Sorry Canada, NBA won’t be in ‘expansion mode’ anytime soon


NBA commissioner Adam Silver. (Gerry Broome/AP)

In the moments prior to the start of the first NBA Finals game ever played in Canada, Adam Silver dedicated the opening minutes of his state-of-the-league address to offer a mini-history lesson and tribute to the game’s roots north of the 49th.

There were predictable references to Dr. James Naismith, Huskies and “Maple Leaf Garden.” Then, perhaps in a nod to markets Silver and the NBA see as their future, he thanked Dr. Naismith for “his vision for global popularity,” and the role he played alongside his fellow Christian missionaries in bringing basketball overseas with him to China, Asia and Europe.

Finally, Silver noted that the 13 Canadians in the NBA today represent the second highest total from a single country.

What Silver didn’t acknowledge — but every Canadian fully understands — is that basketball in this country has never been more popular. One only needs to see the unprecedented — and until very recently unthinkable — television audiences the Toronto Raptors have been drawing throughout their run to the Finals, to understand just how meteoric this rise has been.

So it stood to reason then, with NBA revenues at all-time highs, Silver would be asked whether this surge in popularity might spur renewed interest in placing a second NBA team in Canada, perhaps in Montreal or Vancouver.

“My answer is, you know, and 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,” Silver explained.

Silver’s response shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — the league hasn’t expanded in 17 years — but his words will still be met with disappointment in some corners of the country, perhaps especially in Montreal where a group of business leaders held a press conference last fall to tout the city’s virtues as a future NBA city.

That group’s spokesman, Michael Fortier, said last October he had met with Silver in New York sometime in 2017.

“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,” Silver said.

In other words, sorry Canada, but, “it’s not you, it’s us.”

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Silver concluded his thought by adding, “And I’m sure inevitably at some point we’ll turn back to expansion, but it’s not on the agenda at this time.”

What is on the league’s agenda are major investments in growing the game in parts of the world featuring very large populations, no NBA team, but lots and lots of smartphones.

Like China and Africa.

“I think (Africa) is one of the places we’re looking in the world where we see enormous opportunity. Certainly China as well,” said Silver. “We’re opening with games in Mumbai, India for the first time next season, but in Africa we have elected to launch a league, which we’ll be starting in March of 2020, with 12 clubs. The format will be more like a champions league, so sort of the best of Africa playing in club competition. But we see enormous opportunity.

“I think ultimately it’s because of the transformational nature of digital media where in Africa, a continent of over a billion people, where there are something like 700 million cell phones, 400 million of which are smartphones, so it’s been revolutionary in terms of the people of Africa’s ability to watch our games in real-time on handheld devices. So we see enormous growth opportunities both in terms of players and for participation and ultimately an interest for the league.”

It’s a completely sensible focus for a league of 32 owners who are understandably in no great rush to start further slicing up their share of the NBA’s $24-billion television deal that kicked in prior to the 2016-17 season and continues through 2024-25.

It makes a lot more sense to focus any “expansion” efforts on ways to get as many of the billions of people living in Africa, China and India signed up to NBA League Pass than it does chasing lucrative, but one-time cash infusions via an expansion fee.

So while it might not be great news for Canadian NBA hopefuls outside of Toronto, as far as economics go, it’s a mission Dr. Naismith himself wouldn’t find fault with.

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