Is There a Chance the Grizzlies Could Come Back to Vancouver?

Eighteen years after the Vancouver Grizzlies were shipped to Memphis, there’s momentum in the city on the possible return of the NBA.

It was a moment that was easily missed and soon forgotten. During the closing statements of the first Vancouver mayoral debate, Fred Harding, a former West Vancouver police officer and candidate with Vancouver 1st, declared that, if elected, he would bring the NBA back to Vancouver.

The pronouncement was met with a handful of guffaws and a general sense of “Sure you will, bud,” but Harding pressed on, convinced that the return of professional basketball to Vancouver is plausible.

Harding would eventually come sixth in the election. But his pledge to bring professional basketball back to Vancouver—the Grizzlies operated from 1995 to 2001 in General Motors Place (since changed to Rogers Arena) before moving to Memphis due to a lack of revenue, among other factors—isn’t without its supporters.

Indeed, a couple of weeks later, two events on consecutive nights would seem to indicate that perhaps Harding wasn’t so off base.

The first saw the return of the NBA to Vancouver, if only for one night. The Toronto Raptors played the Portland Trail Blazers at a packed-to-the-rafters Rogers Arena on September 29, the first contest for newly minted Raptor Kawhi Leonard. While the Canucks routinely fill the barn, it’s fair to say that it had been a while since Rogers felt the kind of buzz that was delivered that night.

The enthusiastic turnout makes it clear that there’s a large contingent of Vancouver sports fans who feel unrepresented by the current options in the market, a point that was further hammered home by another sold-out event the next evening, this one at the Vancouver Playhouse.

A Grizzlies fan for life, 30-year-old Vancouverite Kat Jayme turned to filmmaking after her dreams of pro basketball didn’t work out. Her Finding Big Country—about life after the sport for the Grizzlies’ first-ever draft pick, Bryant “Big Country” Reeves—debuted at the Vancouver Film Festival to a theatre stuffed with teal-covered fans (the team’s oh-so-1997 colour scheme of choice). After a post-screening standing ovation, the filmmaker hosted a Q&A in which she expressed the need to see professional basketball return to the city. “We’re starting a movement and we’re going to bring the Grizzlies back,” exclaimed Jayme, who has announced plans to do another documentary on the team. 

Finding Big Country rode a wave of momentum after its debut, adding an extra screening after the first two sold out (the third did as well), and winning the festival’s People’s Choice Award.

So the fan base appears to be there. Whether the demographic will remain underserved is another question.

The Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the Vancouver Canucks (and Rogers Arena), has recently expanded its sport offerings, which could suggest similar moves in the future. The company purchased the Vancouver Stealth lacrosse team this past summer (moving the team from Langley to Rogers and rebranding it as the Vancouver Warriors) and, in an October interview with Sportsnet 650, managing director Francesco Aquilini was asked whether an NBA team was on his radar as well.

“There have been some discussions on it,” Aquilini said. “It’s obvious because we’ve got a building, it’s plug and play. We still have the hoops. We still have the floor. Everything’s there. The locker room and everything is there. We’ve discussed it.”

But he also added that the current price of an NBA franchise is rather off-putting: “Right now the entry cost is prohibitive, because it’s up to two billion . Five years ago it was like $300 million, $350 million.”

Forbes estimated in 2017 that the Canucks, one of the NHL’s most popular franchises, bring in revenue of about $156 million (U.S.) a year. A year later, the publication approximated that the average NBA team rakes in around $246 million (U.S.).

The Canadian Elite Basketball League, formed in 2017, and its Fraser Valley Bandits—who call the Abbotsford Centre home—will bring the sport to B.C. in May. It’s a start, and if the team is able to draw crowds to Vancouver’s suburbs, it would only bode well for a potential NBA return.