Expansion has been a back-burner issue for the NBA for quite some time. The league hasn’t added a new team since the Charlotte Bobcats, now Hornets, were born in 2004. Since then, the league has focused on maximizing its existing markets, but with revenue hitting all-time highs and the league bursting with enough talent to support more franchises, the idea has been discussed more frequently over the last several years.
While Las Vegas and Seattle are frequently considered the next two cities in line for teams, NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed another possibility Saturday before the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs played in Mexico City.
“There’s no doubt we will be looking seriously at Mexico City over time,” Silver told reporters while acknowledging that the league is currently focused on negotiating new media rights deals as well as a collective bargaining agreement. He cited some of the logistical concerns that have arisen with NBA teams in Canada as a possible roadblock, but said that Mexico City is “doing all the things necessary to demonstrate to the league that ultimately we may be position to house an NBA team here.” He cited the city’s population, the existence of a state-of-the-art facility and existing fan support as reasons why such a team would make sense while also claiming that he believes it is the NBA’s “manifest destiny” to continue growing outside of the United States.
On paper, Mexico City offers quite a bit to the NBA as a possible expansion market. Its most notable trait is its enormous population. Recent estimates suggest there are roughly nine million people in Mexico City, which would make it the most populous city in not only the NBA, but all of North American professional sports. The nation of Mexico as a whole is roughly 130 million, and the NBA would surely hope that a team in Mexico City could represent the entire country as the Raptors do for Canada. As the NBA continues to focus on growing the game internationally, it would likely love the opportunity to give 130 possible fans a team to root for.
Mexico City Arena meets pretty much every criterion for an NBA building. It was opened in 2012, making it relatively new, and seats 22,300 fans. Without another team as a tenant, it would not come with the same scheduling difficulties that many other NBA arenas face, as basketball teams frequently share buildings with franchises in the NHL.
But for every positive, there is a major question mark. The biggest immediate question would be how players would adjust to the city’s elevation. Mexico City is 7,349 feet above sea level. That’s more than 2,000 feet higher than Denver, the NBA team currently at the highest altitude. Playing at higher altitudes requires better conditioning, and teams like the Nuggets and Jazz, which do so regularly, have always had strong home-court advantages because of it. While the NBA has played plenty of games in Mexico City, it has never left a team there for an extended period of time and studied the effects, either in terms of team performance or the physical health of the players involved.
There is also the matter of player preference. Technically, players have no say over expansion. League bylaws give owners the freedom to expand at their discretion, and expansion fees are not considered basketball-related income and are therefore not shared with players. However, the NBA has an extremely productive relationship with its players and would be unlikely to force a market on them without hearing any concerns they might have about it.
When the NBA expanded to Canada in the 1990s, there were players who did not want to cross the border to join one of the new franchises. Notably, Steve Francis, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, demanded a trade from the Vancouver Grizzlies before ever playing a game for them. “I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2,” Francis would later write on The Player’s Tribune. “I was not about to go up to freezing-ass Canada, so far away from my family, when they were about to move the franchise anyway.” Some players might not want to live in another country. Others might not want to deal with the hassle of going through customs every time the team travels. Before the league considers expansion into Mexico, it has to try to figure out how interested players would be in living there.
In the end, Toronto proved to be a viable NBA market. The Raptors are thriving there to this day. Perhaps the league views them as a model to be emulated elsewhere. While expansion isn’t imminent, it is ultimately, in all likelihood, inevitable. There is too much money to be made from adding new teams, and when that time comes, it seems as though international expansion will very much be on the table.