Lets make no mistake about it: Buffalo is a hockey town, but the Queen City has had a rich history of basketball both in the professional ranks, and at the collegiate level. And with such a rich history, there hasn't been much in the way of a professional basketball team around for quite some time. But, with Adam Silver, the new NBA commissioner, having a pet project to expand the NBA D-League to each team having it's own affiliate, there may be a chance for the Association to make a return to the Buffalo-Niagara area. So to determine the feasibility of a team coming to Buffalo we'll need to look at several different factors:
A Parent Team
Of the 18 teams in the D-League, 15 are owned by one NBA parent team, while the final three teams are shared by the remaining 15 NBA franchises. The remaining 15 franchises without their own single affiliate are: Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors, and Utah Jazz; This is not counting any purchases made that will take effect during the 2014-2015 season. One of the more notable names on the list, and the team I'll focus on is the Toronto Raptors. The Toronto Raptors are owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the same conglomerate that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is supposedly looking to buy and move the Buffalo Bills. Rogers Communications already owns the Toronto Blue Jays, has a 37.5% ownership stake in MLSE, and has 3 members on the MLSE Board of Directors, so it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that they would move the Raptors' minor league affiliate to Buffalo where the Blue Jays' minor league affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons already reside.
The Raptors make the most sense given their geographic proximity to Buffalo, and ties to the region with the Bisons through Rogers Communications. Many NBA teams have their D-League affiliates nearby, such as the Tulsa 66er's, the affiliate for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Austin Toros, the affiliate for the San Antonio Spurs, so Buffalo makes the most logical sense if the Raptors wanted to keep their affiliate nearby.
Location, Location, Location
So now that we have a parent team, where does the new Buffalo team play its games? The first venue to jump into my mind is the First Niagara Center (FNC), home of the Buffalo Sabres. This past March the FNC hosted the NCAA basketball tournament for the fifth time since the year 2000. The FNC has a basketball seating capacity of approximately 19,200 fans, which would make it the largest arena in use in the D-League, with over 3,000 more seats than the Wells Fargo Arena used by the Iowa Energy. The issue with using the FNC is scheduling conflicts with the Buffalo Sabres; the D-League regular season runs from November through the playoff finals which usually conclude in Mid-April, which is peak hockey season. However, MLSE has experience scheduling around basketball and hockey season as the Raptors and Maple Leafs share the Air Canada Centre. Another issue with the FNC would be attendance, the average attendance to a D-League basketball game is between 2,000-4,000 fans, with the Texas Legends having the highest average attendance with 5,737 fans. So, would it be worth it to operate the arena for the basketball team if there won't be a large fan turnout to fill the stands? I'm not sure what the daily operating costs are for the arena, but common sense says that filling a 19,200 seat arena to about 30% capacity won't bring in a large profit.
A secondary location that could be used is Alumni Arena on UB's North Campus. Entering into a financial partnership with the D-League and MLSE would provide a lot of needed capital for Danny White's projects and facilities upgrade plans. A partnership would also be mutually beneficial if MLSE were to agree to broadcast UB games in the Toronto area, giving UB a strong foothold in the region.
Again, just like with the FNC, scheduling would be an issue, but, there are fewer basketball games and wrestling matches at Alumni than hockey games at FNC, making scheduling a tad easier. Alumni Arena has a capacity of around 6,100 fans, which puts it on par with many of the other D-League arenas making it more viable than the FNC if the team averages 2,000-4,000 fans a night. Finally, with an NBA presence in Buffalo, it would allow for UB basketball players to get up close and personal with NBA coaches and staff, and UB could become a pipeline for the D-League team.
Being in Buffalo would also give the D-League team a central location in the Eastern Conference, and a built in rivalry with the nearby Erie Bayhawks, and the newly forming Westchester Knicks.
Western New York has been without an NBA presence since 1978 when the Buffalo Braves packed up and left for San Diego to become the Clippers. So, if Buffalonians wanted to see a professional team they would need to drive the approximately 2 hours (usually at lot longer depending on how traffic is on the border) to Toronto to see a Raptors game, or drive 3 hours to Cleveland to see a Cavaliers game, which I'm willing to bet most people would rather watch a Big 4 basketball game instead.
As of 2013 estimates the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area has roughly 1,134,115 permanent residents, which means the D-League team would be in the fourth largest market, behind the Tulsa 66er's playing in Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles D-Fenders, playing in El Segundo (Part of LA metro area) and the Austin Toros playing in Cedar Park (an Austin suburb). There is plenty of potential to spread the fanbase into lower Ontario and further into WNY towards the Rochester area.
The biggest issue is, like I said above, is that Buffalo is a hockey town, and most WNYer's have grown up without a professional basketball team around and it may be hard to get people to go to games due to conflicts with other sports or a lack of interest in the team.
If a fanbase was able to be cultivated, Buffalo sports fans are some of the most passionate in the country and would provide a loyal following to the team.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's plans to expand the D-League to 30 teams could positively impact the Buffalo area. While I'm sure Bills fans will scoff at the idea of MLSE investing in a team in minor league team in Buffalo when there are rumors circulating that they want to buy the Bills and move them to Toronto, MLSE's financial backing of a basketball team could help rejuvinate NBA interest in the Queen City and spur a burgeoning sector of the Buffalo sports market.
A team in Buffalo would also benefit UB, both in corporate partnerships, and acting as a pipeline for UB basketball players to make their way into the Association.
Obviously there are plenty of logistical issues that I didn't touch on or cover because they are too complex for me to detail, but, the pieces are in place in Buffalo that if an NBA team wanted to create an expansion franchise and base it here, it has the potential to blossom into one of the more successful D-League franchises.
So what are your thoughts? Can a a D-League team thrive in Buffalo? Sound off in the comments below.