The Kansas City Kings, an NBA team, skipped town for Sacramento in 1985. The St. Louis Hawks had done the same thing for Atlanta in 1968. The Spirits of St. Louis were one of only two active teams to not survive the ABA-NBA merger of 1976.
Missouri, it seems, is where professional basketball teams go to die. Or at least, they fail to live.
What’s changing: If there was ever a time Missouri could support an NBA team, it’s now. Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the country, home to the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals and Blues.
Relatively, though, the professional sports market in Missouri was cleared up — leaving opportunity behind:
- In St. Louis: The Los Angeles Rams jumped ship a few years ago, a move that skyrocketed the team’s value. St. Louis’ old soccer team, the Stars, moved to California and changed their name in 1977.
- In Kansas City: The Kings, of course, are gone and the Kansas City Scouts — an NHL team from the 1970s — lasted just two seasons in Missouri before bolting.
- The Market: Kansas City was the No. 3 market for college basketball regular season ratings in 2017, where the market has ranked in the top-five annually for much of the last decade.
It’s unclear how the market may transfer to a local NBA team, but the Kansas City area could be a tinder box waiting for an NBA spark.
Why they left: Each franchise that has bailed on Missouri in the last four decades has generally done it for one reason: Missouri bailed on it first. Professional sports franchises are often staples in their communities like the Chiefs are in Kansas City, but teams like the Kings and the Hawks never enjoyed that luxury in Missouri.
- Taking flight: When the Hawks got to St. Louis in 1955, Major League Baseball’s Cardinals were the only other professional sports team in town. That changed over the next 13 years, and the Hawks’ attendance dropped. They played playoff games in front of roughly 5,000 people in 1967, and ultimately, owner Ben Kerner sold the team.
- Heading west: After the Kansas City Kings were sold to an ownership group in 1983, General Manager Joe Axelson said repeatedly that the team would stay in KC. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Why? “I have a great feeling for the city, but Kansas City didn’t support us — for whatever reason,” Axelson said.
- Going home: The Rams were quietly planning their move out of St. Louis months before it became official, and the team laid out why in a 29-page relocation application. Over the course of the application, the Rams cited an inadequate Edward Jones Dome and lack of fan support as chief reasons for their departure.
Why this could work: Beyond the Rams, the last major sports franchise to bail on Missouri did so in the 1980s. The atmosphere is much different now, and the teams in place have been supported for the most part. This isn’t 1985. When the NBA looks to expand, it should look to Missouri.
- Support: Despite the results from the mid-1900s, Missouri would be all-in on an an NBA franchise. Richard Chaifetz, a billionaire from St. Louis, said earlier this year that he would support an NBA franchise in the city.
- Expansion: Perhaps the easiest way for Missouri to acquire a team would be via league expansion. Last July, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the prospect of expansion would be inevtiable, giving hope to Missourians.
- Location: Most expansion talk has revolved around Seattle, but the entry of one more team into the Association would be nonsensical as it would leave an uneven number. Enter Kansas City. The Sprint Center is an NBA-ready facility already in downtown K.C., and some league execs have called the city a lock for an expansion team.
Final thoughts: An NBA team isn’t going to instantly become the most popular team in town in either Kansas City or St. Louis. Even Sporting KC, one of the MLS’s most successful teams, is only the third most popular team in the city. Kansas City’s citizens live and breathe Chiefs, and the same goes for St. Louis and the Cardinals.
But make no mistake, an NBA team in either market would succeed. Particularly in Kansas City, where fans fill the Spring Center every March for NCAA basketball, the fans will embrace an NBA team. They just need a chance.