Franchise Relocations: Lessons from America
A decade on from Wimbledon’s relocation to Milton Keynes and reincarnation as MK Dons, the issue continues to provoke strong feeling. Posts we have devoted to the topic have resulted in lively comments sections, most notably John McGee’s January blast; a provocation to a response running 37 missives long.
But with over 7,000 Sheffield United fans turning up at Stadium: MK for a vital promotion clash last Spring, has the situation now come to be accepted? At the time, praise was afforded to those Yorkshiremen for turning up in such numbers — is that fair or should they be berated for their lack of appreciation of football history?
The former seems likely and Pete Winkelman can probably now breathe more easily (even if he’ll never receive any of my money). So, in view of this normalization, the question rears its head as to whether the same thing could happen again?
I’m currently in America and in advance of a few days in Oregon that will see me make a first visit to see Portland Timbers play tomorrow, I have spent the past few days in New York. Dominant among sports stories at the moment is the coming arrival of basketball’s Brooklyn Nets, the first sports franchise to play in that historic borough since the Brooklyn Dodgers threw away the key to Ebbets Field in 1957 after a 2-0 victory over Pittsburgh Pirates, relocating to the smog and sunshine of Los Angeles.
Brooklyn is about as a cool a place as there is at the moment. With prices and rents in nearby Manhattan having climbed to unfeasible levels, the traditional centre of New York life now seems mainstream and unadventurous by comparison while the cultural activity to be enjoyed amid the gorgeous brownstones of Brooklyn neighbourhoods such as Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg has led to a prolonged period of creativity.
The arrival on November 1 of the Nets at the new Barclays Center (interesting that a British bank with little presence stateside has made such a bold move) is provoking yards of press coverage with co-owner Jay-Z treating the local populace to 8 sold out concerts in 9 days in anticipation of the tip off at the $1 billion, 18,200 seat arena.
Some sensitivity is apparent — local vendors have been allowed first dibs on many of the franchises, including Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, although the mood is primarily commercial — the aforementioned rapper’s 40/40 Club and Restaurant is unlikely to be homely in its mood while insurance company Geico have forked out to sponsor the atrium that serves as the entrance point to the building.
That it is Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov who has financed the move will raise eyebrows among UK observers but as with Wimbledon, there is another side to the story.
That narrative can be glimpsed in Newark, the city that squats ugly across the Hudson River on the other side of Manhattan from the Barclays Center.
For the Nets have relocated from the New Jersey city, the team having relocated to a new arena in the Prudential Center as recently as 2007. Still the home to the successful New Jersey Devils (ice) hockey team and the Seton Hall Pirates college basketballers, the state of the art arena will have been hit hard by the move, but not so much as the city itself.
Newark provides one of America’s saddest stories and one that fits the blueprint of a piece I wrote on shrinking cities for In Bed With Maradona last year. Boosted by industry and the closeness of the nearby megalopolis, as well as a mammoth port and airport, the city named after a Nottinghamshire village saw its population rise to 442,337 in 1920 only to fall alarmingly since then — the current population hovers around the 277,000 mark.
The most dramatic decrease came in the 1980s where 16.4% of the population fled — crime and lack of jobs and investment being major factors. By 1996, Newark was rated the most dangerous city in the US by Time magazine as authors such as Philip Roth looked back to a bygone town of their youth.
The situation is still parlous with the financial crisis biting hard, 90 homicides taking place in the city in 2011 alone and the bulk of citizens’ actually living in surrounding suburbs — a visit I paid to see the then New Jersey Nets take on the Boston Celtics back in 2010 revealed a neighbourhood empty of souls beyond those taking transport to the ball game and many buildings like unoccupied. It had been hoped that the Prudential Centre would help regeneration but alternative methods will have to be sought now.
Of course free market economics has everything to do with this. Prokhorov, rational actor as he no doubt is, will have calculated that attendances and sponsorship opportunities are likely to be larger in booming Brooklyn — it’s a straightforward decision to follow the money and one that has raised hardly a murmur of complaint even among the residents of Newark itself — the mood is very much one of acceptance that that is now America works.
But that hasn’t always been the case. True, US sports fans are used to the shuttling about of teams and the period between 1995 and 1997 alone saw 4 National Football League franchises switch regions — with owners using the threat of removal to coerce city authorities to build spanking new stadia with taxpayers’ money – so much for ‘entrepreneurs’ drawing upon funds of their own.
But the case of the Cleveland Browns provides hope. Back in 1996, in a series of events now known simply and chillingly as ‘The Move’, the NFL team’s owner, Art Modell announced that the historic team would be moving to Baltimore. Also a crumbling relic of a city of the late industrial era, Cleveland no longer appeared viable and Modell had also run into conflict with baseball’s Cleveland Indians, leading to a significant drop in revenue.
But the people of Cleveland, toughened by years of economic decline, didn’t take it lying down. Fans turned up at games with ‘Muck Fodell’ hats, injunctions were served by supporters and ticket holders and comedian Drew Carey returned to the city to host a ‘Fan Jam’ in 1995. Shamefully, a protest coordinated for a clash with Pittsburgh Steelers was played down by the press and TV, with ABC refusing to cover it at all, but the seeds of bad publicity were sown.
While Modell was allowed to keep control of the Ohio team’s playing and backroom staff, he was disallowed from adopting the identity and colours for the new Baltimore concern — a city, remember, that had lost its own gridiron team, the Colts, to Indianapolis in 1983.
So, the new side were to be named the Baltimore Ravens while a phoenix club were allowed to rise again in Cleveland after a three year hiatus. Nor did the reborn Browns have to start in a US equivalent of the Combined Counties League, re-entering the NFL in 1999.
Fudge though it was, the efforts of those protesting fans were instrumental in keeping American Football alive in the proud lakeside city and we should be as vigilant on this side of the Atlantic. AFC Wimbledon have swept up the leagues and a win on Saturday after a terrible start has steadied their particular ship. One hopes that this will be a last example of relocation in the English football leagues, but in case not, remember what fan power can achieve.