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Could the Nuggets be moved out of Denver?

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With Rams / Nuggets / Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke moving his NFL franchise from St. Louis to Los Angeles, Nuggets fans are asking if the same thing could happen to their team some day.

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Nuggets owner* Stan Kroenke cheering on his favorite basketball team.
Nuggets owner* Stan Kroenke cheering on his favorite basketball team.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Ever since the NFL announced last week that the St. Louis Rams would be moving (back) to Los Angeles, many fans of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche have been asking me: could our teams be moved some day, too? It's a fair question considering that all three teams are ostensibly owned by the same person, real estate and sports mogul Stan Kroenke. I say ostensibly because in October last year NFL owners had to approve Kroenke keeping the Rams by moving his ownership of the Nuggets and Avalanche into a family trust as a means to get around the NFL's stupid rule that disallows ownership of professional sports teams in markets where an NFL team exists. (For example, Paul Allen can own the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers because, technically, the Blazers aren't in the same market as Seattle.) It should be noted that Kroenke's son Josh - a Denver resident - has been running the day-to-day operations of both the Nuggets and Avalanche for several years now, which I assume helped make the elder Kroenke's moving of the Denver teams into a trust more palatable to the NFL.

But before we dive into the reasons why I don't believe the Nuggets / Avalanche will be moved out of Denver, I want to make sure that anything written here isn't perceived as insensitive to St. Louis and its terrific sports fans. Because while Kroenke's Rams-move-to-Los Angeles is by most measures a great one from a business perspective - evident by the fact that Kroenke is privately funding the majority of the multi-billion dollar construction himself - it doesn't change the fact that whenever a small-ish market loses a professional sports franchise it is devastating from a cultural, community and economic perspective. It dims the soul of the losing city a bit, and as the fan of another small-ish market team we must always be sympathetic when a small-ish market city loses a team.

Back to whether or not the elder Kroenke would relocate our teams some day, while I'm not so naive to suggest that it would never happen in a world where the Seattle Supersonics can move to Oklahoma City and the Vancouver Grizzlies can become the Memphis Grizzlies (which really made zero sense since there are no grizzly bears in Tennessee!), I don't see it happening in my lifetime for several reasons outlined below. The first few being obvious to even the casual Nuggets or Avalanche fan and the final one being not-so-obvious but perhaps the most important of all reasons ... real estate development.

Reason #1 why the Nuggets / Avalanche won't be moved: "There is no Los Angeles of the NBA"

Last Wednesday on FM 104.3 The Fan, Sandy Clough - noting the Nuggets lead in NBA's worst attendance - posed the Nuggets / Avalanche relocation question to Benjamin Hochman, a columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who formerly covered the Nuggets and the Kroenkes for the Denver Post and has been extremely critical of the Rams moveClough asks Hochman the key question around the 9:35 mark in the interview and Hochman responds by essentially saying "there is no Los Angeles of the NBA" - i.e. no big / sexy market that doesn't have an NBA team. Moreover, even though the Rams resided in St. Louis for 21 years they were the Los Angeles Rams from 1946 to 1994 (having been the Cleveland Rams for just eight seasons prior) and have had plenty of old school Rams fans anxiously awaiting their return ever since.

As Hochman points out, there just isn't "a Los Angeles of the NBA". Not just for the reasons mentioned in the preceding paragraph but also on the metrics of putative NBA cities versus current cities alone. If you rank the top 30 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (or MSAs) in the United States, Denver comes out 23rd and only Seattle/Tacoma (15th), San Diego (17th), Tampa/St. Petersburg (18th), St. Louis - yes, St. Louis (19th) - and Baltimore (20th) rank ahead of Denver as large-ish MSAs without NBA teams. Digging deeper into those numbers, Denver doesn't get credit for Boulder and Broomfield's 360,000-plus people which would bring the Denver/Boulder MSA to over three million people. At three million-plus people, the Denver/Boulder MSA would be ranked ahead of all the aforementioned MSAs except Seattle and San Diego (throw in Fort Collins, Longmont and so on and Denver's MSA gets to well over three-and-a-half million people).

Seattle is currently, of course, the closest thing we have to the "Los Angeles of the NBA". Not only is Seattle the de facto capitol of the northwestern United States but it's an international, dynamic city that had an NBA team - those departed Supersonics - for 40 years. The most recent evidence of "the Seattle threat" was when the Sacramento Kings nearly sold out to an ownership group that would have relocated the franchise to Seattle before Sacramento Mayor - and former Phoenix Suns All-Star - Kevin Johnson stepped in and helped keep the Kings in California's state capitol.

But assuming for a moment that Seattle was a viable alternative to Denver, consider that both Denver and Seattle consistently rank high on the lists for best cities to live in, for starting a business, for having the most college graduates per capita, and so forth. More on that below in Denver's case. And lest we forget that both cities have legalized recreational marijuana. Always a plus when considering NBA team locations.

I wouldn't be shocked if the Oklahoma City Thunder moved back to Seattle some day, a la what just happened to St. Louis and the Rams. But I would be utterly shocked if our Nuggets were ever moved to Seattle, a place that the Kroenke family has no connection to whatsoever.

Reason #2 why the Nuggets / Avalanche won't be moved: Denver is getting bigger and bigger ... and better and better

Kroenke took a lot of heat from Hochman and others when their relocation application was leaked and in it was data referencing St. Louis' struggles as three-team market and other commentary referencing Oakland and San Diego as growth markets while "St. Louis is struggling." And while I can't blame a single St. Louis Rams fan or St. Louis-based sports fan / columnist for being furious with Kroenke for moving their football team, it doesn't change the fact that St. Louis is indeed struggling economically as compared to cities like Miami, Seattle, Denver, Charlotte, Portland and San Antonio - all of which seem to keep growing and growing.

As of 2014, Denver was out-pacing the national average for economic growth and Colorado was the second-fastest state for population growth between 2014 and 2015. Denver also features a top 10 busiest-in-US airport and a top 20 busiest-in-the-world airport and, along with Seattle, is routinely ranked as a top-10 city for people under 35 years old. Some have even projected that Denver could double in population over the next 20-40 years.

So even though Denver is the smallest US city to feature all five professional sports teams (with Kroenke's family owning three of them), the city and region's best days are clearly ahead of it which bodes well for all of those teams.

Reason #3 why the Nuggets / Avalanche won't be moved: It's all about real estate

When it was announced last June that Kroenke had joined forces with Revesco Properties to acquire Elitch Gardens' 67-acre site along the Platte River and adjacent to the Pepsi Center's 45-acre site (which Kroenke also owns, a good thing for concerned local fans), the first thing I thought was: this means the Nuggets and Avalanche are staying put ... forever. Most modern sports arenas and stadiums are surrounded by entertainment, retail, residential, hospitality and office development. The days of having a giant arena or stadium surrounded by a parking lot are over (and will be increasingly irrelevant with the advent of the driverless car, but more on that some other time). This is why going to LA Live before or after a Lakers or Clippers game in Los Angeles or spending time around the Air Canada Centre before or after a Raptors game in Toronto is so much fun. The Pepsi Center has never had this urban entertainment experience but someday will as the Elitch Gardens complex eventually gets redeveloped. Because even though Revesco CEO Rhys Duggan went on record saying that "there is no redevelopment plan" for the Elitch's site, I don't buy it.

For over a 100 years, Denver has done an inadequate job of developing around its greatest asset: the South Platte River. But that's starting to change. Those who have visited the redevelopment of Confluence Park and Commons Park in the Riverfront area of downtown Denver know exactly what I'm talking about. And those two examples are just the beginning. Inevitably, the land sitting under Elitch's will be too valuable for a low-density, parking-heavy amusement park to exist and the entire site will be redeveloped either around the existing Pepsi Center or whatever the "next Pepsi Center" is going to be (having opened in 1999, at some point the Pepsi Center will need to be completely remodeled or replaced). And have no fear, Elitch's fans, for I foresee your beloved amusement park being moved someday to Dick's Sporting Goods Park where Kroenke's Colorado Rapids Major League Soccer team competes.

Simply put, someday Kroenke can do with the NBA in Denver that's he'll be doing with the NFL in Inglewood, California: construct a world-class, mixed-use real estate development with professional sports entertainment as the anchor tenant.

To recap, the chances of the Nuggets or Avalanche leaving Denver for greener pastures elsewhere are so miniscule that Nuggets fans shouldn't be losing sleep over it. Not only does Kroenke's son Josh live in Denver, but the fact that "there is no Los Angeles of the NBA" combined with Denver's amazing upside (both economically and population-wise) combined with the real estate assemblage already in place for a massive redevelopment of the Pepsi Center and/or its surroundings means that our Nuggets should remain as the Denver Nuggets for the foreseeable future.

Other than Seattle, the only city that could pose a threat to any relocation-seeking NBA franchise might be London ... and we as Nuggets fans shouldn't forget that Kroenke has connections there with his ownership of the Arsenal English Premiere League franchise. But the NBA is a long, long, long ways away from expanding to Europe, a point emphasized again by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as recently as last week, and the key word there is "expansion" and not relocation.

Plus, the London Nuggets sounds about as non-sensical as the Memphis Grizzlies.