ST. LOUIS, Jan. 20 -- Discount department store magnate Bill Laurie Thursday terminated his agreement to buy the Vancouver Grizzlies, citing difficulties and obstacles in his goal to move the NBA team to his hometown.
In October, Laurie was very close to buying the Grizzlies from Orca Bay chairman John McCaw and moving the team to St. Louis. But the deal provided a two-year window for Vancouver's fans to prevent relocation by showing their support. The NBA's finance committee felt that time frame was not long enough and tabled a vote on the sale agreement by the Board of Governors.
Discussions between Laurie and McCaw broke down last week, when Orca Bay reportedly threatened Laurie with a multi-million dollar fine should he pull out of the agreement.
"When we signed the contract with John McCaw in September 1999, it provided that we would relocate the team to St. Louis," said Laurie, chairman of the Wal-Mart chain. "Unfortunately, we have encountered a number of hurdles in our effort to complete the transaction.
"Many of these hurdles are very complex and tied to the NBA's desire to give the fans in Vancouver an adequate opportunity to demonstrate their support for the Grizzlies."
The Grizzlies are averaging 13,298 fans per game at GM Place, the third-lowest total in the league. Through 19 home dates, their attendance is 19 percent lower than last season.
Despite the drastic dropoff, the NBA wanted to give more time -- perhaps as much as five years -- to the Grizzlies, who are last in the Midwest Division with a 10-27 record.
"While we have a different view from the NBA of the suitability of the Vancouver market for NBA basketball, we respect the NBA's viewpoint," Laurie said. "As a result, this week we dissolved our agreement with McCaw to purchase the Grizzlies. Therefore, the Vancouver franchise is no longer an option for St. Louis."
Laurie was quick to point out that he is not giving up on bringing an NBA team to St. Louis.
"One of our goals has always been to bring an NBA basketball franchise to the sports fans of the St. Louis area," he said. "That remains our objective and we intend to explore all options, including the possibility of securing an NBA expansion franchise for St. Louis."
Commissioner David Stern repeatedly has said that the league has no immediate plans for expansion. However, relocation of existing franchises remains an issue. In November, an arena referendum failed in Houston, leading to speculation that the Rockets would be on the move in the near future.
This is the second NBA setback for Laurie, who already owns the NHL's St. Louis Blues and the Kiel Center. An agreement to purchase the Denver Nuggets also fell through.
St. Louis has not had an NBA team since the Hawks departed for Atlanta in 1968. The Spirits of St. Louis played in the ABA, but were disbanded when four of the league's seven teams were absorbed into the NBA in 1976.