One needn’t look further than places on the map such as Winnipeg, Quebec City, Vancouver, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Phoenix, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles to get at the very least a glimpse of the relocation contraction refraction. In fact, you probably won’t need thick Clark Kent goggles to resolve the refraction that you need to see how different markets in professional sports have reacted to a team relocating to, or from their city. Hell, as I went through the list in my head, I realized there were far more than just a couple of examples that I had spit out of my mouth to myself to form the first words of this story. As many people already know, the film of the Mayflower semi-trucks relocating the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis is burned into my memory. While I may not be old enough to have seen it live, it is the prime example of the kinds of back-handed politics that goes into the big business of professional sports, and that happen in 1984 – nearly 30 years ago! You have to go rogue like a thief in the night to move a storied and loved franchise out of a city, with the cover of the dark sky cloaking you like Dracula’s cape. That is simply comical, and somewhat sad.
The problem facing almost every professional league in the United States right now is over saturation of franchises. Some might contest me on this theory when applied to the NFL, but that is quite short-sighted. Granted, the smallest market in the NFL, Green Bay, has and always will be viable thanks to the way the Packers franchise is run, and the fans that support the team through thick and thin. Then we move over to Buffalo. The Bills had some glory years, went to four Superbowl’s. That is nothing to sneeze at. However, The Bills are losing a home game every year by playing one across the border in Toronto. No team, I don’t care in what sport or league, can switch home games to a different city and say that everything is merry where they reside. Of course the new annual game in London could be thrown in on this brush fire, but that idea is still a niche, and it doesn’t mean whomever is giving up the home game is struggling. It’s a popular and unique thing to do so it is accepted. If you live in Arizona, you have never supported your Cardinals team that had moved twice before landing there. Almost perfect weather, a Superbowl contender a few years ago, and rare fan support. The NFL is the lowest on this refractory scale, but it is certainly not without its problems.
Next up at a slightly higher decibel is Major League Baseball. The MLB has flirted with contraction of teams for decades. The Minnesota Twins, another storied franchise, has said to have their proverbial balls to the grindstone and nothing but a silk thread away from being folded. The funny thing is that the MLB actually expanded. The Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t moved from other cities, they were spawned in what was supposed to baseball hotbeds. Even the San Francisco Giants, a hugely popular, successful, and storied franchise threatened to move to the then brand new stadium in Tampa/St. Petersburg in the 1990’s. Can you imagine Barry Bonds with his giant head playing for the St. Pete Giants?! First off, his roid melon would have burst through the roof of the dome, and second, baseball would have slit its own throat had they allowed the Giants to move to Tampa/St. Pete. Thank God they built “The Phone Booth” on the waterfront in downtown San Francisco, right where it should be. But, what is it about baseball that keeps teams like Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Minnesota to survive and in some cases thrive? Player development and longevity. Baseball players may not reach the majors until they are in their mid or even late 20’s. That doesn’t happen the same way in other sports. Smaller MLB markets can survive and put on a good show because they can grow their own players in the minor leagues. There may be tweaks from time to time, like the Houston Astros moving from the National League to the American League to start the 2013 season, and in turn balancing the divisions and allowing interleague play to happen much more often. This is seen as a good thing in most circles, even by some baseball purists. Baseball is doing well. They have a team or two in all the major markets and viable teams in their smaller markets. Not even the NFL can say that.
Who is on the chopping block next you ask? Hockey. It’s not that I have a lot to bash the National Hockey League on, but let’s all be honest with each other… It needs work. Not an overhaul, but work. The NHL did itself a favor by orchestrating the move of the putrid Atlanta Thrashers club and trusting investors and fans in Winnipeg, Manitoba to support a team. A franchise was moved from an Atlanta metro area population of over 5 million, to a metro area in Canada of about 700,000. If that doesn’t tell have crappy a sports town Atlanta is, I don’t know what will. The Winnioeg Jets, by the way, moved to Phoenix in 1996 to become the Coyotes. The Coyotes are another example of a failure to capitalize on an open market. At least NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of the powers that be were smart enough to realize it just wasn’t going to work in A-town, and got a franchise back to a rabid fan base having recreated the Jets. Now they need to do the same in Phoenix. Just like in baseball, the NHL does need work, but their holding their own. Maybe some more teams in Canada, anywhere in Canada, (even though 4 of the 6 original teams were founded in the U.S.), would be the right recipe . Getting teams like the Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Florida Panthers bumped from existance would be a good start. Zamboning them off the face of the land, or right on up to America’s hat, would be a great starting point. If you think the Hamilton Blue Jackets wouldn’t be a big hit you’ve gone completely nuts.
Now…the NBA… I’m not sure I have enough hard drive space to speak to how dire the horizon looks for the NBA. If league moved to Europe tomorrow it would be considered a sound business decision, even if no one paid attention in Spain or Italy. What should they do, oh whatever should they do? NBA commissioner David Stern has to look long and hard at his flagging franchises. I remain a fan of this league somehow, some way, and I would like to see my guilty pleasure entertainment sport survive in the U.S. in the future. The days of competitive balance and interesting story lines in the NBA are all but forgotten. We have moved into an era of the “super-star team”. All of these guys want to play with their buddies in cool, cultural, and posh cities. How can we blame them? God bless them for wanting it and actually getting it done in some cases. Some may view it as unfair, I don’t see that way. Picture your work place. Say two or three of your best friends worked with you and you all relocated to Miami. That would be pretty damn cool, wouldn’t it. I know it would be for me. With point guard Chris Paul now in Los Angeles playing for the Clippers of all teams, we are seeing an even bigger shift to power teams. The smaller, less sexy teams don’t stand a chance. Failing arenas aren’t helping anything either. Stern ahs to play nice with everyone in the sand box and be political, but the evidence just can’t elude him. Franchises like Sacramento, Minnesota, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Charlotte could, and should be wiped away clean from the coaches white board, and even a team like the Memphis Grizzlies moved to Las Vegas (they’re used to moving having relocated originally from Vancouver). Either way, there is simply too much dead weight in the National Basketball Association. With the previous idea, one team would be excised from each division, and trust me, they won’t be missed.
Nothing will ever be perfect in our beloved pro sports, but they can be re-molded to advance the betterment of man, make one less clown cry, and to keep the Mayflower Transit moving company corporate structure strong.