Expanding the NBA D-League: Five Potential Locations for New Affiliates

Image by Mark Nockleby via Flickr

Image by Mark Nockleby via Flickr

The NBA D-League is entering its 14th season after beginning as merely a “bus league” located strictly in the Southeast region of the US. What was once a simple, six team league is slowly expanding closer to fulfilling a 30-for-30 model, where each D-League team is affiliated with a single NBA organization. Yet there are still major hurdles to clear before we reach that utopia. And just like in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location.

That’s not necessarily true for the NBA proper. The NBA, under the leadership of Matt Winick, Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations for the NBA, must prioritize formulating a competitive balance with a secondary contemplation of travel cost — putting forth the best product comes before considering the budget in the hierarchy amid the NBA’s scheduling formula.

However, the NBADL can’t abide by an identical process. The D-League is structured to be used as a developmental program for potential, future NBA players. “The NBADL is a place where players and coaches can go to develop,” Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders said while in Las Vegas for summer league. “Everyone has the same goal, and that’s trying to get better,” according to Saunders.

Because the D-League doesn’t consider competitive balance as the primary focus, cost considerations take on a bigger role. And one of the largest such considerations regards what the NBA can so casually eschew: travel costs. Any potential talk of new D-League teams has to start here. Therefore, any new D-League teams should emerge in cities that are both close to preexisting NBADL organizations and near their NBA affiliate. Keeping every entity geographically close together is the goal of this project, because traveling by bus is more cost-efficient than chartering an airplane — though ground travel does incur sizable expenses, as shown in this study that cites the costs of ground transportation for an NBA team (which is largely limited to intra-city travel). This piece also weighs proximity to fellow D-League teams more heavily than proximity to NBA affiliate, though the latter is a big factor, as well. D-League teams will be traveling more frequently among other D-League cities than NBA teams will send prospects between the NBA team and D-League affiliate, especially with current roster limitations; therefore, the largest cost consideration stands to be travel between D-League cities.

Knowing these limitations, the league’s scheduling philosophy and how the minor league is used by NBA affiliates, what are some potential locations for new D-League teams?

1. Kansas City, Missouri

Background: Other than the occasional “Border Battle” when Kansas University and Mizzou meet at a neutral location for Big 12 matchups, there really isn’t a lot of basketball happening in Kansas City. The city did split the Kings with Omaha, Nebraska during a brief stint in the 1970s before adopting the team full-time from 1976-1985, however.

Arena: Kemper Arena is owned by the city, and seats a little over 18,000 for basketball games. It once hosted the Kansas City Knights of the American Basketball Association, but the league folded shortly after the Knights won their first ABA title in 2002.

Proximity: Kansas City, Missouri is relatively close to many other D-League teams. It’s an approximate five hour drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota (home of the S.F. Skyforce) and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (Home of the 66ers), while Kansas City is anywhere from a 10-15 hour drive to any of the three D-League teams in Texas (Austin, Rio Grande, Frisco).

Suggested NBA affiliate: Denver Nuggets. Denver is between eight and nine hours away from Kansas City. That’s a bit of a drive, but not one that would prohibit the Nuggets from shuffling players between teams without paying for airfare.

2. Omaha, Nebraska

Background: As of 2011, Omaha is the 10th largest city without a professional sports team, although fans of the Cornhuskers would argue college football reigns supreme.

The last time Omaha possessed a basketball team was from 1972-1975, when the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, now the Sacramento Kings of the NBA, split time playing at two locations.

Arena: The Centurylink Centerowned by the city, plays home to the Creighton University Bluejays basketball team, and the University of Nebraska-Omaha ice hockey team. It has also welcomed the NCAA men’s basketball and wrestling tournaments since opening back in 2003.

Proximity: It’s just under a three hour trip to Kansas City, creating a regional hub, and to Sioux Falls (where the Skyforce play), and Omaha is approximately seven hours from Oklahoma City, while being a slightly more than a nine hour drive from Fort Wayne, Indiana (Mad Ants).

Suggested NBA affiliate: Minnesota Timberwolves. Minneapolis is only a six-hour trip away from Omaha, so the location is convenient for stashing projects away during the season. Also, it’s just a two hour drive to Des Moines, and Omaha is just a tad under three hours from Sioux Falls, making the largest city in Nebraska an ideal hub for both its potential NBA affiliate and D-League club.

3. Louisville, Kentucky

Background: There’s a notable amount of speculation that Louisville could one day become home to an NBA franchise– this Facebook page promoting the idea has over 11,000 likes. In 2012, the Louisville Cardinals were labeled the most valuable NCAA basketball team, proving that this city adores basketball. Still, the NBA has sent no signals of creating another expansion team anytime soon, making Louisville a prime location to start a D-League organization.

From 1970-1976, the Kentucky Colonels (an American Basketball Association club) and the Louisville Cardinals both played in Freedom Hall.

Arena: The KFC Yum! Center seats over 22,000 and is home to the Cardinals mens’ and womens’ basketball programs. There’s a problem, though. According to Forbes, a legitimate concern with bringing the NBA to Louisville is that the existing lease between the Louisville Arena Authority (the group who owns the KFC Yum! Center) and the University of Louisville Athletic Association would prohibit an NBA team from reaping sufficient profits from the arena. That is an issue that would have to be addressed should talks to bring an NBA team to town advance, but it might be a lesser concern for a D-League team.

Proximity: Louisville is geographically friendly, too. It’s a three-and-a-half hour drive to Fort Wayne, five hours to Canton, eight-and-a-half hours to Des Moines, and Louisville is 10-and-a-half hours away from Oklahoma City. If the D-League were to expand to Kansas City and Omaha, these cities are within ten hours of the proposed Louisville location — making this city in Kentucky central to potentially more than five NBADL teams.

Suggested NBA affiliate: Charlotte Hornets. It’s nearly an eight hour trip from Charlotte, North Carolina to Louisville, Kentucky — long, but driveable. From a fiscal perspective, Louisville would make sense for Charlotte: Though the Hornets are in much better shape going forward than they have been in the recent past, they ranked 25th in the NBA in home attendance last season, so placing a D-League affiliate amid a solid basketball town alleviates some of the financial burdens of a D-League affiliate, just in case things don’t go exactly according to plan back in Charlotte.

 4. St. Louis, Missouri 

Background: The NBA once considered relocating the Charlotte Hornets to St. Louis, before it was decided New Orleans would be a better location. According to this study, the projected attendance and total revenue for an NBA team in St. Louis and New Orleans were about the same.

Arena: The Scottrade Center used to host the St. Louis University basketball programs, but the Billikens now reside at Chaifetz Arena. It seats over 22,000, and the Scottrade Center is host of the Missouri Valley Conference Basketball tournaments.

Proximity: St. Louis is an ideal location for a D-League team geographically because it is less than a ten-hour trip from Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Fort Wayne, Oklahoma City and aforementioned proposal cities Kansas City, Omaha, and Louisville.

Suggested NBA affiliate: Indiana Pacers. It’s about a three and a half hour drive from Indianapolis, Indiana to St. Louis, Missouri. Seeing as there’s no rivalries between other professional sports organizations, I see no reason the people of St. Louis [Nelly Voice] can’t go out and support a D-League team that would be affiliated with the Pacers.

5. San Diego, California

Background: San Diegoone of the top-ten largest cities in America, is about a two hour drive from Los Angeles. It doesn’t fit regionally with the first four teams, but there’s already a system of D-League teams in California, so San Diego could work as an additional location.

The Houston Rockets started their professional existence in San Diego, and an ABA team called San Diego home from 1973 until 1976, going by the name of the Conquistadors during the first three years and the Sails in the final. The Clippers also once played in San Diego (from 1979-1984) before their soon-to-be-deposed owner moved the team to Los Angeles.

Arena: A D-League team in San Diego could play home games at the Valley View Casino Center, formerly known as the San Diego Sports Arena and IPay One Center. The VVCC seats approximately 14,000 for basketball events.

Proximity: It’s about a two hour trip to Los Angeles (D-Fenders), four hour drive to Bakersfield (Jam), a seven hour trip to Santa Cruz (Warriors), and San Diego is approximately nine hours drive-time away from Reno (Big Horns).

Suggested NBA affiliate: Los Angeles Clippers. This one is a no-brainer.

Zachary Bennett

  • Christian

    I know you already chose a location for the Hornets, but Greensboro NC makes a lot of sense for them. The Coliseum is already more than adequate for hosting a D-League team, UNCG (the only regular user of the Coliseum during the season) would be happy to accommodate the D-League as it would improve its profile, and the area appreciates basketball even without a local team participating (see attendance statistics for ACC tournaments). Oh, and it’s only 90 minutes from Charlotte.

    The one concern would be the prevalence of NCAA hosting in March; the D-League team would have to play around the ACC Women’s Tournament (locked in yearly for like the next decade), and the occasional ACC Men’s Tournament and second round NCAA hosting.

  • Dennis Justice

    All of these locations are wrong. “Major” markets simply do not have successful D-League teams. You’re also mentioning cities that want a NBA team and will not “settle” for minor league, especially not Kansas City. The more important consideration is proximity to the NBA team. You want to be close but not too close. Nobody in Los Angeles cares about the D-Fenders and nobody in Oklahoma City is going to care that their D-League team is being moved there. Two hours is a better distance.

    Asheville, North Carolina is by far the better location for the Charlotte Hornets’ D-League team. Besides being the only city to have won a D-League title in consecutive years, it now has a far improved arena and great training facilities at UNC-Asheville. The Hornets will train there for preseason camp for the third straight year. Asheville is also rated as the #24 minor league sports market by Sports Business Journal. We are exactly two hours and eight minutes away.

    Thirteen NBA teams share the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and that’s not fair to NBA teams with their own D-League affiliate and most unfair to the Indiana Pacers for sharing “their” team with 12 other teams. The upcoming CBA, the new TV deal, and the new drafting rules that benefit NBA teams with D-League teams all scream we will have 30 D-League teams within a few years. And there’s going to be a return to the south.

    Asheville can also be a gateway for D-League expansion in the south. Once you finally have 30 D-League teams, you can reduce travel costs substantially by only playing regular season games in your conference.
    “But they failed the first time” Of course “McBasketball” with generic logos and mascots was going to fail. Of course a single-entity based in New York was going to fail. Fans had no real connection. People in Asheville WILL fight for Michael Jordan’s D-League team. Other cities in the Carolinas either have an arena that’s too big, have too much competition, or otherwise just won’t appreciate the team as we will.

    For these reasons, I started a fan group called “Beelieve In Asheville” off http://www.beelieveinasheville.com. It features a promotional video that lays out why the Hornets need a D-League team and why Asheville is not just the best choice, it’s the only choice for when the Hornets finally admit they need a D-League team of their own. The Twitter handle is http://www.twitter.com/BEElieveInAVL
    We are the ONLY fan group that can tout an endorsement from a former Mayor and “Bring Back The Buzz.”
    We want this more.
    BEElieve in Asheville!

  • Rochester, New York would be a great place for an NBA D-league. There was report generated by Syracuse University Department of Sports Management and another by Sports Journal Magazine that did an analysis of best cities for D-league expansion and Rochester was a top location.

    I don’t agree with the locations referenced in this article. I do agree with Dennis Justice that major cities are not a place for D-League expansion. Yes you want to be close but not too close an hour plane ride or a short drive of a few hours would be about right to get back-and-forth in one day.

  • LexLegend

    Why would the Pacers have a team in St. Louis when there is already a D-League team in their own state at Fort Wayne?

    Omaha has been rumored in the past as a location for the Denver Nuggets affiliate.

    Jacksonville is the preferred destination based on previous reports from the Orlando Magic.

    The Raptors are looking at the Rochester RazorSharks of the PBL and moving them in to the D-League.

    If proximity is key, then the Timberwolves should affiliate with the Iowa team already in existence. The Erie Bayhawks should affiliate with the Brooklyn Nets, which are seven hours apart.

    I agree with the author that San Diego makes sense for a Clippers affiliate, especially when considering the upcoming regional tv negotiations for the Clippers. New owner Steve Ballmer is ready to capitalize on broadening that team’s footprint.

    The Continental Basketball Association had successful teams in places like La Crosse, WI (Bucks) and Rockford, IL (Bulls). As others have indicated, small markets near the large cities make a lot of sense for locating a minor league team.

    If you consider recent minor league baseball attendance trends, places like Rochester (NY), San Bernardino County (CA), Fort Wayne (IN), Spokane (WA), Norfolk (VA), Appleton (WI), Peoria (IL) and Huntsville (AL) draw well for their teams and would make sense for D-League teams.

    For all 30 NBA teams to have a D-League affiliate, they will need to return to the Southeast. One NBA fan is pushing to have the Hornets affiliate in Asheville, but Winston-Salem makes sense as well. Asheville, Charleston, Fayetteville (NC) , Little Rock (AR), Fort Myers (FL), Greenville (SC), Mobile (AL), Huntsville (AL) and Roanoke (VA) existed over 10 years ago – back then there weren’t NBA-team owner or single affiliates. And in sports, we see that the right owners with plenty of resources make a huge difference. The league has changed dramatically in that time and other cities in those same states could be fantastic hosts.

    In the end, I would suggest the following affiliations:

    Iowa Energy – Timberwolves
    Erie BayHawks – Nets
    Fort Wayne Mad Ants – Pacers
    Rochester RazorSharks – Raptors

    Appleton (WI) – Bucks
    Peoria (IL) – Bulls
    Omaha – Nuggets
    Spokane – Blazers
    San Diego or San Bernardino – Clippers
    Norfolk – Wizards
    Huntsville – Pelicans
    Chattanooga – Grizzlies
    Birmingham – Hawks
    Winston-Salem – Hornets
    Jacksonville – Magic