Can Vancouver afford an NBA team today? The feasibility of an NBA comeback

Mercedes Leyh, Anmol Aujla, Kenneth Pittman, Mohak Sood and Dylan Grant / December 6, 2019

Vancouver has not had an NBA team in eight years. With changes to the market is it feasible for the NBA to make a comeback in the city?
(millionare3 / Flickr)

Professional basketball in Vancouver is a long, unsuccessful, rather gloomy story to tell. To find the grassroots of professional basketball in this city, you’d have to go back thirty years to the creation of the World Basketball League. 

The World Basketball League (WBL) was a minor professional basketball league in the United States and Canada that ran from 1988 to 1992. One of the major differences between it and other leagues was that it had a height restriction. Players over 6 ft 5 in were not allowed to play; this restriction was raised to 6 ft 7 in 1991. 

The Vancouver Nighthawks played their home games that season out of BC Place Stadium and went an abysmal 18-36. The team folded after the ‘88 season due to financial issues. 

In an interview last year, former Province reporter, Jim Jamieson called that season a “wild year”.

“They ran out of money — they were paying them in cash. Who knows where the money was coming from.” -Jim Jamieson, former Province reporter

The team had big ambitions in their lone season. On opening night, they had 3,500 fans in the stands, when they played host to the Calgary 88s. Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen, was also in attendance for the big game. 

Seven years later and professional basketball once again arrived in BC. Thanks to the NBA expansion into Canada, teams were erected both in Toronto and Vancouver. The city finally had the prodigal child return home, something their fans could sink their hearts into. Instead what followed was a long, slow burn of the Vancouver Grizzlies. 

“The Grizzlies certainly didn’t do themselves any favours by not having a winning season while they were here.” -Tom Mayenknecht, former NBA executive with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, as well as host of ‘The Sports Market’ on TSN Radio.

Their inaugural season was one of the worst the league has ever seen, after starting off 2-0 the team ripped off 19 straight losses and later set the single-season record for consecutive losses when they took 23 straight “Ls” between January and February. 

Their season ended with 15 wins and 67 losses, good for a 0.196 winning percentage, the lowest in the whole league. The team saw an average attendance of 17,183 spectators, ranked 14th in the NBA.

The team’s attendance kept on slipping until the ‘98-’99 season when they hit a low where they had just eight wins in a lockout-shortened season. After that, attendance tanked.

But for Mayenknecht, the team’s departure from Vancouver can be attributed to poor ownership. Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment helped birth the Grizzlies in Vancouver, but in 2000, the Grizzlies were bought by Michael Heisley and by 2001, they belonged to Memphis.

Heisley had said he had no intention to move the team away from Vancouver. Mayenknecht called Heisley a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“[Heisley] wanted to move them and then suggested that Vancouver wouldn’t be able to sustain things from a sponsorship point of view.”Tom Mayenknecht, former NBA executive with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, as well as host of ‘The Sports Market’ on TSN Radio. 

The team’s highs came in their final season where they recorded 23 wins. After that, in 2001, the team packed it’s bags and headed south to Memphis where the team has been ever since.

“The thing about the Grizzlies is that, even though we weren’t the greatest team, the games were still so much fun to go to.” -Kat Jayme, documentary filmmaker and Grizzlies superfan.

Fast forward 19 years later and basketball is back in the Lower Mainland. The Fraser Valley Bandits, part of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, play their home games out of the Abbotsford Centre and the Vancouver Dragons, part of the American Basketball Association, play their games out of the Richmond Oval. But the question remains, could the Grizzlies come back? The Grizzlies have left a lasting impact on people here in Vancouver. 

“I’m not naive to believe this is something that is going to happen overnight. I think it will definitely take time. I’m hopeful, in the next decade or so, it will happen but again, it will take time to get everything to put all the pieces together but it’s something we need to start pushing for now.”-Kat Jayme, documentary filmmaker and Grizzlies superfan.

Jayme has been at the forefront of the movement to bring an NBA team back to Vancouver. Ahead of a preseason game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks at Rogers Arena, Jayme organized a rally to show the NBA how much support it has in Vancouver. 

On top of that Jayme also released a documentary titled “We the West.” It tells the stories of other Grizzlies superfans and how much the team has meant to them. 

“I think the Grizzlies did have a loyal and dedicated fanbase but of course basketball and the NBA was still something that was new to us in the late 90s early 2000s. The game has grown so much since then. A Canadian invented basketball, this is our sport as well.” –Kat Jayme, documentary filmmaker and Grizzlies superfan. 

Even though the NBA has been away from Vancouver for almost 20 years, the passion and love for the team still burns inside.

A lot has change since Vancouver had an NBA team. So, what is still standing in the way of the NBA making a comeback in the city?
(BCIT News)

Looking at the NBA today, you’ll see a completely different picture than what it was 20 years ago. In 1995, the franchise fee for both Vancouver and Toronto was set at $125 million. Today, the most recent expansion team in a major North American sport was the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The franchise fee for that team was a whopping $500 million.

Bringing a team to Vancouver is expensive and the price is only going to increase with the NBA growing at the speed it is. The NBA has released projections of its salary caps and over the next decade they project to see about a $60 million increase. This is in part to an influx of television deals put on by some major players down south. In 2014, ESPN, ABC and TNT agreed on a $24 billion deal with the NBA which will see the three be the national broadcasters of the league. This deal will run into the mid 2020s and there’s nothing to suggest that the companies won’t re-up when the deal expires. 

Vancouver has also done some growing over the same period. In 2001, the population of Metro Vancouver hovered around 2 million people. In 2016, according to a census, the population now sits around 2.5 million. 

“The NBA is much more international than it was back in the 90s, late 90s to early 2000s and Vancouver is even more international and diverse and bigger than it was back at that time. I think there’s a lot more international money here than there was back in the mid 90s, and late 90s, early 2000s.”- Tom Mayenknecht, former NBA executive with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, as well as host of ‘The Sports Market’ on TSN Radio.

With the increase in international income comes with it, an increase in the Canadian dollar. Aziz Rajwani, a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, credits the Grizzlies failure to the poor Canadian dollar near the turn of the century. 

“If I could just describe it to one factor they failed because of the Canadian dollar. The Canadian dollar was performing very poorly at the time, and you know if today the Grizzlies were here today, they would not be going through the same type of problems.”-Aziz Rajwani, UBC accounting professor

So how has this affected the Canucks?

The Vancouver Canucks saw their estimated value increase from $239 million in 2009 to $735 million in 2018. 

The increase in the population has also played a huge roll in the estimated value of the Canucks. The City of Vancouver accounts for $305 million, 41.6%, of the Canucks value. The more-and-more the population increases, the more the Canucks will see an increase in value. 

Vancouver is the third largest sports market in North America to only have one major professional sports team (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB). They come behind San Diego, who previously had the Chargers in 2017 and Montreal, who had the Expos back in 2004. 

Vancouver sits as the 22nd most populated market out of the four major North American sports (Baseball, Basketball, Hockey and American Football). Compare that to the likes of Cleveland, a city that sits 30th in market size, and has three professional sports teams. 

For the Grizzlies, the big change in the population is the increase in people of Chinese heritage taking up residence in Metro Vancouver. In 2001, people of Chinese origin made up 18% of all Vancouver residents. In 2016, that number had climbed to 19.6, accounting for 474,655 people. 

Stats from the Sports Business Journal, going off of deals that are publicly known, says that NBA revenue from China impacts the salary cap and how much money is available to players on an annual basis. In July, China’s Tencent reached a five-year, $1.5 billion deal to remain the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, and it is the NBA’s largest partnership outside of the U.S. China Central Television, CCTV for short, has a lucrative financial partnership with the NBA televising multiple games live each week, including coverage of the playoffs. NBA’s arm in China, labeled “NBA China” has been valued at $5 billion. 

Having the city change so much over the span of two decades, it begs the question, is the NBA ready to return to the Lower Mainland? 

There are certainly a lot of hurdles to overcome and the biggest one is the current price of an NBA team. In February, Forbes released their evaluations of all 32 NBA teams and their estimated price tag if they were to be purchased. With the New York Kicks taking the top spot with an estimated $4 billion price tag, it was the Memphis Grizzlies who rounded the bottom of the list with a $1.2 billion estimation. 

The Vancouver Grizzlies had their best season in their final year in the city, despite an all time low in attendance.
(BCIT News)

Those prices are no joke, and it’s safe to assume that the price tags will continue to increase. While there are people in Vancouver who can afford that, it would be hard to sell them on being the lone person. 

We talked earlier about the concept of relocation and the franchise fee. If the Grizzlies were to return to Vancouver, this has become a viable option. It is the cheaper of the two methods at first, but it’s a lot harder to build something from scratch instead of inheriting something that is already established. 

Here is a breakdown of who could possibly invest in an Vancouver NBA team.
(BCIT News)

The second hurdle is finding someone to own the team. Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aqualini expressed in a 2012 interview that he is open about the possibility of the team returning to Rogers Arena. 

“I think if there was enough support, enough of a fan base, definitely the arena is ready to go. There was a basketball team here before, the building is really plug-and-play. We could start tomorrow if we wanted to. But the question is always about market size. That really is the issue. The (Grizzlies) did leave Vancouver for a reason, because there just wasn’t enough market support. If there was, they wouldn’t have left in the first place. We’re continually doing work on that, to assess whether there is enough of a market for an NBA team in Vancouver.”-Francesco Aqualini, Vancouver Canucks owner

If no person wants to step up to the daunting task of owning an NBA team, there are some alternative ownership approaches. 

For Mayenknecht, one of the most natural fits is to take advantage of Vancouver being a Pacific Gateway City to China, their money, and their love of the NBA.

“I think a Pacific city like Vancouver would be well served by a consortium-style, Canadian-Chinese owners partnering with the Canucks, so that the new NBA team plays at Rogers Arena, the new NBA team is downtown there, the new NBA team shares the cost of the business side, the sponsorship, ticket sales, broadcast, licensing – all those things. That’s the model that I believe you require.”-Tom Mayenknecht, former NBA executive with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, as well as host of ‘The Sports Market’ on TSN Radio.

Mayenknecht is pushing it even further, saying the impact of an international superstar and a more international team in the city would help cement the game’s place in the city. 

I think that would be the key to success in Vancouver. Build an international roster and if you can imagine an international roster with the next Yao Ming, or with the next, you know, Jeremy Lin, or, an Asian player or players who could really connect to, you know, that part of the Vancouver fabric.”-Tom Mayenknecht, former NBA executive with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, as well as host of ‘The Sports Market’ on TSN Radio.

In the mid 90s, the Grizzlies were sewn into the fabric of Vancouver and in 2001, it was cruelly torn away. The imprints of the patchwork, however, linger on in the city. But between  Vancouver’s growing market and the international love for the game, there’s a very real possibility that the NBA sized hole in Vancouver’s fabric could be stitched up soon.