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Columbus Seeks NBA Franchise

By Zac Richardson -- May 18, 2012 6:03 PM EDT

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In a surprising and significant move for Ohio's largest city, and in news that could affect other markets in the Midwest as well as around the country, The Columbus Dispatch reports that Mayor Michael Coleman recently sent a letter to NBA Commissioner David Stern announcing his desire that Columbus be considered for an NBA franchise.

The development comes just a few months after the recently reelected Mayor struck a deal between various entities involving the city, county, state, and the Columbus Blue Jackets regarding the financing of Nationwide Arena. Funding stems from a complex arrangement including taxpayer money, state loans, earmarked revenue from still-under-construction casinos, corporate entities, and team and stadium ownership stakes-- and the Arena is also now co-managed by Ohio State University.

This cobbled-together setup is consistent for the short lifespan of Nationwide Arena, which opened in September of 2000. It is also reflective of the Blue Jackets tumultuous existence in Columbus, which includes the tragic death of a 13-year-old fan due to a deflected puck in 2002, only one postseason appearance in 12 years of existence, and increasing threats to relocate. The dynamic also suggests that the city may be on the small side to host competing arenas of a very similar size and age, with Ohio State's Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center (which opened in November of 1998) only about four miles north of Nationwide on the OSU campus.

Nevertheless, in exchange for the new financing arrangements, and at the risk of steep fines for opting out, the Blue Jackets will remain in Columbus until 2039 (in a show of appreciation from the league, Columbus will now be hosting the 2013 NHL All-Star Game). A significant motivation for keeping the team is the identity and viability of the Arena District-- an area that is also home to the Columbus Clippers' new Huntington Park, and which consists of bars, clubs, and condominiums on the northwest corner of downtown. Maintaining the attractiveness and financial health of the neighborhood is a key component to rebranding Columbus' business center as a whole-- ranging from multimillion dollar beautification projects in recent years, to the Arena District's role in helping infuse life into an otherwise "business hours" style downtown.

Suffice to say, the city, and its Mayor, are thus very committed to keeping the Blue Jackets around-- and to have Nationwide's main tenant vacate the Arena and its accompanying district would have significantly hurt this large scale and long-term development. Conversely, adding an occupant (even one with a largely overlapping schedule, as the NHL and NBA have) would provide another anchor to the neighborhood, offering a greater return on the city's controversial investment in the stadium.

Whether anything ultimately comes of the Mayor's overtures to the NBA remains to be seen. The Dispatch report noted that seven teams (the Charlotte Bobcats, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Utah Jazz) play in smaller metropolitan areas than Columbus. But at 1.9 million, Central Ohio would be the smallest to host both NBA and NHL franchises (Denver is currently the smallest, at 2.5 million-- but is able to sustain NFL and MLB teams, as well). The NBA has numerous teams facing attendance and/or stadium issues, however, so-- even though Commissioner Stern has indicated the league will not be expanding-- franchises emerging in new locations in the near future remains a strong possibility.

Potential candidates to move could include the dismal Bobcats-- now the second team to demonstrate that North Carolina fans seem more interested in college hoops than the pro game (skeptics might wonder the same about Columbus-- notorious for its Buckeye fanaticism). The current Hornets were the first team to leave Charlotte, and have long been a threat to again relocate from New Orleans (which would be the second team to leave this location, as well, following in the path of the Jazz). Their recent sale to Saints owner Tom Benson, however-- as well as with the 2014 All-Star Game set to be played in New Orleans-- suggests that the Hornets will be staying put for some time to come.

Other possibilities include the Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Pacers and Grizzlies (the latter two despite recent playoff success). The current leader in the clubhouse, though-- after a recent stadium deal fell through-- is the Sacramento Kings; an intriguing possibility, given the franchise's tenure from 1957-72 as the Cincinnati Royals.

But Columbus would have plenty of competition landing any of these teams, regardless of historical connections or geography-- and in some cases precisely because of geographic considerations. For example, if the Kings are to move, the most likely landing spots would be out West, either in Anaheim (team ownership has already made inquiries), Las Vegas (a long shot, especially after the fallout surrounding the 2007 All-Star game, but the Maloof family also owns the Palms Hotel and Casino), or Seattle, where efforts are being made to build a new stadium and lure a team back to town.

Anaheim and Seattle would be in the market for other potential movers, too, as would locations like Kansas City (home to the new, underutilized Sprint Center, and routinely seeking an NBA or NHL occupant), St. Louis (like Kansas City, with a pro basketball history - for better or for worse, having lost three teams in the past, and with significant sports infrastructure in place), and even potentially Chicago-- tapping into a large population and fan base, a la the Los Angeles and New York markets. Such considerations would likely meet resistance from Bulls ownership, however-- and a similar scenario exists for potential relocation to Anaheim, or even Columbus.

Ultimately, an NBA team coming to Columbus remains a long shot. The city is, at its core, a college town-- and, professionally-speaking, it has more AAA status (quite literally, as home to the Cleveland Indians' top affiliate) than professional cachet. Landing an NHL franchise that has been a bottom-feeder and needed a financial bailout does little to change this perception. But winning the Blue Jackets was a long shot as well, and the current Mayor has shown an extreme desire to keep the team in town and happy (perhaps even to a fault).

These are qualities that would likely be appealing to other team owners-- and so is Columbus being rated by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best places to do business, evidenced by the large number of corporate headquarters (five in the Fortune 500, 15 in the Fortune 1000). Combining this with one of the nation's biggest universities makes for a solid economic base, positioning Columbus as something of a rarity in these changing economic times-- a growing big city (currently 15th largest in the country). So if an NBA franchise is looking to quickly make a move and a splash, Central Ohio may not be the sexiest option. But if the goal is financial security, long-term stability, and a ready-made loyal fan following, then Columbus may indeed merit strong consideration in the years to come.

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