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NBA Expansion talk picking up since arena deal finalized

Dan Issel

Dan Issel is an NBA Hall of Famer as both a player and coach. He is a member of the tight knit inner circle of the NBA family and, according to people who know him, a serious business person who does not put his name on things lightly.

For all these reasons it caught my attention yesterday when the Kentucky native son announced the formation of a funded and organized NBA to Louisville effort, not only commenting verbally on potential expansion in Seattle but including reference of the national rumors in a written statement.

”There is speculation that the NBA could grant an expansion franchise to the West Coast, which would open the door for a franchise to be located in the eastern U.S. This development - plus the impressive list of local investors - is the impetus for the formation of the NBA to Louisville initiative”

Issel went on to state that his group has engaged NBA Commissioner Adam Silver regarding Louisville’s desire to participate in any future expansion process.

“Commissioner Silver said the NBA would be flattered that Louisville wanted a team,” Issel said. “He said right now there is no timetable for expansion. That will be their stance until they start accepting applications. ... What we want is to be ready to go. If and when they accept applications, we want to be on the top of the pile.”

Issel’s comments are important for Sonics fans to understand because they are consistent with comments made over and over again throughout this process by virtually every potential NBA investor or participant:

The league’s formal position on expansion is going to be “no” right up until the day it becomes “yes”. There will be no warning. There will be no transition period. On the day that answer turns to yes interested cities had better be ready.

On its own, perhaps the Louisville story is insignificant. Most informed people watching the situation play out recognize that while Louisville intends to take a real shot at expansion, they are probably an underdog in a competition with Seattle and Mexico City.

Mexico City has also recently emerged as a major source of expansion rumors. Multiple media outlets have speculated about the league’s interest in expanding south of the border, including former Sonics broadcaster David Locke who broke it down for his old colleagues at Sports Radio 950 last week.

“So what I’m hearing in most regards to expansion is that the league really really really really badly wants to do Mexico City. It makes sense, Mexico City is the easy one to convince other owners of, (and) it’s a brand new revenue stream. It touches into a fan base that’s not been touched, a huge population base… They’re really trying to figure out if there’s a way to do Mexico City. If they can figure out Mexico City, they need two franchises, Seattle is the other franchise. The idea of a Kansas (City), Louisville, and Seattle, just for the sake of expansion, doesn’t move the meter very much for anyone right now. But the Mexico City one is the key.”

Taking these rumblings at face value it seems possible that the Louisville group is taking concrete action in response to increasing dialogue within NBA circles regarding expansion to Seattle and Mexico City. Louisville, while a long shot, has identified the opportunity and is doing what they can to position themselves as an alternative should Mexico City prove to be too big of a challenge or if Seattle winds up acquiring a franchise via relocation instead.

Nobody really knows the seriousness of these talks, or perhaps more importantly the timetable for them to transition into a formal expansion process. What is undeniable is that, when taken together, these two conversations around Mexico City and Louisville represent the most significant increase in expansion related dialogue that has occurred since the NBA finalized its television contract in 2014.

Is it just a coincidence that this change in tone occurred almost immediately after the approval of a Seattle arena MOU and NHL expansion announcement?

Not according the Louisville Courier Journal:

“Still, numerous analysts have interpreted Seattle’s $564 million investment in renovating the Key Arena as a sign of impending expansion or eventual franchise relocation.”

Is it a further coincidence that league insider Dan Issel decided to get out in front of the issue just a few days before the NBA All-Star game occurs in Los Angeles?

Also doubtful, as his announcement pretty much guarantees that the subject of expansion will come up in conversations at the league’s most attended and gossip filled event. Sonics fans should keep their eyes open for rumors coming out of LA this weekend because, even while Tim Lieweke is dong his best to avoid getting out in front of the commissioners, Issel and others seem determined to move this conversation along.

Given the public feuding between the Oak View Group and their competitor AEG, it is going to be entertaining to see what happens when Tim Lieweke gets to hold court in a hostile building (that he built) right in the center of his home town. Leiweke and his OVG partners will enter Staples Center full of momentum from a series of impressive wins. They would appear to be perfectly positioned for substantive discussions with all the league’s movers and shakers.

Immediately following the All-Star Game virtually everybody in the business of sports and entertainment will be paying close attention to the anticipated launch of a “massive” PR and season ticket campaign for Seattle’s new NHL franchise. The stakes are high for Leiweke, who is rumored to view this NHL franchise launch as a personal challenge and an opportunity to showcase the growing industry dominance of OVG. Expectations for the NHL in Seattle are through the roof and any results are likely to be compared to the recent launch of the Vegas Golden Knights in an AEG building, arguably the most successful expansion franchise in professional sports history. Anything less than perfection could be viewed as a failure from the national perspective.

Seattle also has a lot at stake in this launch. Sources close to the situation continue to express that NBA executives are paying close attention to the season ticket drive, considering the outcome an indicator of the market’s strength and appetite for new franchises. Success for the NHL franchise launch will by no means guarantee an NBA opportunity, but a poor performance will send a terrible message to the powers that be in New York.

Be ready for a crazy couple of months. I’m looking forward to a shock and awe campaign from OVG and intend to sit back and enjoy the ride.