Whether acquiring a major pro sports franchise in the year 2011 is a good idea from an economic standpoint ... that's a discussion worth having. What isn't in doubt, though, is the identity a pro team brings to a town.
The national identities of many American cities are defined, perhaps more than anything else, by their sports teams. When I was a little kid, that's how I learned about the rest of my country. Kansas City is playing Phoenix? Okay, where is Phoenix?
This is probably clear to you if you, like me, live in a town without a major sports team. You hear about, say, Cleveland's legacy of losing teams, and you wonder how the Hell anyone could possibly have sympathy for them. They have three teams!
So, let's assume that you would like a pro team in your city. The first way a city can acquire a major sports franchise is to convince an existing franchise to relocate. Within the past 30 years, 13 teams have found new homes -- 14, if we count the New Jersey Nets' move to Brooklyn.
The thing is, almost all of these teams have moved to a city that has hosted a team from that league before. The NHL hasn't been afraid of relocating to new markets, having done so in Carolina, Dallas, and Phoenix, owners from other sports have been far more conservative in that regard. Of the eight times an NFL, NBA, or MLB franchise has moved since 1980, only one -- the Oklahoma City Thunder -- has moved to a market that had never hosted that league before.
If a city wants to host a league it has never hosted before, then, its best bet is to bid for an expansion team. This, of course, is largely dependent upon whether a league is willing to expand to begin with.
This graph stacks up the expansion rate of sports leagues after they had "normalized," more or less, against America's rate of population growth. (For our purposes, Canadian teams were not counted.) This is admittedly an oversimplification of the issue of expansion, as a league's decision to expand has to do with national and regional economies, the success of the league, and all sorts of other things, but it does show us two things:
- Lately, major sports leagues have tended to award around two new franchises per decade.
- In terms of the number of total franchises in a league, there seems to be a soft ceiling.
These leagues grew in number of teams, some quickly, some slowly, but all of them have stopped at about 30. My guess is that these leagues simply want to avoid over-expansion, and expand slowly if at all. At any rate, there are several cities without a pro sports team that could certainly support one.
U.S. population rank: 27th
Louisville is the planet Earth's mecca of bourbon, cigarettes, horse betting, and GIANT FIREWORKS. Clearly, we need another vice.
Naturally, since I'm a Louisville native, I start here. If this town had followed the trajectory it was on 100 years ago, it would be Atlanta. In the mid-20th century, however, Louisville took a nosedive economically, and it didn't really begin to recover until the 1980s.
Today, Louisville is doing as well economically as just about any town. The complicating issue is its obsession with collegiate athletics. Personally speaking, most people I know here root strongly for either U of L or Kentucky, but I barely know anyone here who actually watches the NBA, NHL, or MLB.
Given that Louisville is a basketball town that opened a brand-new downtown arena last season, the NBA seems to be the best bet. Over the last decade or so, multiple serious attempts have been made to lure an NBA franchise to town, and multiple studies suggest that Louisville could certainly support one.
Would Louisville's extant college atmosphere help an NBA team thrive, or would an NBA team simply find itself in competition with an institution that already owns the town? Any relocation-inclined owner would want to find the answer to that question before moving here.
But if a team is inclined to move, an untapped market with a brand-new basketball arena has to be an attractive destination. Sharing a building with an existing tenant is certainly preferable to trying to finance a new one.
U.S. population rank: 14th
Austin is the largest city in America without a single major sports franchise. Its story is similar to Louisville's, in that it's a city dominated by the college game.
This city's population and economy have exploded over the last decade. In that sense, Austin could almost certainly support any team, even an NFL team. The issue is that three cities with pro sports teams -- San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas-Ft.Worth -- are within a three-hour drive or so. That's eight teams across all four major leagues.
As far as I've been able to find, there hasn't really been a major effort to bring an NFL team to Austin. Maybe Texas' football market is saturated, or maybe it's impossible to saturate. I'm guessing the latter, and whenever the NFL decides to expand next, Austin should be a major candidate.
Las Vegas, Nevada
U.S. population rank: 30th
Over the last decade or so, Las Vegas has been the single most often-discussed relocation target. Vegas was considered a top candidate to land the then-Montreal Expos before they ultimately moved to Washington, D.C. The city has also been mentioned in discussion to move the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Coyotes.
Baseball would seem to be the best fit for Vegas -- in addition to the Expos, the Marlins, Twins, Rays, and Athletics have also been discussed. The problem for Vegas is that these are often just empty threats made by owners who are using the option of relocation as leverage for their own ends.
It seems likely, though, that eventually one of these threats will not be empty, and a baseball team really will pack up and leave, and Vegas would perhaps be more likely than any other city to take it in.
The states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Nebraska
This six-state chunk of the country eats up an enormous amount of surface area, but does not host a single sports team. And, of course, for good reason: their combined population of six million or so is spread far too thin to feature a significant central location for a team.
I'm mostly just bringing these guys up because it's interesting to wonder whether any of them will land a pro franchise, and how long such a thing would take. Maybe it's 2040, and Omaha or Bismarck are as large as Indianapolis is today. Perhaps the "30-team" paradigm of sports leagues is shattered, and a league like the NBA is comfortable with putting 48 teams out there. That's probably what it would take.
London (or another European city)
The NFL has scheduled regular-season games in London for years now, and the megalopolis has routinely been paraded as a possible candidate for expansion. And given basketball's popularity throughout Europe, a European NBA team surely wouldn't want for fan support.
The problem, obviously, is one of travel logistics. Domestic travel takes enough of a toll on a team already, and for intercontinental travel to be accounted for, some dramatic changes would be need to made on the schedule. Invariably, the team on the other side of the ocean would be at a significant disadvantage.
A more long-term, but more sensible, option would be to facilitate the growth of a European conference full of teams that mostly play each other. It would follow baseball's pre-interleague model: the North Americans and Europeans play their seasons, determine their champions, and then play an intercontinental championship series.
Basketball's talent gap between the two continents grows smaller with each passing decade. At some point, an arrangement similar to this one seems almost inevitable.