In the course of discussing the future prospects for the NBA’s return to Seattle, Chris Mannix of The Vertical reported Wednesday that league sources have said “Mexico City is gaining some momentum” as a potential site for a new NBA franchise. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver this summer termed expansion “inevitable,” but has also said that the NBA’s not looking to go that route just yet.
The G League, though? They’re ready for a new team … and, as Marc Stein of the New York Times reported Thursday, Mexico City’s ready to host it.
The National Basketball Association intends to move quickly to put an N.B.A. G League franchise here in the Mexican capital, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday.
“Mexico is a flourishing basketball market with growing fan interest and increased youth participation,” Silver said. “We are actively engaged in discussions to establish an N.B.A. G League franchise in Mexico City.”
A team in the G League, which serves as the N.B.A.’s official minor league, would be owned and operated locally and potentially begin play as early as next season, although a specific timetable is not yet official.
In conjunction with the first of two N.B.A. regular season games here this week, Silver was in Mexico City on Thursday meeting with local parties interested in owning the franchise.
Establishing a G League franchise on Mexican soil would be the latest serious step by the N.B.A. in its efforts to gain a foothold in Mexico and gauge the viability of putting an N.B.A. team in the largest market in Latin America.
The NBA has been building a presence in Mexico City for 25 years, with the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets squaring off in October of 1992 in the league’s first game in Latin America. The NBA hosted an annual preseason tournament in Mexico, called “The NBA Challenge,” from 1994 through 1996, and has played a bunch of regular-season games in Mexico City over the years. (Or, at least, tried to.)
Last season marked the first time that the NBA played multiple regular-season games in Mexico City in a single campaign, with the Phoenix Suns playing the Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs back in January. That practice will continue this week, with the Brooklyn Nets set to “host” the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday and the Miami Heat on Sunday at Mexico City Arena, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first regular-season game in Mexico, a Dec. 6, 1997, affair between the Rockets and Mavs.
Silver — who has previously identified Mexico City as “a market we’re particularly focused on”— made it clear during the Suns’ “homestand” that he was seriously considering planting a more permanent flag there, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com:
“In terms of a franchise in Mexico City, it’s something that we’re going to look at,” Silver said. “This is a competitive market, well over 20 million people. While we have no immediate plans to expand the NBA, one of the things that we look at is whether expanding would be additive to the league as a whole. Clearly coming to Mexico City just because of the huge population here in Mexico but in essence as a gateway to the rest of Latin America could potentially be very important to the league. You clearly have a beautiful state-of-the-art arena here, and you can tell by ticket sales that we have the interest. So that’s something that we will continue to look at.”
ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported last month that the NBA would further entrench itself in the market by establishing a “new basketball development and training academy in Mexico City […] in conjunction with CONADE [Mexico’s National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport] and the Mexican Basketball Federation.” The league-funded academy — similar to ones already running in China, Senegal, India and Australia — would reportedly give Mexican teenagers “NBA-level coaching, facilities and competition, while also stressing educational development,” with the ultimate goal of “expand[ing] the league’s pool of potential players to add to teams’ rosters, while also improving the basketball culture in those areas.”
“Down the road,” Givony reported, “Mexico City could emerge as the 31st G League franchise, where prospects from the seven academies graduate up to, according to sources. They would have an opportunity to play competitive games against pro competition, which should accelerate their development.”
The NBA has toyed with the idea of placing franchises outside North America for years. Former commissioner David Stern said in 2013 he “for sure” expected multiple NBA franchises to be located in Europe within 20 years’ time. In 2015, Silver reiterated the league’s interest in seizing “an opportunity to bring NBA basketball to Europe on a permanent basis,” saying that while “we have a long way to go before we can sustain four franchises in Europe […] I believe it’s our manifest destiny to expand.”
But there are many logistical problems with implementing European expansion. The league would have to set up massive organizational infrastructures to effectively function so far removed from the NBA’s day-to-day operations, adding even more travel — and, with it, more player fatigue, which has developed over the years into such a sticking point among players, media members, academic researchers, and teams that the NBA has changed its schedule — it has seemed more reasonable to look to comparatively nearby Mexico City as the NBA’s next international play.
“I would love a team down here. I think it would really help the sport,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said earlier this year. ”I would like to come back with the Mavericks, and every time that the NBA asks, we would love to be here.”
What the establishment of a G League team might mean for its top-flight chances remains unclear. Stein reported that Silver continues “stressing that his league is not actively pursuing expansion or relocation for any of its 30 current franchises.” If and when the NBA does turn its attention that way, several North American cities — most notably Seattle, but also Louisville, Vancouver, Kansas City and Las Vegas, among others — would also be in line.
Even so, Silver has maintained that he’s more interested in pursuing other avenues to increase the size of the NBA’s footprint in Mexico than anything else. When the league does wind up looking to bump up from 30 teams to 32, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against one of those two new franchises operating south of the border.
“Just as we’ve had enormous success in Canada with the [Toronto] Raptors, we do see enormous opportunity in Mexico City and think it could become the franchise for Latin America,” Silver told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports back in October. “Mexico City is a city with over 20 million people, a country of 130 million people, and a huge Mexican American population […] It’s something we’ll continue to keep eye on.”
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