Professional Sports Relocation (The Raiders are Moving to Las Vegas) – Day 44

In 2001, Major League Baseball owners decided in a 28-2 vote for contraction: the elimination of two struggling franchises in the face of major financial losses to those teams and to the MLB. Those teams were the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos. One week later, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission (in possibly the best thing they ever did for professional sports in Minnesota) won a suit against the MLB stating that the Twins were required to play out their lease at the Metrodome, which would be up at the end of 2002. After a new labor agreement between owners and players in August 2002 and a playoff run for the Twins, contraction discussions were dropped from the table. Three years later, the Expos moved to Washington, D.C., and became the Nationals. One year after that, the Twins and Hennepin county reached an agreement to build a new baseball stadium in downtown Minneapolis.

………………………

As a Minnesota pro sports fan, I am familiar with the near or actual loss of teams from my state. I remember the near loss of the Twins in 2001. At a time when Budweiser’s ad campaign was “This Bud’s For You,” I remember someone with a sign at a Twins’ game that said “This Bud’s not for you” with a picture of then commissioner of baseball Bud Selig. I remember writing a letter to then owner Carl Pohlad about keeping the team in Minnesota. As a 10 and 11 year old, the loss of my team would have been devastating. In other cases from Minnesota, 1993 (a time before my memory) saw the Minnesota North Stars leave the North Star State for Dallas, dropping the “North” in the process. For as long as memory does serve, Minnesota Vikings ownership used relocation as a negotiating tactic in an attempt to get a new football stadium built. Going even further back, the Lakers once played (and thrived) in Minneapolis. On the flip side, Minnesota has also been the beneficiary of relocation. The Twins were once the Washington Senators, and the Lakers had previously been the Detroit Gems. Other than these two, the Vikings, North Stars, Timberwolves, and Wild were all expansion teams.

Relocation is not necessarily a common occurrence in the U.S.’s big 4 sports (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey), but it also isn’t uncommon. Some teams move short distances to new fields or arenas, typically within the same metropolitan area; some teams return to previous homes; some teams move to completely new homes. Some of these moves result in names that no longer make sense (many pro teams in the U.S. don’t actually play within the city limits their name would suggest; some nicknames no longer reflect the geography of their location (looking at you Lakers and Islanders)) and some teams do change names to reflect their new location (like the Washington Nationals), but all of these move result in a culture change amongst the team and the fanbase.

Between the big 4 sports in the U.S. there are 122 professional sports teams, a number which  will grow to 123 with the new NHL expansion team in Las Vegas opening its doors later this year. Since 2000, 7 of these teams have relocated to new metropolitan areas (not including the New Orleans Hornets brief relocation to Oklahoma City due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina), and at least one team, the Brooklyn Nets, had a move inside of a metropolitan area that resulted in a name change (apparently the New Jersey Nets can’t play in New York, but the New York Giants and Jets can play in New Jersey). This number was actually down from 8 in the 1990s, but those moves only covered two sports, while moves since 2000 have affected each sport.

So, while it is not a statistically prevalent occurrence (roughly 6 percent of teams have moved since 2000, a number not easy to calculate with a number of expansions teams coming into existence during that same time period), it’s still a possibility that many fans in the U.S. know or fear could hit their team (especially since relocation has essentially happened in every decade since the 1920s).

You would be hard pressed to find a city that was or is happy to see their team leave. Baltimore refuses to list the Indianapolis Colts as the “Colts” on their scoreboard when every other team is displayed by their nickname (the Colts are listed as “Indy” when playing in Baltimore). Browns fans nearly tore their stadium apart at the end of the 1996 season as their team planned to move to Baltimore. St. Louis and San Diego football fans were none too happy to see their franchises move back to Los Angeles after 21 and 56 years (respectively) in those cities.

All of this has once again come to the front of American sports consciousness today as NFL owners voted to allow the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas. The team is expected to move either in 2019 (after their pair of year-long options at their current stadium are up) or 2020 (when their Las Vegas stadium is expected to be finished). This is the second time the Raiders will be leaving Oakland, after moving from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982, and then back to Oakland in 1995.  This is the third passing vote on relocation for an NFL franchise in the last two years (Oakland had also previously attempted to move back to Los Angeles in a joint venture with the Chargers, but the stadium plan was voted down by NFL owners). In each case, stadium proposals on the table from the now former cities were deemed “unviable” options by the NFL, and owners seemed intent on moving their teams to new locations.

For the NFL, which wants to break into new media markets, it seems that relocation is the only option. Unlike baseball, basketball, and hockey, the NFL carries 32 teams in the league. Any expansion in the NFL would require a major reworking of their divisions, a task they likely don’t want to undertake after already having done this in 2002 after the expansion of the Houston Texans. Expansion itself is a major undertaking for any league in the U.S.; building a team from scratch, allowing them to pick a small number of players currently in the league, and integrating them financially is no small task. The NFL likely wouldn’t want to expand unless doing a 2 team expansion, something which may be necessary with their desire to put a team in London, a move they are not ready to make. Until that decision is made, St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland football fans are left to deal with the aftermath of losing their team.

For non sports fans (and maybe for some sports fans, too), understanding the loss of a team from a city may not seem like a loss when the team still exists. Had the Twins been contracted in 2001 (the last *real* scare of losing a franchise from Minnesota), the team wouldn’t have existed anywhere, and would have been a complete loss. But there is an indescribable connection between a sports fan and their hometown franchise, a loyalty and trust that is broken with the relocation of their team. The team may still exist, but it is no longer their team. The Rams aren’t St. Louis’s team anymore; they are Los Angeles’s. The North Stars aren’t Minnesota’s team anymore; they’re Dallas’s. The Raider’s are still Oakland’s team at the moment, but they are on the road to being Las Vegas’s team. It isn’t uncommon for cities that lose a franchise to relocation to be the first to get new expansion teams: Houston and Cleveland in football, Minnesota (St. Paul) in hockey, Charlotte in basketball (I even follow a British soccer team that was started by fans in the wake of the relocation of their team); not only is each league familiar with the city, but fans want their team. They are as connected to their city as they are to their team, and each team is embedded in the culture of their city. The loss of the team is the loss of a major part of the city they depart, a hole that can at times be filled, but never forgotten.

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