The Canucks may be out of the playoffs, but it may be a busy offseason for owner Francesco Aquilini. Kevin Nesgoda of Bleacher Report writes that rumours are swirling in Indiana regarding Aquilini's potential interest in purchasing the NBA's Pacers and relocating them to Vancouver. Nesgoda's initial report has been cited by some politically connected sites in the area, including Capitol Watchblog and Howey Politics, and the B.C. media are starting to look into it as well; Don Taylor mentioned the idea on Sportsnet Connected's Pacific edition a few minutes ago.
At first, this seems like a somewhat implausible rumour, but upon further reflection, it makes a lot of sense. First off, the NBA was not entirely a failure in Vancouver the first time around. Attendance was bad, but much of that was due to poor on-court performance by the team and ineptitude on the part of the management. The team also wasn't really given much time; they were only in Vancouver for six years, and it's tough to build support from scratch for a new professional sport in that amount of time, especially when you're starting with a horrible expansion team. Look at how things looked for the Raptors back around 2001 compared to their outlook today.
Moreover, since the Grizzlies left in 2001, basketball's become much more prominent in the Lower Mainland. Part of that's due to demographic changes and increased grassroots support. A lot of it's due to Steve Nash becoming a two-time MVP and one of the game's top stars; Nash, now a co-owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps, frequently makes return visits to his home province to play charity games with other NBA stars (which are often packed), host training camps and clinics and build his Steve Nash Youth Basketball program, which has quickly become the most prominent program for young players throughout their school years and is endorsed by Basketball BC and Canada Basketball. Nash has got a lot of people out west interested in hoops, particularly those from younger demographics, and he's built a strong infrastructure of youth clubs that a professional team could reach out to. That's proven key in selling big-time soccer in the province, and it could be significant for selling pro basketball.
This also makes sense on a geographic level. Ever since the Seattle Supersonics left last summer, the NBA has been very unexposed in the Pacific Northwest. Their lone franchise in the area is Portland, which is helpful, but is significantly smaller than either Vancouver or Seattle and too far (a six-hour drive) to make for easy travel from Vancouver. Plenty of Canadian hoops fans used to head down to Seattle (a two-and-a-half to three-hour drive) for Sonics games and then drive back in the same night; you can't do that with Portland. Metro Vancouver has 2.1 million people and Metropolitan Seattle has 3.2 million people; that's a sizable population base to write off entirely, so you have to think that the NBA is considering returning to at least one city and possibly both.
Now, consider both cities. I would dearly love to see another team in Seattle, but it's looking very grim at the moment [Brian Robinson, Sonics Central - in a related note, I spoke with Steven Pyeatt last summer, who co-founded Save Our Sonics with Robinson]. The NBA is very unhappy with KeyArena, as I found out during my time covering the team's relocation trial last summer. They're not going back to Seattle without extensive renovations to that building or a new building. The latter has never seemed too likely. Renovations seemed possible, particularly under the Steve Ballmer group, but Robinson reports that the state legislature appears as unwilling as ever to consider funding part of the project even during this era of stimulus projects. As he writes, no one even appears interested in working with the Ballmer group:
"Nobody should accuse Ballmer of not doing his part. That ownership group made an absolute flurry of personal appeals throughout the state. Guess what? Nobody cares. I have never seen such a callous disregard for business leaders than we have in this state."
Throw in the general distaste about the way the team left Seattle, and that situation certainly doesn't appear particularly promising. Miracles can happen, but one might be needed to get a NBA franchise to return to Seattle in the near future.
Vancouver is a much more promising situation. For one, NBA commissioner David Stern told ESPN's Bill Simmons [via Henry Abbott of TrueHoop] that having the Grizzlies leave Vancouver was his biggest regret from his tenure so far [Noah Love, The National Post]. "I wish we hadn't had the Vancouver experience," he said. "Great city, and we disappointed them and we disappointed ourselves." Now, of course, Stern followed up by saying "I don't think we can go back," but take that with a grain of salt; I have a hard time believing that Stern would ever completely rule out returning to a city if the circumstances are right. In any case, that's certainly more positive than his recent comments about Seattle. As Neate Sager pointed out in the aftermath of the Simmons interview, there's every reason to believe Vancouver could have worked for the NBA, which explains perhaps why Stern was waxing nostalgic for the Grizzlies:
"The Grizzlies caught every bad break possible during their six-year run -- you know the whole litany with Bryant Reeves, Stevie Franchise Killer and a 63-cent Canadian dollar. However, looking at the fact the Raptors were recently valued at more than $400 million US by Forbes magazine, you can only wonder what could have been in Vancouver."
Another huge point in Vancouver's favour is the ownership. Aquilini is a very wealthy man and has done well with the Canucks so far. About the only tarnish on his reputation is the court fight [Ian Mulgrew, The Vancouver Sun] with Tom Gaglardi over how the Canucks deal went down, but he came out on top and with his good name largely intact. Aquilini isn't a Jim Balsillie-esque renegade or a blogging/feuding/tweeting maverick like Mark Cuban; he's a respected businessman who tends to play by the rules. I can't see Stern having a big problem with him wanting to join the club.
Something else that helps this idea is the facilities. Yes, General Motors Place isn't the newest facility in the world, but it's been extensively renovated since its 1995 construction and makes tons of money for the Canucks. It's owned and operated by the Canucks and Aquilini, so no burdensome lease would be required, and it's already chock-full of premium suites and has more on the way, including a swanky all-inclusive club [Nucks Misconduct]. Moreover, NHL teams and NBA teams tend to be very good fits together; the seasons are roughly the same length and take place over the same period, and the leagues have worked out scheduling to accommodate each other quite nicely. GM Place might need some minor alterations to host NBA basketball, but I doubt they'd be too severe. From that perspective, Vancouver's probably right up there with Kansas City in terms of ready-to-go facilities for a prospective NBA team.
Finally, consider the economic factors involved. The NBA has been hit hard by the downturn so far and cut 80 league jobs last year [Jon Saraceno, USA Today]. Plenty of franchises are suffering, including the Detroit Pistons, who merited a bad-news finance story on the league's own website, and the New Orleans Hornets, who traded Tyson Chandler for a few bags of money, hurting their own playoff chances in the process [Mark Fightmaster, bloggingstocks.com]. It looks like Simmons' apocalyptic predictions of the No Benjamins Association may be coming home to roost.
Specifically, the Pacers appear to be in trouble. Pat Early, the team board's vice president, said the franchise could lose $30 million this year [AP via ESPN]. They're trying to renegotiate their lease and at the moment say they have no intention of leaving, so the Vancouver rumour could all be a clever leak for leverage or even less than that. However, keep in mind that we've heard that song before from a certain owner while he was in the middle of planning to hijack a team to a new city. This is only a vague and far-off rumour at the moment, but it does make a lot of sense. Expect Vancouver to get some consideration as a NBA market in the future. That may or may not be for a relocation of the Pacers, but there are plenty of other troubled franchises that could come knocking. The Grizzlies may roar again.