Franchise Relocations: Lessons from America

Posted by on Sep 28, 2012 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

8 Comments

  1. Tom from Ohio
    September 28, 2012

    My comment just comes from the basis of an actual Ohioan, with many Browns fan friends. To say they protested the move is an understatement. People went absolutely ballistic. This eas the BROWNS, not just a football team but one of the icons of the NFL. And Modell essentially moved them out of town under the cover of night (no, really).

    A few weeks ago, Art Modell died. He was still the owner of the Ravens, and also had been instrumental in the 70s in helping the NFL become the brand it is today. They had a moment of silence at every NFL stadium for him, EXCEPT in Cleveland. The hatred runs so deep that the NFL had security concerns with having that moment in Cleveland. Cleveland has had its share of villains in sports but Modell is a different level, even today.

    One last anecdote: the Browns actually played the Ravens last night, in Baltimore. The Baltimore general manager is also a former Browns player from before the move. He coincidentally holds a few Browns team records. When this was mentioned on the air, my roommate, a die hard, fervent Browns fan, said simply “Whatever. Fuck him and his records.”

    The Browns lost, 23-16.

    Reply
  2. Sean Thompson
    September 28, 2012

    It’s worth noting that when Prokhorov bought the team, it was playing at the Izod Center (ne Brendan Byrne Meadowlands Arena), an old uncomfortable arena far from the core population centres of New York City and Newark. The Nets moved to the Prudential Center as a temporary home after a 2009-10 season of horrid attendance, including one notorious game played during a snowstorm that drew barely 1000 fans to the 20000 seat arena.

    Reply
  3. Lanterne Rouge
    September 28, 2012

    Thanks for your comments gents and Tom, that might just be my favourite comment that anyone has ever left on the blog – very illuminating and heartening that Browns fans didn’t take things lying down. On a similar tack, @larrygopnick on tiwtter has drawn my attention to the SonicsGate film about the protracted legal battle surrounding the Seattle Sonics’ relocation to Oklahoma City in 2008.

    Thanks also for the clarification Sean and that would explain why the citizens of Newark haven’t been up in arms. A real shame though although I’ll admit that the Prudential Centre was very sparsely populated on the occasion of my visit with most fans intent on drumming akong to the organ sound beloved of Amerucan sports rather than the action on the boards.

    Reply
  4. Row Z
    September 30, 2012

    I wouldn’t have thought that this would be an issue in the UK as geographically the US is massive so there will always be plenty of major cities/urban areas which could sustain a top-flight, or major sports team, but which do not have one.

    In the UK the history of football, urban development and the geography mean almost every city which could support a large football team has one, and all the major cities; Liverpool, Sheffield Nottingham, Birmingham, and Manchester have at least two teams. MK, being a sizable new town was something of an anomaly in that despite it having the population to sustain a league club there wasn’t one there.

    As attempts to grow a club in MK from seed failed on more than one occasion it was almost inevitable that the eventual solution would be to short-cut the process and transplant a club from elsewhere. I’m not condoning it – in fact I disagree with the way it was done – but the logic was, in a business sense proved right in the fact that MK is capable of supporting a league club.

    I think the biggest danger to the identity of league clubs in the UK is from mergers along the lines of plans for ‘Thames Valley Royals’ , though this I think is unlikely, especially in a market where football attendance and revenues have been on an upward trend. Further down the leagues, where money is tighter, mergers are far more commonplace.

    Of course if there was a European super-league, then there would be issues of major centers of population left without top-flight teams and then the temptation to shift locations to raise more revenue will be much higher.

    Reply
    • Lanterne Rouge
      October 1, 2012

      Excellent point about a European Super League Row Z as this would form a competition roughly on a geographical par with the US and everyone would suddenly want in on it.

      Reply
    • Ben
      October 2, 2012

      Great point about the difference between the UK and the US – there now aren’t really any sizeable cities/towns without fairly high-profile football clubs in the UK (Bath and Chester, perhaps, off the top of my head). Some relatively large cities like Leeds and Newcastle could probably support a second football team, but the chances of one ever getting a foothold would be very slim. I guess the more likely possibility is that regions with reasonable populations but without Premier League/Championship teams (Kent, for instance, or maybe Cambridgeshire, Devon/Somerset or Shropshire) might be attractive to an owner looking to move a team – but they would still ideally need to be based in a suitably large urban area.

      Reply
  5. Learning from MLS: an American Soccer Weekend | The Two Unfortunates
    October 4, 2012

    […] reaction to events on the pitch. Unlike my most recent stateside sports experience referred to in last week’s missive about the franchise system where most of the crowd at a New Jersey Nets match were more intent on their hot dogs than the […]

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  6. Where I end and you begin: Theseus’ ship, MK Dons and identity through time » virile games
    October 18, 2012

    […] this kind of franchise approach in which relocations are frequent is generally accepted (although this interesting piece from The Two Unfortunates shows that fan opposition to these moves does sometimes occur). However, in these cases there is no […]

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