Not to sound glib, but despite a global pandemic affecting over a hundred million people, causing over 2.3 million deaths, and of far less importance, leading to billions in lost revenue to frivolities like sports leagues, owning an NBA team is still an appreciating investment. In Forbes’ annual valuations of the league’s 30 franchises (which are estimates), authors Kurt Badenhausen and Mike Ozanian believe that while less so than in recent years, team values still increased by 4% last year and that every team turned at least an 8-figure profit. Zero teams saw their value drop, while six maintained their previous valuation but didn’t grow.
Naturally, teams in the league’s premier markets are valued highest, sometimes despite long periods of underwhelming on-court products (hi, Chicago and New York) since there are more high-earning fans and massive corporations in these cities. Still, playing in one of North America’s largest metro areas doesn’t always equate with comparatively-high value.
But teams who don’t play in such a setting still become quite valuable relative to their market size, like the Bucks, who come in at 20th in Forbes’ rankings. That might sound underwhelming, but their $1.625 billion valuation is up 3% from last year’s $1.58 billion, even though they dropped a spot from 19th a year ago. Sportico even went as far as to value them 15th last month, exceeded only by Portland and San Antonio in terms of Davids, and notably ahead of Goliath-ish Denver, Detroit, Phoenix, and Atlanta.
20th is still several spots ahead of where their TV market ranks: Milwaukee is the 36th-ranked TV market nationally (behind several more populous areas without NBA teams like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Kansas City), making it the league’s 4th smallest.
While 3% might sound underwhelming since it’s a point below the league average, (especially since Milwaukee’s value grew 17% the year prior) it’s very solid for a small-market franchise in the pandemic world, considering that teams in smaller New Orleans, Memphis, and OKC didn’t improve at all. It’s actually a higher growth rate than the huge-market franchises in Dallas, Houston, and Toronto. It also exceeds the growth in mid-sized Atlanta, Orlando, and Detroit, plus still-larger Charlotte and Indiana, whose values were stagnant.
Here are the league’s ten smallest markets as defined by Nielsen, complete with their values, one year change, and operating incomes (rankings are to 28 with two franchises in New York in LA, of course):
If you prefer comparing teams based on their metro area’s populations, here are the same categories for the league’s smallest metropolitan statistical areas, as defined by 2019 US Census estimates:
Where the Bucks do lag behind their peers, and indeed almost all of the NBA, is in operating income. But even at $28 million, they still had a higher profit margin than three more valuable teams in bigger markets: the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Phoenix Suns (the league’s least-profitable franchise in the past year).
Still, Milwaukee is one of the NBA’s most valuable small-market teams, no matter how you slice it. Despite some notable missteps at the ownership level and falling short of postseason glory, they’re nearly at the level of oft-cited success stories like San Antonio and Utah. The Bucks’ value exceeds teams in a couple of small markets above them, and they’re actually more valuable than several teams not among the ten smallest media markets or metro areas: Minnesota, Detroit, Orlando, and Atlanta.
Economically speaking, you might call them a model small-market team that can stand up to some bigger boys. Hopefully, the Bucks can continually outperform them on the regular season and playoff hardwood too.