Franchise Relocation, Public Money, and Community in U.S. Sport

On February 20, 2015, officials from both the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers announced their plans to build and share a $1.7 billion privately-funded stadium. The proposed new facility will be located in Carson, adding the two teams to the constant speculation about the NFL’s return to L.A.

Both the Raiders and Chargers want new facilities. They claim that their current stadiums, which are among the NFL’s five oldest, are outdated.  But, the planned grandiose coliseum in Carson does not have to be the solution. While one of these teams could certainly end up in L.A., this recent proposal is just another in a long line of threats by major U.S. sports team owners to relocate  in order  to convince (force) local taxpayers and politicians to finance and build new stadiums in their current home city. While issues of monopolies, particularly antitrust legislation, applies to many issues of franchise relocation, threats of team movement remain a central aspect of professional U.S. sport in the twenty-first century.

Dodger Stadium-1967 (Wikimedia Commons)

Dodger Stadium-1967 (Wikimedia Commons)

From the beginning of professional sport in the United States, teams frequently relocated and constructed new stadiums. Teams moved so frequently that they often times did not have consistent playing facilities. Baseball teams relocated year to year, and wooden stadiums constantly had to be rebuilt because of fire damage and overall weak infrastructure. Major construction projects and long-distance movement, however, has occurred most frequently in the past half century. Team movement escalated beginning in 1957/1958 when Walter O’Malley infamously moved Major League Baseball’s Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Following the Dodgers, many other teams followed suit, leaving the East Coast for the Pacific Coast, the South, and the Southwest. Sport historian Michael N. Danielson reports in Home Team: Professional Sports and the American Metropolis that of the 113 teams in the big four U.S. sports (NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB) in 1996, 25 had moved to their current city following 1950 (p. 134). Moreover, writing in 1993, in his book Playing the Field: Why Sports Teams Move and Cities Fight to Keep Them, sport scholar and economist Charles C. Euchner explains that “[a]t some point in the past decade, virtually all professional franchises publicly threatened to move to a different city in order to extract benefits they desired from local governments” (p. 5). Teams continued to shift localities into the twenty-first century and fights between fans, politicians, communities, and team owners continued to be central stories in sports media.

The use of franchise relocation as a threatening tool to receive community dollars really took off in the 1980s and 1990s. The impact of threatening franchise relocation is perhaps best seen when some teams actually left, and how the moves impacted fans.

In their book, Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit, Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause trace sports owners who “swindled” the public into providing them community money all the way back to the nineteenth century. “But the story of the swindle really begins,” they explain, “on the night it first broke through to public consciousness: a cold spring night in a Maryland suburb, when a fleet of moving fans crept away in the dead of night—stealing a city’s football team away, and forever changing the way we think about sports, urban politics, and the future of the American city” (p. xii). They are referring to the night that Colts owner Robert Irsay loaded the belongings of his Baltimore-based gridiron club and headed to Indianapolis. The move had been an end to over a decade of contentious negotiations between the Colts and the city of Baltimore over revenue coming from the old Memorial Stadium. The Colts and Irsay called it antiquated and outdated; they also wanted the profits that would come from a new, lavish stadium with all the bells and whistles that rival clubs had in their newer venues. These threats became a part of the stadium games of the second half of the twentieth century.

Baltimore's Memorial Stadium (Home of team until 1983)

Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium (Home of team until 1983) (Wikimedia Commons)

Baltimore and Irsay tried to make it work. As sports business journalist Jon Morgan describes in Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL, the city collaborated with the Colts on a “Baltodome” project that would build a new domed stadium in the middle of the city and Baltimore would pony up $82 million for the Colts. The city could never get the initiative passed, however, and the project fell apart in the middle of the 1970s. Irsay asked for $25 million in public funds a few years later—at the same time that he began discussions with cities such as Los Angeles about a potential relocation. This created tension with the hometown baseball club (the Orioles), who were also looking for a new home. When no money was given to the gridiron franchise, the door opened for the Colts to look for greener pastures. They did just that in 1984, when the team trucked off to Indianapolis.

The Cleveland Browns are another high-profile example of franchise relocation threats gone awry. In 1995/1996, money for a new football stadium became front-page headlines when the Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. Like Isray, the Browns owner, Art Modell, wanted an upgraded playing facility for years. Cleveland had given a substantial amount of public dollars to teams in town. But, Modell’s patience grew thin as he watched both a new basketball arena and a new baseball stadium open in 1994. The Browns remained in the old municipal stadium that had opened in 1931. The threat of franchise relocation was never really taken seriously by Cleveland officials, so the team announced it would move to Baltimore where they could play in a new state-of-the-art $200 million football cathedral.

These two NFL moves ushered in a new era of using relocation as a bartering tool to upgrade playing facilities.

Called “franchise free agency,” by sports columnist Peter King, this era came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. In the NFL alone, at least nine teams moved, threatened relocation, or were rumored to be considering such tactics in the early 1990s. While most remember the Browns and the Colts, as well as the Houston Oilers who moved in 1997, along with the Raiders who went back and forth between Oakland and L.A. in the 1980s and 1990s and the Rams who moved from L.A. to St. Louis, few remember relocation threats by Tampa Bay and Seattle. Likewise, Cincinnati had to pass a new sin tax in order to keep the Bengals. Even the historic Chicago Bears considered moving to Gary, Indiana.

Franchise free agency allowed sports clubs to threaten to leave the city and its fans behind if they did not receive public money for updated or brand new stadiums and arenas.

Sport scholars and economists have articulated various problems with the era of franchise free agency. For instance, passing measures to raise or create new taxes to fund stadiums has historically relied on exaggerated economics. According to scholars Andrew Zimbalist and Roger G. Noll, cities have sold referendums and tax plans to build new stadiums and arenas to the public by embellishing their fiscal benefit. “Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area,” they argue, “the economic benefits of sports facilities are minimal.”

Proposed Arena for Detroit Red Wings (FoxSports)

Proposed Arena for Detroit Red Wings (FoxSports)

Nearly every team and city pushing for public stadium financing has recycled this false argument. Recently, for example, the Detroit Red Wings have been lobbying the city for a new hockey arena. And according to Tom Wilson, the President of Business Operations for the Red wings, the new hockey arena represents a “once-in-a-generation opportunity . . . to make downtown Detroit a magnet for jobs and people.” Individual athletes have also been described in similar ways. For example, when the basketball star LeBron James recently returned to Cleveland, after a four-year vacation as a member of the Miami Heat, some local writers argued that the “return of the king” would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars infused into the local economy.

Yet, as Zimbalist and Noll argue, along with other economists and sport scholars, these numbers are inflated and often times fabricated.

First, the two scholars explain that “multiplier effects” are often calculated into costs/benefits of publicly-funded stadiums. For example, proponents of such facilities argue that more revenue will be produced in communities because of stadiums, fields, or arenas. Yet, Zimbalist and Noll contend that families spend the same amount of money, just in different places. It is not new money, but reallocated money from other forms of entertainment, such as going to the movies.

Second, Zimbalist and Noll, among others such as Danielson, suggest how cities striving to become or stay a “major league city” contribute to the exaggerated benefits of stadiums. Becoming a “major league city” has been a major part of why metropolitan officials desire to have a major sports team. But, it also plays into the supposed added benefit for local citizens. Facility and city planners routinely add the “psychic benefits” or “intangible benefits” of having a major team in a city. However, these are difficult to calculate and often lead to an unclear explanation of the benefits of big-time sports facilities.

Third, scholars have found that there are “hidden costs” for both publicly- and privately-funded stadiums that appear throughout construction. In her book, Public-Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities (2012), Harvard economics professor Judith Grant Long suggests that taxpayers pay an average of $10 million more than commonly reported in deals for new stadiums. This includes things like laying new utilities, paving new roads, and building sidewalks that are not always considered in construction costs.

Finally, pundits tend to critique publicly-funded stadiums and facilities because they draw attention away from other, often more serious, problems in cities. Cagan and deMause explain, for example, that on the same day that Cleveland announced a deal to build a new football stadium in 1996, the city’s school district announced a $52 million budget cut, including laying off 160 teachers and cutting many youth sports. And, as critical journalist Dave Zirin notes, the state of Michigan allowed the construction of a $450 million arena for the Red Wings just days after the announcement of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Yet, despite all of this the evidence and the conclusions of economists, teams continue to rely on public dollars for new stadiums. Why do their threats to move continue to work? This is a question that has not fully been examined by sport scholars. Instead, historians have described the culture of sport in big cities as a means of suggesting why citizens continually vote for the use of public money.

The threat of franchise relocation remains a strong tool for team owners because of the unique place of sport in American culture. As Euchner explains, sports franchises are able to hold big cities captive by threatening relocation because people in these cities have a strong emotional relationship with the teams. According to Danielson, an “[e]motional attachment to home teams” is what “underlies the intensity of many issues involving major league sports.” This becomes most evident in the issue of franchise relocation. As Danielson explains, “[l]osing the home team is a wrenching experience for fans in a particular locale.”

Indeed, when the Colts left town, fans were disheartened and upset and this represents why cities have historically been able to take advantage of these emotions. Fans—whether they grow up with a team or adopt one later in life—grow to consider a franchise as our team. For example, when the city of Cleveland fought for the retention of the Browns, they initiated a “Save Our Browns” campaign (emphasis mine), suggesting that the team belonged to the community and not the owner. When baseball considered eliminating two teams in 2001, Minnesota Twins’ fans fought to keep their team, holding signs that said “Keep the Twins at Home” and chanting “Save Our Twins”  (emphasis mine). Even fans of the MLB’s Montreal Expos (whose attendance was very low by the beginning of the twenty-first century) started an online petition to “Save Our Expos” prior to the team moving to Washington D.C., and becoming the Nationals (emphasis mine).

Cleveland Browns Stadium (Wikimedia Commons)

Cleveland Browns Stadium (now First Energy Field) (Wikimedia Commons)

According to this logic, when sports teams move, they hurt their fan bases. When they threaten to move, they “swindle” their fans, as Cagan and deMause might say. Of course, some teams really do need to move for financial stability.

Yet, one of the issues with threats of franchise relocation, according to economists Daniel Mason and Trevor Slack, is that they are often done not just for a business to survive, but to thrive. Survival is never a real concern. Instead, teams move because they are offered better playing facilities, higher ticket prices, and better fiscal deals with metropolitan areas. In the NFL, according to Mason and Slack, “teams that decide to relocate are not moving in order to survive; rather, they seem to be moving from a good situation to a great one” (p. 417). As Washington Monthly writer John Solomon explains, “[o]wners complain about the financial hardship involved in running pro teams.” This is often a reason that owners declare they need to relocate to another city. “Yet, peer behind the doom and gloom talk, and it becomes clear that teams have never been more valuable. Franchise prices—both existing and expansion—continue to go up. . . . As Yogi Berra might say, buying a sports team is such a bad deal, everyone wants one” (p. 31).

Nevertheless, teams can demand public subsidies from communities because cities’ desire to maintain the status of “major league city.” Legal scholar Brian Cheffins explained, “[o]wners of teams can successfully demand such assistance because most owners are ultimately willing to move to whichever city is prepared to offer the most financially advantageous stadium or arena deal.” He added that “[p]oliticians, aware that luring and retaining professional sports teams can have significant public relations spin-offs, in turn usually provide what the owners need” (p. 650).

In general, cities and communities have appeased owners and this results from the strong loyalties amongst communities toward sports teams.

All of these narratives played out in Cleveland and in Baltimore. Seattle experienced similar results when the basketball Super Sonics left for Oklahoma City. Likewise in Houston when the football Oilers went to Tennessee. And most recently, fans are beginning to clamor over the potential loss of the Raiders, the Chargers, and the Rams of St. Louis. Two of these teams could be returning to cities that they have called “home” in the past, producing added drama to the twenty-first version of professional sports stadium games. As we wait to see if Los Angeles will ever get its NFL team–something that has been discussed for two decades–the multidimensional narratives of franchise relocation, the use of public money, the intense emotional connections that communities have with their teams, all will be played out again.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. Currently, he is the Student Member-at-Large on the Executive Board of the North American Society for Sport History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.


Suggestions for additional readings:

Delaney, Kevin J. and Rick Eckstein. Public Dollar, Private Stadiums: The Battle Over Building Sports Stadiums. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Friedman, Michael T. and Daniel S. Mason. “‘Horse Trading’ and Consensus Building: Nashville, Tennessee and the Relocation of the Houston Oilers.” Journal of Sport History 28, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 271-291.

Poplar, Michael G. Fumble! The Browns, Modell and the Move: An Insider’s StoryCleveland, OH: Cleveland Landmarks Press, 1997.

Rosentraub, Mark S. Major League Losers: The Real Cost of Sports and Who’s Paying For It. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.

Trumpbour, Robert C. The New Cathedrals: Politics and Media in the History of Stadium Construction. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007.

Zimbalist, Andrew and Roger G. Noll, editors. Sport, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums. Washington: Brookings Institute, 1997.

Zirin, Dave. Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love. New York: Scribner, 2010.

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