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Sports Teams, Communities, and the Specter of Relocation

Regardless of a team’s success, fans often face a common enemy: team owners willing to leverage relocation to get new stadiums

The Oakland Athletics and the Kansas City Chiefs are about as different in the context of the sports world today than just about any pairing of teams. While the Chiefs have a budding dynasty in the NFL with the best player at the most important position, the Athletics are the laughingstock of Major League Baseball and on their way to a new city. And yet despite these differences, both teams were in the news in recent weeks for the same reason: relocation.

While the A’s are moving to Las Vegas (with a stop for a couple of years in Sacramento before that), there have been reignited fears that the Chiefs might consider relocation. Voters in Jackson County, Missouri voted down a sales tax measure that would fund a new ballpark for the Kansas City Royals and fund major renovations to Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs play. While there is no guarantee that the Chiefs would ever leave Kansas City, the implication has been established that it could happen making the Chiefs and their ownership group no better than any other American sports franchise owner willing to forgo a sense of community that is cultivated in a city to the highest bidder promising a shiny new stadium. It is a trend that is all too familiar in American sports, and fans are always the ones to pay the bill whether it is financially or emotionally.

A Culture of Relocation

Since the 1980s, there have been nine occasions where an NFL team has moved cities, with the latest move being the Oakland Raiders leaving California for Las Vegas in 2020. The NBA has also seen nine city relocations since the 80s with the most recent being the Nets moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012. Baseball by contrast, has not seen much relocation in the last forty years, with the A’s move only being the second in that timespan along with the relocation and rebranding of the Montreal Expos to today’s Washington Nationals. A city losing its team to a different city is something that fans have grown accustomed to in the United States, which is why it is never much of a surprise when the news of relocation rears its ugly head anytime a stadium needs to be modernized.

Teams in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Miami generally never have to worry about their teams leaving since they are very important to the demographic footprint of sports leagues. But teams in mid-sized to small markets do need to be concerned because at the slightest indication that a team owner will not get the new arena or stadium that they want, they will always dangle the threat of leaving as a bargaining chip. And it works nearly every time because there is tremendous value in housing a team for a new city.

When a team moves from one city to another, the new city benefits from immediate jobs in the construction sector to build the necessary facilities. Beyond this, there are more employment opportunities for storefronts near the stadium to capitalize on an influx of fans descending upon the city on game days. Sports teams also encourage tourism and are a reason for fans from other states to travel to a city to take in a game.

A team arriving or leaving can also have massive ripple effects on local economies. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the impact that LeBron James had on the hospitality industry in Cleveland when he played for the Cavaliers. While he was there, the number of bars and restaurants in Cleveland grew by 13% and the number of employees working at these establishments grew by 23.5%.

This level of impact is crucial to a city looking to fortify its downtown area and drive in more tourism revenue. Cities will often feel as if they are held hostage by a team when they request public tax dollars to build new stadiums or renovate existing facilities. Over the last 20 years, taxpayers have spent more than $7 billion on NFL stadiums alone, accounting for nearly half of the costs of these new venues. The reason that owners continue to employ borderline extortion tactics is because deep down we love our teams so much and cannot fathom an existence without them.

The Devotion of Fandom

During this year’s NFL Playoffs, I received calls and text messages from family and friends in Detroit centered around the run that the Detroit Lions were on and the sheer joy and elation that it caused. In that moment I was reminded why I love sports so much. The players and teams that we root for have a way of connecting people that previously would have never been connected. They form bonds that could last a lifetime.  With our teams we tend to forget about all the wrong in our lives and the world for a few hours to escape and enjoy a game. It is a poetic bliss that many look to capture.

It is that dedication that team ownership groups are often banking on to get their way when it comes to funding their team’s stadium renovations. It is why a team like the Detroit Lions can justify raising season ticket prices after winning their division for the first time in over thirty years. They do it because we as a collective sport watching fan base are attached to our teams and will go out of our way to support and root for them in any way that we can. That could be purchasing season tickets, or it could be buying merchandise, or even just spending time on social media defending our favorite players.

So, when a team’s owner can simply give fans an ultimatum to fund their new stadium or the team will leave, it is a threat that fans tend to take seriously. They take it seriously because there are more than enough examples to point to when an owner followed through on the threat and forced a relocation to avoid paying the entire bill for a new stadium. This sort of crowdfunding vibe should ring hollow for most NFL fans. After all, team owners are exorbitantly rich and NFL teams are some of the most profitable in the world with most franchises netting over $100 million in profits every year.

The threats of relocation that teams engage in are done with a purpose. To strike fear into taxpayers and government officials to get their way without having to pay as much. While they typically get their way (as do most uber rich people in modern society), it comes at a cost: the devaluing of the community aspect of sports.

Sports, Community, Transactions

When I lived in Detroit, I was a season ticket holder to Detroit City FC, a local soccer club that plays in the USL Championship. The club is a grassroots movement with a loyal fan base that packs in Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, Michigan on matchdays. There is a dedication and a community that the club has built, one centered around togetherness, inclusion, and a love of soccer. The club has done a great job over the years in being a part of the Metro Detroit community and is always giving back in any way that it can. This level of community is often lost in higher revenue generating professional leagues, and it is frankly something that I wish was more prevalent.

In leagues like the NFL and NBA, it seems that players take more initiative to give back to the communities that they play in rather than the teams themselves. We saw this during the COVID-19 lockdowns that suspended play in leagues where NBA players, not the team owners, covered the lost wages of arena workers. We also see players in the offseason holding camps and tournaments to try and connect with their local market. The teams, meanwhile, will continue to ask the city they play in for more and more, taking for granted the community aspect of sports.

This disregard for local ties shows a misunderstanding of how important a team and something to root for is to a city. Oftentimes a team’s identity becomes a reflection of the city it plays in and the city in turn becomes identifiable by its sports team. A great example of this is the Miami Heat, a franchise that plays in a larger market that is incredibly diverse and fascinating. The team has been able to attract star players like LeBron James and Jimmy Butler because of its beautiful weather and beaches. But it also has a reputation for being a gritty team that will do anything to win, a parallel befitting a city with an affluent population in addition to a large immigrant population from the Caribbean trying to achieve the American dream. That team culture is incredibly reflective of Miami and may feel out of place in a place like Wichita, Kansas for example.

Most fans understand the transactional nature of sports and the teams that play in our favorite leagues. They are of course a business that is trying to make money. But even our favorite places of business have a personal touch that resonates with us, making us come back to them. The way that team owners today handle the city that they play in feels a little too cold, a little too calculating, and ultimately too transactional.

The Kansas City Chiefs have built a dynasty playing at Arrowhead Stadium, and they will likely find a resolution to their current stadium dilemma by continuing to play in Kansas City. However, the suggestion that they could move just feels like everything that is wrong with professional sports. The Chiefs are as integral to the identity of Kansas City as much as jazz music and amazing barbecue food. The idea of throwing that away from a branding perspective feels foolish and misses the point.

Fandom should be passed down from generation to generation, as a common thread between people of all ages. The default willingness of sports owners considering relocation is something that should not be as popular as it is in American sports. Our teams should be a part of our communities for the long haul. It is just a sad reality that as much as we love our teams, that the people that own them don’t happen to feel the same way.

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