of a military city, if you wanted to give a one-word generalization. What many people, The Diss included, ignores is that it's just one very big city among a lot of pretty big cities in Hampton Roads, which has a population of 1.7 million and a modest athletic pedigree (Iverson, Vick, Mourning, Lawrence Taylor, Upton brothers, Bruce Smith, Plaxico, LaShawn Merritt to name a few off the top of my head).

    That said, I still wonder if they'd attract a lot of local support if they relocated. For one thing, like everywhere on the East Coast, driving is a huge hassle in Va. Beach, but it's made worse by the fact that there is no city center and no public transportation. With the exception of downtown Norfolk and the military bases, the entire area is a massive suburb. Something tells me that the willingness of the general population to regularly get up and go to games would slump, after the initial enthusiasm dies off, because there's no easy way to get there and other than the resort area (which locals avoid like the plague and there's zero parking), there's nothing remotely interesting near the planned arena.

    The whole thing probably isn't happening anyway, but my point is that on the face of it, moving to Va. Beach/Hampton Roads doesn't seem like such a bad idea when you consider the demographics of the area and, like you said, how it compares to other NBA markets. But my personal opinion, having grown up there, is that, barring the unlikely circumstance of fantastic team success, there wouldn't be serious local support after the first year or two.

  2. Well, I do think Virginia Beach is too small of a market for an NBA team, as long as the context is "an ideal world". In the context of the current NBA city-strategy, it's not as terrible as it looks.

    The numbers I am citing are Metropolitan Statistical Areas, so if I wanted to be technical I would have called it the "Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News" area, but Virginia Beach is easier to type.

    What if you put a team in Richmond? I know it is a bit smaller (at least the MSA) than Virginia Beach, but it seems like a more natural, urban location, and is possibly close enough to Norfolk/Newport News to get some fans from out there?

    Virginia has the population for sports teams, but it is unfortunately split between the DC/Richmond/Newport News areas, rendering no metro area large enough to support an exclusively Virginia team.