By Austin Tymins
When the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, one of the best media markets in the country was left without an NBA franchise. This was a surprising move, because of both the controversy surrounding the negotiations and the long history of the SuperSonics in Seattle. Is Seattle really the most deserving market for an NBA team, and if so, which teams should consider moving?
I am going to try to determine which metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada are best suited for an NBA franchise. Nate Silver used a similar method to rank plausible areas for NFL expansion, and I’ll build off of that framework. To do this, I used metro area populations compiled by Demographia. While this is a good place to start, I want to get a better sense of the number of NBA fans in a metro area by looking at the number of Google searches in a given area for “NBA”.
This type of analysis relies on the idea that the popularity of an NBA franchise in a given area is strongly correlated with the number of Google searches for the NBA. Google Trends gives us historical search data, and I’ve chosen to look at all data since 2004. In addition, Scarborough Sports Marketing’s estimate that 9% of all Americans are “avid” NBA fans gives us a baseline that we can work off of to estimate the number of fans in an area.
One problem with using Google search data is that teams experiencing recent success will have inflated numbers while struggling teams will appear artificially lower. For example, Miami and San Antonio have a very large estimated fan percentage, but these numbers would almost certainly decline if these teams started performing like the Milwaukee Bucks. There is obviously bias associated with winning a combined 6 NBA championships in the last decade – however, this bias shouldn’t really affect areas currently without a team.
Below is the table showing the largest NBA markets by my estimation:
And here are the least deserving markets for an NBA team that currently have a franchise:
Besides Seattle, the other top three most deserving areas are San Diego, which lost its team when former owner Donald Sterling moved the team to Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Vegas has high levels of NBA interest and is a relatively large market, however, the NBA likely fears the potentially devastating effects of sports gambling in close proximity to a major sports franchise (see Tim Donaghy refereeing scandal).