5 Sports Franchise Moves That Set a Precedent

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When Robert Irsay moved the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984, infuriating Baltimore fans, he proclaimed it was his team and that it did not belong to any city. While some team owners view their team as key parts of a community they love, most see it as nothing more than a business. And like any business they are going to look for the best and most profitable deal they can find — even if that means relocating the franchise. Here are some notable franchise relocations that shaped the landscape of modern sports as we know it.

 

5. Braves Move to Milwaukee: Built It and They Will Come

A 1953 postcard showing Millwaukee's new County Stadium. Built for the minor league Brewers, it instead attracted the Boston Braves to relocate.

A 1953 postcard showing Milwaukee’s new County Stadium. Built for the minor league Brewers, it instead attracted the Boston Braves to relocate.

For 50 seasons between 1903 and 1952 there were no franchise relocations in Major League Baseball. There were three teams in New York, and two each in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Detroit had single teams. There hadn’t even been a new stadium built since 1932. Tired of playing second fiddle to the Red Sox and playing in an aging stadium, the Boston Braves decided to move to Milwaukee beginning with the 1953 season. The big draw: County Stadium, a new state-of-the-art facility near downtown. This marked the first time a pro sports team had moved with the promise of a new stadium. The next season, the St. Louis Browns left for Baltimore, renamed themselves the Orioles, and moved into new Memorial Stadium. A season later, the Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City and began playing in rebuilt Municipal Stadium. So in three seasons three different teams now had a new city to themselves and shiny new stadiums that were the envy of other teams. Over the next several decades many teams would move with the promise of a new stadium.

 

4. Dodgers, Giants Head West: Manifest Destiny in Sports

Don Drysdale in spring training before the Dodgers' first season in Los Angeles in 1959. The success enjoyed by the Dodgers and Giants after their relocation to the West Coast prompted a waves of expansion and franchise moves in the next few years.

Don Drysdale in spring training before the Dodgers’ first season in Los Angeles in 1959. The success enjoyed by the Dodgers and Giants after their move to the West Coast prompted a wave of expansions and franchise moves in the next few years.

It goes without saying that the first pro sports teams in the U.S. were all in the population centers in Northeast and Midwest. In an era before airline travel became commonplace teams traveled by train; they had to be in relatively close proximity to each other. But as the population expanded dramatically in the Southern and Western U.S. in the post-war years, it seemed inevitable sports teams would follow. The Rams were the earliest pioneers, moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles for the 1946 season. Yet there remained questions about how Major League Baseball would fare in the West. The region had its own culture, including the Pacific Coast League, eight teams from Seattle to San Diego that were wildly popular and nearly the equal of Major League Baseball at the time.

But the decision by the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to relocate to Los Angeles and San Francisco for the 1958 season changed everything. As noted earlier, improved air travel made this move possible. So did the growing reach of television, which could now broadcast big-league games from coast to coast, bringing MLB’s appeal to a new audience. Within 10 years of the Giants and Dodgers’ move to the West Coast, every major league had expanded into the South and West, adding teams in Miami, New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, Denver and elsewhere. Major League Baseball even put a team across the border in Montreal. This manifest destiny of sports expansion almost certainly would have happened without the Dodgers and Giants’ famous relocation. But their success, and the media coverage it brought, probably accelerated the trend.

 

3. Washington Senators to Minnesota: What’s In A Name?

Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, the first U.S. pro sports team named after a region rather than a city. © Randy Stern

Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, the first U.S. pro sports team named after a region rather than a city. © Randy Stern

When the Senators relocated from Washington to Minneapolis in 1961, owner Calvin Griffith faced a unique problem. Minneapolis and the adjacent city of St. Paul are collectively known as the Twin Cities. The year before, the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA had departed for Los Angeles due to small crowds. This was partly because they had limited appeal to fans in St. Paul. So Griffith wanted to rename his baseball team the Twin Cities Twins. However, all existing teams were named for their city — yes, New York teams are technically named for their state, but c’mon — and the league would not allow such an ambiguous name. However, sympathizing with their plight, the league allowed the team to adopt the name Minnesota Twins, which greatly widened their market appeal. In the following years many other teams would rename themselves after even larger regions; think New England Patriots, Golden State Warriors and Carolina Panthers. By the way, even though the Twin Cities Twins name never caught on, it lives on with the team; that stylized TC insignia on the team’s caps stands for Twin Cities.

 

2. Rams, Raiders Depart LA: Teams Hold Cities Hostage

Cincinnati built Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals after the team threatened to move to Los Angeles.

Cincinnati built Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals after the team threatened to move to Los Angeles.

When both the Rams and Raiders fled Los Angeles after the 1994 season, most people viewed it as a disaster for the city and the league. If America’s most popular sport couldn’t make it in the nation’s second-largest city, something must be wrong. It turned out not to be as big a deal as it first seemed. However, almost a dozen franchises leveraged their cities for new stadiums, renovations and/or leases under the threat that they would move to LA if they did not get a favorable deal. Some of these threats were quite serious. In 1996, the Seahawks even held offseason workouts in Anaheim and announced plans to relocate to LA and play in the Rose Bowl until a new stadium could be built. While the team returned to Seattle, it did so with the agreement that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen would purchase the team, and that taxpayers would build a new stadium. Indianapolis, Minnesota and Cincinnati were among the small market teams that landed new stadiums after mentioning the prospect of Los Angeles.

 

1. St. Louis Loses the Rams: Addition by Subtraction

Architects designed a wonderful stadium for the St. Louis riverfront, but local taxpayers could not afford it. Credit: HOK

Architects designed a wonderful stadium for the St. Louis riverfront, but local taxpayers could not afford it. Credit: HOK

Although St. Louis football fans would certainly disagree, some observers believe the city actually won by losing its NFL team. In the end, taxpayers are not stuck paying for a new $1 billion stadium. That’s the going rate these days, and in most cases the public foots the bill. Others cities have said “no” to stadium demands before and lost a pro team; that’s what drove the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA. But St. Louis officials may be setting a new precedent in that they desperately wanted to build a new stadium, but could not afford it. In fact, the city, county and state of Missouri are still on the hook for paying off more than $130 million in debt on the Edward Jones Dome. The city couldn’t pay that debt with the Rams as a tenant; it certainly won’t get any easier with the team gone. As the New York Times noted, “The departure of the Rams to Los Angeles, whence they came two decades ago, is something for the city’s residents to cheer, not bemoan. St. Louis got lucky. … The economics underpinning the recent deal St. Louis and the State of Missouri tried to put together to keep the Rams would have been financially ruinous.”

Numerous studies have shown that stadiums rarely match the rosy economic predictions made for them. That’s probably more true now than ever as the cost of new stadiums has skyrocketed in recent years. Don’t be surprised to see more cities walk away from the negotiating table with sports team owners in years to come.

(Slideshow photo credit: CA Sports Fan)

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Clint Carter has taught special education and has been a lacrosse official for the past 20 years. He has a passion for travel, trivia, sports, movies, reading, and general outside-the-box thinking.