Vancouver and NBA: Bitter divorce to better bedfellows
With GM Place sold out for an NBA game involving Steve Nash, it was easy to look back and consider what might have been had Vancouver’s short-lived Grizzlies somehow acquired the hometown hero.
Nash, now 35 and playing perhaps his final NBA game in B.C., would have made all the difference had the Grizzlies, circa 1995-2001, acquired the scrawny kid from Victoria who became a two-time league MVP.
But last night, eight years after their bitter divorce, Vancouver and the NBA made better bedfellows, with more than 18,000 tickets sold – during a recession and hockey season – for a preseason game between Nash’s Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trail Blazers. The scene begged a more pertinent ‘what if’ question surrounding the city and professional basketball, bigger than the now-moot queries about landing Nash.
What if you could push the re-start button and launch an NBA franchise in Vancouver today?
The business case begins with the loonie.
Now near par, it was roughly 70 cents (all currencies U.S.) when the Grizzlies were established as a bookend to the Toronto Raptors, one half of NBA commissioner David Stern’s great northern expansion. But by 1998, the Canadian buck had dropped to a low of 63 cents. While Canadian-based professional sports franchises take in Canadian revenue, they pay their players in U.S. dollars, making them vulnerable to currency fluctuations. Fifteen years ago, they couldn’t see par loonies with telescopes, so the idea of competing with an equal dollar – let alone buying greenbacks in bulk, on the cheap, and saving them for rainy days, as teams are doing right now – was inconceivable.
The currency issue has been mitigated, but the other development since the Grizzlies left Vancouver and moved to Memphis – “the worst all-time trade in sports history,” according to a former NBA executive – has been the internationalization of the sport.
Pouty Americans unhappy to play here – see Francis, Steve – are no longer required given the explosion of quality international players. To the east, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo has constructed a roster with five Europeans, representing four countries.
This past summer, plum free agent Hedo Turkoglu chose to sign in Toronto rather than Portland in part because his family was drawn to the city’s Turkish community, a multicultural advantage that major Canadian markets have over one-horse NBA towns, of which there are plenty. Two internationals – Nash and Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki – have won MVP honours this decade, while the San Antonio Spurs have won several championships with a backcourt of France’s Tony Parker and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili.
Stern has long known that his sport will never be bigger than football in the United States, and never compete with hockey in Canada. But by being the second-most popular sport in every nation, basketball could rival soccer on a global stage.
Perhaps that’s why the commissioner has cited Vancouver as his biggest regret, because to date, neighbourly Canada hasn’t subscribed to the master plan.
The Raptors are entering their 15th season, but their fan base is still concentrated in Southern Ontario. Unlike baseball’s Blue Jays and Expos, who were able to nationalize their brands, the Raptors have a limited following outside the GTA, and television numbers paint basketball as an off-the-podium sport, miles behind hockey but also significantly trailing football and baseball for Canadians’ eyeballs.
There is good reason for Stern to want to return to these parts, if not to Vancouver then to Seattle, where the league suffered another clumsy relocation. The SuperSonics bolted for Oklahoma City following the 2007-08 season, and the NBA was left without a gateway market to China in the Pacific Northwest, an area of the continent with large Asian communities.
China is becoming more important to the business of basketball, particularly since the arrival of Houston Rockets centre Yao Ming, who entered the league a year after the Grizzlies left. More than one billion Chinese consider Yao a national hero, but at the Olympics in Beijing last year, U.S. superstars were received like The Beatles, and it was clear that the Middle Kingdom’s interest in basketball extends far beyond its famous countryman.
Stern has said that the NBA can never come back here, that it blew its opportunity, and that it should have waited to expand to Vancouver. Back then, the league’s ambition was miscalculated.
Just as the commissioner’s defeatism is today.