Not Sleepless, Just Basketball-Less, in Seattle

After forty-one years of playing in Seattle as the Supersonics, the owners of the franchise this season relocated the team, with NBA approval, to Oklahoma City, where it is currently playing as the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Although the city of Seattle is left without an NBA team, public uproar over the move seems to be at a minimum.

In fact, it is now clear, if it weren’t already, that football and baseball occupy a different place in the sports landscape than basketball and hockey.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arena of franchise relocation.  When an NFL or MLB team relocates, a movement begins among the representatives of the area losing its team to convince Congress to take away the ability of the teams and leagues to control the location of their franchises.  Sympathetic fans in unaffected cities rally to the cause and Congressional intervention suddenly seems a real possibility.  This happened in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when Milwaukee, Kansas City, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., lost their major league baseball franchises, and it happened in the 1980’s and 90’s when NFL teams in Oakland, Baltimore, Arizona, Cleveland, and Houston moved to new cities offering more lucrative places to play.

In each case, Major League Baseball and the NFL dodged a regulatory bullet, but only because they permitted or arranged for new teams to replace the ones that had abandoned their home cities.  Thus, Milwaukee lost the Braves and got the Brewers; Kansas City lost the Athletics but got the Royals; Seattle lost the Pilots but got the Mariners; Oakland lost the Raiders and then got them back; Baltimore lost the Colts but got the Ravens; St. Louis lost the Cardinals but got the Rams; Cleveland lost the Browns but got the new Browns; and Houston lost the Oilers but got the Texans.  Had the leagues not moved relatively expeditiously to replace the moving franchises, direct Congressional regulation of franchise shifts could well have become a reality.

In contrast, there have been numerous franchise shifts in the NBA and the NHL since 1960’s.

In the NBA, Philadelphia moved to San Francisco; Rochester moved to Philadelphia; St. Louis moved to Atlanta; Buffalo moved to San Diego, which moved to Los Angeles; Cincinnati moved to Kansas City, which moved to Omaha, which moved to Sacramento; San Diego moved to Houston; Charlotte moved to New Orleans; Vancouver moved to Memphis; and now Seattle has moved to Oklahoma City, and no one cares enough to start the ball rolling on congressional hearings, not even the representatives of the cities losing teams.  Why bother?  In the NHL, congressional indifference has been even more profound, as Denver moved to New Jersey; Hartford moved to Raleigh; Quebec to Denver: Winnipeg to Phoenix; and Minneapolis to Dallas.  Some of the abandoned cities in the two leagues got new teams, but that was because it made economic sense to replace them, and not because of any sustained public uproar.

Football and baseball are sports in which American fans are heavily invested, both financially and psychologically.  The same cannot be said for basketball and hockey, even though NBA basketball at least seems to rival the two main sports in overall popularity.  However, fans clearly do not attach themselves to NBA teams (particularly when they do not live in the city in which the team is located) as they do to Major League Baseball and NFL teams.

There are a couple of caveats.  For some reason the strong reaction against relocation does not happen when an NFL teams leaves Los Angeles.  The nation’s second city lost both the Raiders and the Rams, but the protest both in Los Angeles and elsewhere was minimal.  Apparently LA doesn’t need the NFL, although it does serve a useful purpose for current NFL owners, who can always threaten to move their teams to Los Angeles if their current hosts don’t come up with a sufficiently lucrative stadium deal.  To lesser extent, the same phenomenon was true for baseball in Washington.  Washington lost its traditional team in 1960 to the Twin Cities, but it immediately got a replacement team, which the city lost to Dallas eleven years later.  In the early 70’s a number of Members of Congress threatened to revoke Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption if a team were not returned to Washington.  Although there was an abortive effort to transfer the San Diego Padres to Washington in 1974, that plan fell through, and when nothing else was done, the furor subsided, largely because no one in Washington was going to games anyway.

The other caveat is that really no one cares when the team that moves is a Canadian team.  Canadians may care, but Canadians have especially little influence over the U.S. Congress.  In recent years, Canada has lost two of its eight NHL teams; one of its two NBA teams; and one of its two Major League Baseball teams.  Neither the U.S. government nor, for that matter, the Canadian government has done anything to try to reverse the flow of teams to the South.

But just wait until Mark Attanasio decides to move the Brewers to Sacramento or Las Vegas. That is when we will see Congress spring back into action.  The Brewers may be a poor team, but there are those who love them.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. David R. Papke

    Before the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks relocated to Atlanta, they were the Milwaukee Hawks and relocated to St. Louis. The team’s young star was forward Bob Petit, known unfortunately as “The Polished Pro.” He had a great jump shot from the elbow and set some of the league’s early scoring records. In keeping with the thesis of Gordon Hylton’s post, nobody in Milwaukee seemed to care a great deal when the Hawks left us. This contrasts mightily with the departure of Milwaukee Braves baseball team in 1965. The community was deeply wounded and felt betrayed by the Braves’ ownership. Getting the Brewers helped ease the pain, but even to this day, some of us consider the greedy Braves’ ownership a dastardly bunch.

  2. Andrew Golden

    I just don’t agree with the premise that few people care about NBA teams relocating. I think that the Sonics’ move is a particularly misapplied example, given that the citizens of Seattle actually backed a completely frivolous lawsuit by the former owners for a good long time in the hopes that Clay Bennett would give in and give their team back. There has been almost universal scorn and ridicule for Bennett et al. by every sporting newspaper, magazine, e-columnist, and blogger I’ve come across; it ranges from out-and-out disgust at the sleazy tactics of Bennett to the much-publicized references by ESPN’s Bill Simmons of the team as “the Kevin Durants” and “They Who Shall Not Be Named.” SportsCenter ran daily updates for months on end as to how the fight was going; I can’t recall another sports story that received that kind of scrutiny and coverage. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there isn’t any true NBA fan in this country who isn’t outraged by this.

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