Is the NBA inching toward expansion? What we know about Las Vegas, Seattle and more

Is the NBA inching toward expansion? What we know about Las Vegas, Seattle and more

Last winter, NBA commissioner Adam Silver set out a checklist for the league’s top priorities. First, the NBA would need to strike an agreement with the NBPA on a new collective bargaining agreement, then it had to sign off on its next round of media-rights deals. Only then would it move its attention to a topic that has been bubbling to the surface over the last few years: expansion.

In April, the league and the union agreed to a new CBA. The NBA’s exclusive negotiating window with its current TV partners, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery, begins in March but there is already rampant forecasting about what the media layout will look like in fall 2025, when this latest batch of contracts will kick in. The uncertainty about the NBA’s media-rights future, however, has not stopped speculation about expansion.

While the league loathes to talk about it in detail publicly, let alone commit to it, Silver has progressively come closer to saying expansion is coming. As the NBA hits Las Vegas this week for the final rounds of its inaugural In-Season Tournament, intrigue will only continue to ramp up as the league continues to dig in further in a potential new home market.

“It’s not a sure thing,” Silver said in July of expansion, “but as I’ve said before, I think it’s natural that organizations grow over time.”

As the NBA has slowly inched forward, a class of interested parties have moved ahead too. A steady, if informal, buildup is already starting among prospective buyers for the next round of available expansion franchises to hit the market, based on conversations with nearly a dozen sports-investment banking and industry sources, who along with other sources in this story were granted anonymity so they could speak freely. One sports investment banker said he already has spoken to people who are assembling to buy an expansion franchise. Another longtime banker said he knows of three groups angling to get into the bidding process.

“Oh, yeah, people are lining up,” the first banker said. “They’re getting organized. How serious that is is a different story. You can only go so far … until the NBA starts a process.”

There is no process in place as of now. Silver has made that repeatedly clear. The new media-rights deals still await, and those will come first.

That would provide important certainty about the league’s revenue streams. The NBA crossed $10 billion in revenue during the 2021-22 season, and it averages roughly $2.7 billion per season on its current national TV deal. The next one could be worth twice as much, or more, in total annual value. Several sports investment bankers say the upcoming TV deal has been baked into recent franchise sale prices, with the valuations worth more than the standard revenue multiples that NBA teams sell for.

Yet, that has not stopped some from trying to plot out a timeline for expansion, or trying to ascertain how much a team would cost. Sports bankers have already begun evaluating when a transaction could occur, with several believing it could happen as soon as late 2024 or 2025. Even NBA front offices have begun thinking about expansion.

Silver, with his public pronouncements, has not created any reason for hesitation. In recent weeks, he has gone so far as to even name cities that have expressed interest in a team.

The NBA would need buy-in from its current group of owners for the league to expand, a cohort that has seen some changeover during the last few years. The Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Hornets and Milwaukee Bucks also have seen new control owners take over in 2023. The Minnesota Timberwolves are expected to change hands soon, once Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez complete their purchase of 80 percent of the franchise with one more tranche of payments to Glen Taylor. The Dallas Mavericks will soon too, if the league approves the sale of the team to the Adelson and Dumont families, who have entered a binding agreement to purchase a majority stake from Mark Cuban. They would have to vote for or against expansion.

While expansion might be seen as a league issue, it is more acutely a personal issue for each owner. They would have to weigh several variables, not least of all their own financial interests. Wherever the next national media-rights deal lands, it, along with other league revenue streams, will be split in 30 directions. Would each owner be willing to see that annual cut diluted by two extra teams each year for the foreseeable future, while taking in their share of expansion fees? That choice might land in different places for different owners. That places an emphasis on two numbers — the revenue from the next media-rights deal and the value of the expansion fee — so owners could run their own discounted cash flow model to decide if it’s worth the short- and long-term trade-offs.

Seattle and Las Vegas are believed to be the front-runners to land new NBA teams, and each city is considered to be a strong market. Silver has talked up Mexico City in recent years and said the league would be “looking seriously” at the city. He has also said Montreal and Vancouver have each shown interest in having an NBA team.

Mexico City could be intriguing as the NBA’s media ecosystem changes and it is no longer tethered to linear television. A franchise in Mexico could help spur sales in that country for any streaming network that buys a share of the NBA’s media rights. The league has already pointed to the success of the Capitanes, its G League franchise in Mexico City. The team announced that it set a franchise attendance record for its season opener with 16,178 fans at Arena CDMX, and its average per-game attendance is nearly double that of the next G League team, according to numbers shared by a league source. But there are still concerns about player security if a team lands there, as well as the currency exchange.

Las Vegas has grown into an NBA outpost even without its own team. The league holds NBA Summer League there every July, along with Team USA events, and held its G League Showcase there through last year. The Oak View Group, a prominent venue operator nationwide, intends to build an NBA-ready arena in Las Vegas and has acquired 66 acres there, with the intent to break ground next year and the hope that the development could be completed by 2026. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Tuesday that $3 billion in federal funding will go toward a high-speed rail from Los Angeles to Las Vegas — a project owned by Wes Edens, who controls the Bucks and a 110-acre plot next to the Oak View Group land.

Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, declined to offer more about the venture. “I never get ahead of commissioners,” he said.

LeBron James, for one, has been open about his desire to own an NBA team in Las Vegas. James is a partner in Fenway Sports Group, the company that already owns Liverpool F.C., the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Penguins. According to industry sources, FSG has expressed an interest in owning an NBA team, though there is currently no momentum toward that, and has explored buying an ownership stake in the Oak View Group building project. FSG sold a roughly $200 million stake in Liverpool in September to pay off debt and other projects.

Seattle has its own strong case. It’s the largest media market in the country without an NBA team after the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City to start the 2008-09 season. It is a hub of wealth and home to Amazon and Microsoft. It has already earned one expansion team in the last half-decade, the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, and its home venue, Climate Pledge Arena, is believed to be NBA-ready. The WNBA’s Seattle Storm already play at Climate Pledge Arena, which is operated by the Oak View Group. The Kraken’s CEO and part-owner, Tod Leiweke, also is the brother of Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke. David Bonderman, who owns the Kraken, is a Boston Celtics minority owner and his daughter, Samantha Holloway, now a Kraken co-owner, said last year that she wants to bring an NBA team to Seattle. Bonderman is the founding partner of TPG Capital, which just sold its majority stake in Collective Artists Agency for a reported $7 billion.

The city nearly drew an NBA team back in 2013 when a group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen almost bought the Sacramento Kings and tried to move them to the Pacific Northwest, but that effort was stopped. Hansen still owns a large tract of land in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. But the price of a team has gone up dramatically in the last decade, when Hansen’s group tried to buy the Kings at a $625 million valuation.

New franchises in both cities are expected to draw significant bids, if not record prices. One head of a sports private equity firm believes the bidding will begin at $4 billion, while others say it could be as much as $5 billion in the end, if not more.

“You got to find somebody to write that check,” the longtime sports banker said. “I think you will find somebody to write that check out. I have very little doubt. Why is it moving quickly? Because you’re going to get a great price. You have two really good markets. You have a lot of demand right now. I’ve never seen the market for pro sports franchises — forget the NBA but any sports franchise in the big leagues — as robust as it is today … This is the perfect time to expand. Why would you wait?”

The Suns and Mercury were valued at a combined $4 billion when Mat Ishbia and his brother bought control of the franchises from Robert Sarver earlier this year, but that transaction only netted them upward of 50 percent of the team, not the full share. The Bucks were valued at $3.5 billion when Jimmy Haslam bought out Marc Lasry’s 25 percent stake. The Hornets went for a reported $3 billion dollars this summer to Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin. The Qatari Investment Authority bought a 5 percent share of Monumental Sports — which owns the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics — at a valuation of a little more than $4 billion.

There will be pressure on the league to keep valuations rising. The NBA has increased access to teams for institutional investors in recent years, sensing that there were fewer wealthy individuals who could buy a team on their own or buy out expensive minority stakes. It allowed private equity funds in during 2020 and then let sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and university endowments in during 2022. No one fund can own more than 20 percent of a franchise, and funds together cannot own more than a cumulative 30 percent of a franchise. A team’s control owner cannot own less than 15 percent of the franchise.

There is already intrigue about whether the NBA would change its rules on how much of a team can be owned by a private equity or sovereign wealth fund, let alone if either could be a control owner. Silver said this summer that he could not see a sovereign wealth fund running a team “in the foreseeable future” and preferred that an individual maintain control of a franchise.

As franchise valuations continue to climb, there will be fewer wealthy individuals who can afford to buy a franchise or even a majority share, which could necessitate the need to smooth the rules to allow values to keep increasing. But even if the prices might seem high, they won’t be prohibitive. Teams have become their own investment asset class in recent years, with its own industry building around it and more money behind it.

“All these people build these ridiculous models to tell you what these things are worth,” the longtime banker said. “You know what these things are worth? What some guy with a huge bank account is willing to pay for it.”

If the league does expand, it will add a new franchise for the first time in more than two decades. The NBA hasn’t introduced a new franchise since the Charlotte Bobcats were approved by the league in 2003 and started play with the 2004-05 season. The NFL’s Houston Texans began play the year prior. The NHL has added two teams since then. The WNBA just announced a new franchise last month and still hopes to add at least one more.

Silver has taken to expansion with a sense of patience and seriousness.

“I can’t set a specific timeline on it, but a main part of my job, if not the most important part of my job, is to grow this league,” Silver said last month. “So, it’s something I think about a lot.”

(Photo of Adam Silver: Tom O’Connor / NBAE via Getty Images)

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