Throughout his time as NBA commissioner, Adam Silver has consistently shot down any hopes of NBA expansion. Back in 2019, when asked about the possibility of expanding to another Canadian city like Montreal, Silver said:
“It’s the same as it’s been for other U.S. cities that have expressed interest, and that is that we are just not in expansion mode at the time. I mean, we’re flattered that some other Canadian cities have expressed interest, as some other U.S. cities have, but again nothing new and I’ve said this before, that we, meaning the NBA collectively, all our team owners, are very focused on creating the best possible competition among the 30 teams. And I’m sure inevitably at some point we’ll turn back to expansion, but it’s not on the agenda at this time.”
Expansion has not been on Silver’s agenda until December of 2020, when he stoked the flames for the first time.
“I think I’ve always said that it’s sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point. I’d say it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic. But certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.”
NBA expansion has made it onto the agenda, but not the front burner. It is a lot of vague phrases that don’t really tell us anything about how soon the NBA will expand.
But there is reason to think the NBA will start the expansion process in 2021.
First off, Seattle’s mayor Jenny Durkan is “pretty optimistic” about getting an NBA franchise. This came just a couple of weeks after Silver’s comments about the league considering expansion.
Las Vegas knows better than any city that an optimistic mayor does not lead to a pro sports team. But combined with Silver’s change in tune, the Seattle excitement makes expansion seems possible.
The more likely reason to expect the NBA to expand as soon as possible is the pandemic. The loss of revenue in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 is the main reason the NBA is dusting off expansion analysis.
The idea is simple, for NBA owners to recoup some of the money they did not gain in 2020, they will expand. If Silver and the NBA gets their way, the league will land more than $2.5 billion for each new franchise. There is potentially $5 billion or more the NBA owners could land through expansion.
If the goal is to acquire money to offset the losses due to the pandemic, the owners would presumably want to get their hands on that cash as soon as possible. So 2021 would be the year to start looking for $5 billion.
If the owners decide they can survive financially, then expansion may be kicked down the road again, as the NBA doesn’t appear interested in expanding for any reasons other than hauling in that expansion fee.