For the first time since 2004, the NBA has seriously considered the possibility of expansion. The expansion fees would net the league at least $300 million for each new team, a quick fix for the millions of dollars of revenue lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seattle and Las Vegas, the same two cities recently granted new NHL teams, are the most likely targets, while Mexico City has also been rumored as a candidate.
While Seattle is a no-brainer for possible expansion, another former NBA city — St. Louis, Mo. has been mostly ignored despite its multiple selling points.
The history of basketball in St. Louis
It may be hard to wrap your head around, but St. Louis has a prominent place in the early history of the NBA.
Led by two-time NBA MVP Bob Pettit, the St. Louis Hawks reached four NBA Finals in a five-year stretch from 1957-1961. All four of those series took place against the mighty Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, they upset the Celtics in six games for what is still the only NBA championship for both the city and the franchise. A decade later, the Hawks left for Atlanta.
Pro basketball returned to St. Louis with the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis in 1974. Despite a colorful history outlined in the 30 for 30 short Free Spirits, this team was not a success and did not survive the NBA/ABA merger in 1976.
Despite the loss of both the Hawks and the Spirits, the NBA does maintain some tenuous ties to the city. Two NBA stars, the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and the Wizards’ Bradley Beal, were both born in St. Louis and attended Chaminade Preparatory School in Creve Coeur just west of the city.
The state of the sports market in St. Louis
St. Louis is one of the only cities to have lost not one, but two NFL franchises. Since the Rams packed up and left for Los Angeles in 2016, however, the city has gained so much more. In the seven years since the Rams’ departure, St. Louis has hosted both the NHL’s Winter Classic and All-Star Game, and in 2019, the city was awarded an MLS expansion team set to begin play in 2023.
It has also gained — then lost, then possibly regained — an XFL team, the BattleHawks, who consistently led the league in attendance, television ratings, and social media followers at the time of the league’s shutdown. The St. Louis Cardinals also rank at or near the top of Major League Baseball in local television ratings, according to the Sports Business Journal.
Clearly the market for an NBA team exists if so many other teams in the area can find ways to succeed.
Could a St. Louis NBA team work in the 2020s?
At least one businessman in the area has already expressed interest in owning a St. Louis NBA franchise. In 2019, local billionaire Richard Chaifetz told the St. Louis Business Journal, “I’d love to be involved with a team in St. Louis in the NBA. It’d be great for the city.”
A suitable arena is of no concern. St. Louis already has the Enterprise Center, home of the St. Louis Blues. Although it is normally a hockey arena, it does have a regular basketball configuration with seating for 22,000 – plenty for an NBA team.
Assuming this St. Louis NBA team were placed in the Eastern Conference, they would have at least two natural geographical rivalries with the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. The team could also draw on historical rivalries with both the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks, the team that used to call St. Louis home.
Enterprise Center has hosted NBA preseason games in the past, most recently in 2014. Most of these games have involved the closest team to St. Louis, the Chicago Bulls, who maintain a passionate fanbase in the area. A 2013 game between the Bulls and Grizzlies drew 13,497 — just over half capacity, but still an impressive amount for a preseason game involving two teams not from the city.
At that game, the Riverfront Times asked attendees what they would do for St. Louis to acquire an NBA team. At least two fans said they would “give up the Rams,” a gesture which is obviously no longer necessary.