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The Case for Bringing the NBA Back to Seattle

The Sonics have been gone for 15 years. But in their departure, the city still has a thriving basketball culture. As the NBA eyes potential expansion, they should look no further than the Emerald City.

I fell in love with the NBA in the mid-1990s. It was an era of league history that has been glorified for its toughness, vibrant personalities, and dominance of Michael Jordan. I grew up in New York City, and fell in love with the Knicks of that era where the paint was dominated by Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. But as I watched more of the league, there was another team I found fascinating that I became a fan of: the Seattle SuperSonics led by Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton.

Seattle, of course, no longer has an NBA franchise. The franchise packed its bags and left the Pacific Northwest 15 years ago to formulate a new franchise: the Oklahoma City Thunder. I recently posed a question on the Seattle subreddit asking how fans in the city feel about the NBA. A few mentioned hating the NBA for taking the Sonics away, others mentioned focusing on the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, while a large majority have pivoted to college basketball by adopting Gonzaga and the University of Washington.

But all hope is not lost, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver has recently hinted at the league exploring the idea of expansion in 2024. Along with Las Vegas, Seattle seems to be a natural place for the NBA to expand. The city of Seattle is ready for an NBA team again, and have more than enough reason for their beloved Sonics to return to the city.

A Game of Demographics

When a city is hoping to be awarded a new sports franchise, there are a lot of factors that have to come into play. The geography of the area in relation to other teams is important, where ensuring that a market can handle a sports franchise in the way of support and appetite for the sport. For example, the Orlando, FL market is larger than the Charlotte, NC market and yet in the 5 major American sports leagues Charlotte has a franchise in 4 of those leagues whereas Orlando only has 2. The reality is that the appetite for sports is greater in Charlotte and that city doesn’t have to worry about another nearby market like Miami. In the end, it will always come down to market size, geographic footprint, and the market's appetite for a new team.

Seattle checks all three of these boxes. It is the 12th largest media market in the US, services a wide area in the Pacific Northwest, and has a basketball culture that has produced notable NBA talents such as Jamal Crawford, Dejounte Murray, and Paolo Banchero. There are 16 teams in the NBA that operate in a smaller market than Seattle. That is over half of the league. It is an oddity because in leagues like the NFL and MLB, all of the top 16 media markets have franchises and yet in the NBA this is not the case. On top of that, Seattle has a very strong basketball culture despite no longer having a team.

While the Sonics were in the city, they influenced many grassroots efforts to help grow the popularity of the game. This led to the formation of basketball programs such as the Seattle Rotary Basketball that reinforced a distinct up-tempo sort of basketball that is unique to Seattle. This program has produced 9 players currently on NBA rosters, three of which were drafted in last year's NBA Draft (Paolo Banchero, Tari Eason, and Marjon Beauchamp). This love of basketball is only heightened when one considers the tremendous success of former NBA player and Seattle native Jamal Crawford’s annual pro-am tournament: The CrawsOver. This tournament always draws current NBA players and league personnel to Seattle to compete at a high-level for a city that just loves its basketball.

Beyond the high school and pro-am scene, college basketball is also a big deal in Washington state. Both the University of Washington and Gonzaga University have had success over the last 20 years. Gonzaga has built a national powerhouse that competes for titles every single year and UW despite some lean years recently, has been a respectable program that makes the NCAA tournament a fair share. Both universities have also sent players into the NBA recently, showing a pipeline from Washington State to the pros, further solidifying the state's basketball culture.

Perhaps the most important indicator that Seattle is ready for an NBA team again, is seeing just how successful its WNBA franchise has been. The Seattle Storm were established in 2000 and have been wildly successful. In their 22 seasons, the team has only had a losing record 6 times and has won the WNBA championship 4 times. The Storm have also consistently drawn excellent attendance numbers. In 2022, the Storm led the WNBA in average attendance by a wide margin with over 10,000 people attending every home game. The culmination of all these factors shows us that Seattle is ready for another shot at an NBA franchise.

An Abundance of Talent

As recently as a decade ago, the path to a professional basketball career was predefined in the eyes of the public. Excelling in high school got you noticed by college scouts, then a year or two playing in college increased your draft stock, and you could then get drafted. While that is still an acceptable path, it is not the only path. In this year's draft, we only saw one player drafted in the top 5 that took this traditional path (Brandon Miller, selected 2nd overall by the Charlotte Hornets, played his college ball at Alabama). The other players taken went the route of a foreign league (Victor Wembanyama from Metropolitans 92 in the French League), the NBA’s own developmental G League system (Scoot Henderson of G League Ignite), and the the hybrid professional private school league Overtime Elite (twins Amen and Ausar Thompson of the City Reapers).

When we look around at the NBA today, we see a lot of players that did not play in the American collegiate system. Players like Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all plied their trade in Europe before coming to the United States. More and more players are leveraging the G League as an alternative path to reach the NBA with 17 players having been drafted over the last decade. Leagues like Overtime Elite and foreign leagues like the NBL and France’s LNB Pro A have continued to attract talent and give them a higher profile to get drafted.

What does this all mean? There is more talent than there has ever been before entering the NBA. So much talent that we have now entered a period of talent parity that we have not seen since the 1970s in the NBA. Every year it seems that we are seeing players from G League rosters make the cut and find success in the NBA, leading us to believe that there is enough talent to warrant the existence of another franchise or two in the NBA. This is important because without an abundance of talent, a new franchise would struggle to formulate a competitive roster and as a result be incapable of selling tickets. When this happens, a franchise will quickly fail. But with all of this talent coming in from so many different places, it is feasible to suggest that a new franchise can build a competitive roster that will at the very least intrigue some people to attend games and rally support.

The Appeal of Seattle

If the expansion rumors are true and the NBA will indeed award a new franchise to two cities, it is important to understand the cities that are in contention. In terms of market size, the top 5 markets without an NBA team are as follows:

  • Seattle, WA

  • Tampa, FL

  • Pittsburgh, PA

  • Nashville, TN

  • Baltimore, MD

The advantage that Seattle has over these other markets is size but also proximity. A franchise in Tampa would create three NBA teams in Florida. The NFL has three Florida franchises (Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Miami), but it can be argued that Florida and the southeast as a region, in general, is a football region. While the Heat and Magic have been successful in stints since their introduction in the late 1980s, the Magic often struggle to sell out their arena. On top of that, Tampa is only 84 miles away from Orlando, which creates congestion.

Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Baltimore also face similar issues as they play in the same state as the Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies, and Washington Wizards respectively. Pittsburgh and Nashville are not basketball hotspots and are again more football towns, despite the success of Tennessee and Pittsburgh college basketball programs. Baltimore used to have an NBA team in the 1960s and there is an appetite for basketball in the city with the success of the University of Maryland over the years and being the hometown of NBA players such as Rudy Gay and Sam Cassell. But again, the proximity to DC and a smaller market size (Seattle is ranked #12 whereas Baltimore is #28) hurts their chances.

The other assumed city to be receiving a team is Las Vegas. Vegas for many years was considered an untouchable city because of the gambling element. Times have of course changed and gambling has become much more mainstream as people are gambling more than ever using sports betting apps that the leagues have partnered with. This resulted in the creation of the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL (who just won their first title), the Las Vegas Raiders of the NFL, and potentially a move from Oakland for the Athletics of the MLB. Vegas is the trendy city to move a team to and has some basketball roots with the great UNLV teams of the 1990s and is the place where the NBA hosts its Summer League.

When looking at all these factors, if the league were to open up two franchise spots both Seattle and Las Vegas seem like the probable candidates. Seattle, however, has the most legitimate claim of any city vying for a new franchise in the league. It has the market size, it showed for decades that it can be a great NBA city that supports its team. The city also has a deep-rooted basketball culture through the college and AAU circuits. Many in Seattle were devastated when the Sonics left for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. There are people that have simply not gotten over that, but that could be remedied by the NBA correcting the mistake of taking a team out of Seattle all those years ago and taking away one of the league's most beloved franchises.

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