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Can Three NBA Teams Thrive In Los Angeles?

Anaheim Royals - the new Sacramento KingsDavid Stern has always had a way of putting a positive spin on NBA controversies. If he were a TV executive, he would dismiss the flaming wreck that was “Three’s A Crowd” by reminding you how successful “Three’s Company” was.

That disposition could explain why the NBA is so eager to shoehorn a third team into the Los Angeles market by allowing the Sacramento Kings to fill out change of address forms for Anaheim. Stern has said he believes Anaheim can support an NBA franchise and on the surface it would seem hard to argue. The L.A. and Orange County metro areas combined for more than 12 million people and a hearty supply of disposable income.

More importantly, Anaheim offers the Honda Center – a big, amenity-filled building that would seem to be the answer to the Kings’ prayers. Even Stern himself has made no attempts to confuse the issue, recently telling reporters that the potential move (and Sacramento’s last-ditch effort to keep its team) “is very building focused.”

All of the infrastructure is in place for Southern California to gain a third pro basketball team, but because people can support it doesn’t mean they will. Los Angeles fans are notoriously fickle, not surprising considering the number of year-round entertainment options available in the area. Adding 41 more home dates to the L.A. social calendar is like putting out another pan of fried chicken at a buffet. It’s great, but no one’s shoving people aside to get to it.

Consider one of the Kings/Royals’ potential new neighbors, the Clippers. L.A.’s “other” team has always struggled to fill its arena – whether the old Sports Arena or currently at the Staples Center. This past season, the Clips were 14th in the league in home attendance, but that can largely be attributed to Blake Griffin. Generally, they’ve languished in the NBA’s bottom third attendance-wise.

As the third team in the pool, the Kings/Royals would likely take over the Clippers’ spot at the bottom of the L.A. basketball hierarchy – offering a cheaper alternative to the Lakers and giving fans (especially in Orange County) more accessibility to see some of the NBA’s top teams and players. But in an era of satellite dishes and cable packages that allow fans to watch any game they choose, catching the Celtics when they come to town may not be the imperative it once was.

That would seem to put the onus on the team itself to become the draw. After the new team smell washes off of the Anaheim Royals, it’s not likely that fans will consistently come out to watch a team that’s mediocre or worse. Although with a foundation of Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings/Royals could turn into a consistent winner, but it will be a mountainous climb to win hearts and minds in Laker country.

Not surprisingly, the Lakers and Clippers have been opposed to this move from the start. The Lakers could reportedly lose in the area of $500 million from a blockbuster 25-year cable television deal if a third team comes to Los Angeles. Few around the league are going to weep over one of the NBA’s richest teams missing out on an ever bigger payday, but Phil Jackson recently raised an alternate concern with SI.com’s Sam Amick.

“It’s small markets vs. large markets,” he said. “Are the large markets willing to have another team move in and share their community? Chicago, New York City? [New York] is going to have a Brooklyn franchise now (starting in the 2012-13 season) instead of New Jersey. So that’s inside the subway system. Philadelphia, another major city, another sized city like that, or cities in big metropolitan areas. Dallas, Houston? So it has to affect the major cities that have a monopoly, the top 12 markets.” – Phil Jackson

If Anaheim gets the green light to welcome a team, it would put 16 teams in the nation’s top 12 markets, (Toronto would rank just between Houston and Detroit. Call it market number 10.5) leading you to wonder if the league is losing interest in sustaining mid-sized markets. Take a look at the league’s five smallest markets:

  • Milwaukee (#35)
  • San Antonio (#37)
  • Oklahoma City (#45)
  • Memphis (#48)
  • New Orleans (#52)

Of that group, only San Antonio could be considered an established success. Some of that owes to the good fortune of landing David Robinson and Tim Duncan in the draft. The jury is still out on Oklahoma City. They’ve just finished up their third season since leaving Seattle and have been blessed with young superstars. Whether fans can sustain that fervor when the inevitable decline happens remains to be seen.

The other three have struggled at the box office even though they’ve remained competitive on the floor. The Hornets were the worst of the lot financially and were purchased by the league in December. Moreover, billionaire Larry Ellison confirmed that he tried to buy the team while rumors swirled that he wanted to move them to San Jose – much to the chagrin of the Golden State Warriors.

Since no one around the league is seriously discussing contraction – ask LeBron James how well that went over when he mentioned it in December – does a move to Anaheim signal the start of a new NBA experiment? Could we see more under-performing franchises doubling (or tripling) up with teams in big cities? For David Stern and many around the league, they’re hoping three is the magic number.

But for much of Southern California, three is just a crowd.


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