Montreal — The good-hearted people who used Wednesday night’s game between the Toronto Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets to wave the flag about Montreal as willing market for an expansion team have one thing right:
The NBA should seriously look at expansion.
After soccer, basketball is the world’s most global sport. But unlike soccer, which has multiple leagues and perhaps 100 or more clubs that support the highest levels of the game world-wide, the NBA is head-and-shoulders above every other basketball league on the planet and has no competition emerging on the horizon.
Almost without exception the very best players on the planet – last season there were a record 108 players from 42 different countries and territories on NBA rosters – are playing for one of the 30 current franchises, all in North America.
It has been 16 years since the league expended – the Raptors, incredibly, are in their 23rd season – and the sport has grown along with it.
So if it seems obvious the league can support more teams, then perhaps it makes some sense that a determined group of Montrealers want to be on their radar if and when it happens.
"The NBA is not considering adding a team to the 30 already in place in the short term," said spokesman Michael Fortier. "Our goal is instead to be ready the day that opportunity comes along."
They don’t have a catchy name – the logo is MTL arched across a basketball with a skyline and NBA curving underneath – but they do have the foundation of a credible group. There is support of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce and an initial investor – Stephan Cretier, founder of Quebec-based security services company GardaWorld — has pledged to put up 10 per cent of the as yet undetermined price of a so-far non-existent team, although Cretier was not on hand for the announcement.
Fortier — who said he met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver in New York 18 months ago to sound him out on the viability of Montreal as a market and wasn’t discouraged when the commissioner said Montreal would be a ‘Plan B’ for the moment — brings political and financial clout as a prominent banking lawyer and a cabinet minister in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. Sports industry expertise is provided by Kevin Gilmore, formerly the chief operating officer of the Montreal Canadiens.
But in the big picture the pie is lodged well in the sky.
Wednesday’s presentation was effective in communicating why an NBA franchise could conceivably succeed in Montreal. According to a study provided by the group, of the 49 North American cities with at least one franchise playing in the ‘big four’ sports, Montreal ranks seventh in their ‘Market Attractiveness Index’ based on various population and economic indicators and first among the 49 ‘major’ sports cities in ‘population per team’. Adding a second team, joining the NHL’s Canadiens, would keep them among the top-10. Even should Montreal land an MLB team, the group says, the city could manage.
So were an NBA team to be plopped into the Bell Centre there is a case that it would be supported. No great argument here.
But the NBA only cares marginally about that. Their primary concern is how putting a team in the Montreal – or any other market – would tangibly grow the business to the point it would offset the cost of having to share existing revenues, estimated at $7.4- billion last season.
And how would having a team in Montreal help that process more than a franchise in any other market?
And by the way – if there is any argument that splitting the Canadian market with the Raptors would somehow cut into their pie – that could be a strike too.
In the meantime there are about $800-million reasons why the NBA isn’t pushing to add more franchises in the near term: that’s the annual share each team gets now from the league’s massive $24-billion television deal that kicked in prior to the 2016-17 season and continues to 2024-25.
Sure a massive expansion fee – keep in mind the Las Angeles Clippers sold for $2-billion, without a building — would be welcomed, but it would have to be weighed against diluting the current rights deal.
When sources told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that expansion wouldn’t be on the league’s agenda until 2025, that’s what there were referring to.
Okay, so let’s say the people in Montreal are patient.
Would Canada’s second-largest city ever get on the radar?
Well, stranger things have happened. The Raptors nearly annual visits to Montreal during the exhibition season have always been sell outs, something the Raptors themselves recognize.
"The energy," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said when asked about his Bell Centre memories. "The fans appreciating us and the overall enjoyment of the game. It’s a rowdy crowd and loud and they expect us to win."
"Well I certainly think that the Canadian market is unbelievable,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “The spread of everything from the national team to the Raptors, to the talent level that is being produced out of Canada right now, we’re riding an amazing high. I don’t know what Adam Silver’s plans are for expansion, but I think everything out of Canada is super positive."
But nothing would happen unless the Molson family, owners of the Montreal Canadiens and the Bell Centre, are primary investors – as longshot as a Montreal NBA bid might be it would be a non-starter if they didn’t own their building or at least have co-tenant status. The league has long since passed the days when they tolerate a franchise playing second-fiddle when it comes to building availability and scheduling.
That they weren’t part of Wednesday’s announcement was telling.
Even then the argument gets harder to make. It’s hard to imagine Seattle and Las Vegas as markets that wouldn’t be at the front of the line if-and-when the league did expand. The commissioner’s office is also rightfully intrigued about the potential Mexico City would offer in expanding the league’s overall footprint. For that matter adding teams in Europe before they try to squeeze more juice out of a well-serviced North American landscape makes sense. Even in Canada there might be the urge to right a wrong in putting another franchise in Vancouver and further deepening the league’s tie to the vital Asian market.
All that aside, the real question that interests in Montreal would have to answer what having a team in Montreal would do for the other 30 (or 31 or more) teams in the league.
Being part of the NBA would undoubtedly be great for a city trying to raise its profile in North America and elsewhere, and it would probably serve the local ownership well. But what would Montreal do for the NBA?