The NBA is perhaps the second-most international league in major North American sports, right after baseball. Baseball is popular in both East Asia and Central/South America, football is really only played in the 50 states, the MLS is a minor league compared to the European giants and doesn’t even register on most American’s radar, and hockey is limited to the northernmost sections of the continent, as well as Russia and Scandinavia. The NBA has real reach in Canada, Europe, Australia, China, and, recently, Africa.
That being said, only the larger markets really benefit from the international audience. No one in Greece is tuning in for a Pelicans and Timberwolves matchup. The big market teams really do have the most influence, and it shows.
What constitutes a small market team in the NBA?
I’m defining a “small market” as teams with smaller TV markets, metro areas, and cities with only one professional sports team. The Pistons count because the Motor City is smaller than the bigger markets, and the Spurs have a surprisingly large presence, but they’re San Antonio’s only pro sports team, so they make the cut.
Half the NBA teams play in a small market. The Wolves, Pistons, Nuggets, Magic, Cavs, Kings, Blazers, Hornets, Pacers, Jazz, Spurs, Bucks, Thunder, Pelicans, and Grizzlies all make the cut. The Heat only reach 1.7 million people on TV, which is lower than the Magic, Nuggets, Pistons, and Wolves, but the Miami metro area is massive and they play alongside the Marlins, Dolphins, and Panthers, so they don’t qualify.
Of the 76 NBA Finals, a small market team has only won 15, and that’s including Seattle, Baltimore, and Rochester. I guess size does matter. Eight of those wins come from Detroit and San Antonio. Five of the six teams to never make the Finals are small market teams. Woe to the Clippers!
With half of the league falling into the category of small market franchises, it only makes sense to rank this second tier of NBA basketball based on historical success. For the sake of this list, I will only rank them based on their current areas of play. So the Kings played in Rochester, NY, Cincinnati, and Kansas City before they settled in Sacramento. The Thunder used to play in Seattle, but that’s a big market. Same with the Minneapolis Lakers. They don’t count, because now they play in the second largest media market in the world.