Home > NBA > Full Report Card on Vancouver’s Suitability as an NBA Relocation Option

Full Report Card on Vancouver’s Suitability as an NBA Relocation Option


If NBA commissioner David Stern’s recent interview on Bill Simmons’ BS Report is any indication, the NBA has been doing a little exploration of the Pacific Northwest, and they’re seriously considering cheating on one of their uglier franchises to get a little rainy action with a pretty Canadian city.

The region was home to two very similar teams in the mid to late 1990’s: the Seattle Supersonics and the Vancouver Grizzlies. Both teams unfortunately re-located around the turn of the millennium, because Seattle had an arena that could have passed for a mid-sized World War II bomb shelter, and Vancouver had various other handicaps that I’ll touch on shortly. Stern has gone on record as saying that he regretted how the situations for both teams were handled, and that he would look at future re-location to those cities.

Now, I’m not about to dissect the chances of every “rumor” city that’s floating around out there (Las Vegas, Anaheim, Kansas City, London even). What follows is an honest breakdown of Vancouver’s strengths and weaknesses for luring back an NBA team to the city, and what it needs to do differently if and when it lands a team again.

Vancouver Franchise Sustainability Report Card (4 Major Categories)

The way I see it, there are four main factors that are considered when any professional sports league looks at the ability for a metropolitan region to support a team:

1. Potential Season Ticket Base

This factor is number one for a reason. The majority of any team’s revenue comes from their season ticket holders. The actual percentages can differ from team to team depending on merchandise agreements and TV deals, but for a mid-major sized market team like Vancouver, it will be over half of the total revenue.

Rogers Centre in downtown Vancouver could currently hold 19,700 hoopheads for an NBA game. That would actually place Vancouver in 12th for overall NBA arena capacity, just behind the Toronto Raptors (19,800) at the Air Canada Centre.  But what percentage of these seats would need to be season seats?

For a Vancouver team to succeed, it would likely need a season-seat base of between 11,000-12,000 seats to start off with. Any less, and the team risks entering the “death spiral” of NBA teams, where it won’t be capable of ponying up the funds for an elite player or two, leading to Cleveland Cavalier levels of losing.  Hopeless losing leads to a decline in the season seat base, starting the cycle all over again until the team is bankrupt or relocated.  Just watch – next year, the Cavaliers will experience a minimum 30% decrease in season seats, because it will be the first season seat renewal phase done without LeBron.  Let’s hope Dan Gilbert doesn’t release another Comic Sans font filled diatribe when the lower bowl of Quicken Loans Arena looks like a Cher concert in Moose Jaw.

Vancouver has a metropolitan population of over two million people, so this target season seat number should be manageable, especially if an established team enters the city and prevents an atrocity like the 1995-1996 Vancouver Grizzlies from stepping on the court again.

This was a poor free-throw attempt.

As pure speculation, if the New Orleans Hornets were to fly north on the wings of Air Stern, Vancouver would get a 40-45 win team (decent), and a verified superstar in Chris Paul. This would sell enough tickets to secure the first years of the franchise’s existence. If this franchise relocation were to happen three to four years from now, there’s a very good chance that Steve Nash would sign there as a free agent for the last year or two of his career. That would again also guarantee great crowds for the first year or two of existence – years that are critical to developing hype around a blossoming franchise.

Remember that the Grizzlies were one of the worst teams in basketball for their six years of existence, and yet they still drew 13,737 fans per game in their last year.  The franchise started out their first season with an average attendance of over 17,000 people per game. The fan support is there without question, much as I hate to admit it about my west coast brethren. When I turn on the TV and see games in Milwaukee and New Jersey that have maybe 2,000 people in the lower bowl, I know that there are stronger cities out there for a team, and Vancouver is one of them.

Important lesson: At one time, Jay Triano was the Director of Community Relations for the Grizzlies. He admitted in an interview that the Grizzlies had not done enough to embrace the massive Asian community in Vancouver until their last year in the league, and by then it was too late to turn attendance numbers around. If a team returns to Vancouver, count on the sales team more effectively targeting their Asian constituents.

Doing so will not only increase attendance, but also begin to expand the franchise profile into international markets. The Dallas Mavericks have done very well on this front by drafting foreign stars such as Steve Nash (Canada), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Eduardo Najera (Mexico), and Wang Zhizhi (China). Even though Wang was a bust, having Chinese newspapers following him around helped increase brand exposure for the Mavericks in Asia.

Grade: A-.  Proven fan support for horrific late 90’s Grizzlies teams means that a 40-50 win team would seize fan attention in the city, especially if the proper demographics are targeted.

2. Ability to Attract/Retain Corporate Sponsorship

The impact of this area can be quite varied, but count on it comprising roughly 20% of revenue, depending on how corporate sponsorship packages are structured. Corporate sponsorship (or lack of) was a big hole in the revenue stream of the original Vancouver Grizzlies. If an NBA team comes back to Vancouver, it will be without question under the banner of the Vancouver Canucks ownership group – meaning there will be a set of established corporate contacts to approach for new sponsorship opportunities, and some in-house expertise on how to efficiently execute those sponsorship agreements.

Grade: C+. (But a B on potential if the Canucks come into ownership of the team, and apply their same operating principles to corporate sponsorship in the NBA)

3. Potential Fanbase

Or in other words, how many potential fans are out there to buy Vancouver merchandise, fly in for retail games, and buy NBA-themed toasters online.

Elite breakfast: Toast and Nash Browns.

Being conservative, the Vancouver team would immediately own all of Western and Northern Canada, and probably a good chunk of Washington. As long as Seattle doesn’t have a team, Vancouver would likely attract disillusioned Supersonic fans who are still bitter about losing their team. Think about it – the following major cities would have Vancouver as their closest option for basketball: Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina. All told, well over 10,000,000 people live in these regions.  And if you ignore the Portland Trailblazers, there’s probably even more potential fans throughout the northwestern United States.

All of this is great, but the brand management nerd inside me knows of a major improvement Vancouver needs to address if a team returns.  You know what the biggest reason was why I hated the Grizzlies and rocked Toronto Raptors gear when I was a kid in elementary school?  Vancouver’s identity was boring. Outdoor animals are boring. There’s a reason I forget the Milwaukee Bucks are even a team most days, and that’s because Rocky Mountain wildlife isn’t interesting.

Except to Mr. and Mrs. Takahashi, the unfortunately courageous Asian tourists.

As a brand, the Raptors represented something edgier and more exciting. When you think of a Raptor, you think of Antoine Dodson screaming “THEY ‘RAP’IN EVERYBODY OUT HERE” in the middle of Jurassic Park as Raptors terrorize his family. When you close your eyes and think of a Grizzly, you see Yogi Bear stealing a pic-a-nic basket with Park Ranger Stern looking irritated. Vancouver needs a modern name that doesn’t pander to boring Canadiana. This rules out the Mounties, the Double-Doubles, and the Tragically Hip.

The only other rule I’d like to put in place at all times going forward would be the “No Alliterative Team Names Unless You’re A Minor-League Franchise” clause. The Vancouver Volcanoes is fine for their IBL team, but that namesake would never fly in the NBA.  Alliteration makes a franchise seem amateurish, as if a grade seven kid came up with the moniker to match his cool pencil crayon logo he drew in social studies.

My suggestion: The Vancouver Storm Ghosts. I cannot explain what that is to be honest; all I know is that it would result in a really cool logo in a black/green/blue/purple color scheme that would have kids all over western Canada being proud to wear the colors of a west-coast team once again.  I get excited everytime I think of new franchise names for cities, even if my suggestions will never in a million years be implemented.

Grade: A+ Biggest NBA territory by geography if they enter the league, with a huge fanbase to draw from. Much better branding efforts are needed to secure the hearts and minds of fans in the region however.

4. Strength of Ownership

If Vancouver ever successfully draws a team back into the city, it will be because the Vancouver Canucks sent enough fruit baskets to Commissioner Stern to convince him to give them a second shot. The Canucks ownership under the Canucks Sports & Entertainment group is strong right now, and the robust Canadian dollar would ease the burden of bringing an NBA team back to the city. This ownership group originally owned the Grizzlies, but they must sense that the sports climate in Vancouver is changing if they’re exploring NBA franchise relocation options.

Grade: B. Canucks are currently valued at 9th overall in the NHL for franchise value. The ownership group is doing the right things management-wise. The first failure of the Grizzlies remains a black mark on the group that decreases this score slightly.


It would be hard to beat the glitz of Vegas, the internationality of London, or the …Duckness of Anaheim, but Vancouver is a beautiful world-class city that has the proven fan support needed to float an NBA team. If a team returns to the ocean, the onus will be on the ownership group to target the appropriate demographics for their games, and put out a winning product quickly.

Final note: Just look at the 1996 NBA draft if you want to know why the Grizzlies died. Missing out on Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic and Jermaine O’Neal are bad enough in one of the top 3 deepest drafts of all-time, but skipping over Kobe Bryant (and maybe even more devastatingly, Steve Nash) was the funeral bell. General Manager Stu Jackson will not be missed. If the NBA doesn’t screw Vancouver over again with the draft restrictions that lead to their first overall pick being Bryant “Big County” Reeves, I think a team in Vancouver would succeed long-term.

After six seasons in Vancouver, the Grizzlies achieved a lifetime home record of 66-220, the worst percentage showing among the 65 franchises in league history.  Let’s hope that the second incarnation of an NBA team in Vancouver would fare much better.


  1. No comments yet.
  1. March 7, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: