With school being out for the summer and commencement speeches (like this one from Conan O’Brien at Dartmouth) over, let’s take a quick look at possible pro sports franchise moves since all of the leagues have some potential realignment scenarios. I have a few key guidelines:
(1) Contraction is not a realistic option – Contraction is a popular proposal among columnists, bloggers and message board people since all of the leagues other than the NFL would probably be much more competitive top-to-bottom by dropping a franchise or 2 or 6. However, there’s a reason why no team has been eliminated in nearly 4 decades: when owners have been given the option of either (A) paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to dissolve a franchise or (B) collecting hundreds of millions dollars in franchise relocation fees and using those moves as examples of threats to get brand new stadiums for their own teams, they’ve logically chosen option B every single time. As a result, I will assume that any franchise that isn’t doing well would need to be moved as opposed to contracted.
(2) Favorable stadium deals trump markets – In a world where the NFL has a team in Jacksonville but not in Los Angeles, it’s clear that having the “right” stadium in place is more important than even market size to pro sports owners. As much as Seattle should never have lost the Sonics and deserves another NBA team, Key Arena has been deemed unacceptable due to its lack of revenue-generating suites (whether fairly or not) and, therefore, Seattle won’t be a viable market for the NBA or NHL until they get concrete new stadium plans into place. Outside of the NFL (where LA is still priority #1), I will only look at markets that have “acceptable” stadiums in place.
(3) Less is more – Much like college conference realignment, where our imaginations ran wild with various configurations and proposals but ultimately ended up with much more subdued changes, radical realignments to the pro sports leagues are very unlikely. The fewer teams switching leagues, conferences and/or divisions, the better.
With those guidelines in mind, here are my thoughts:
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
There’s been a lot of talk lately about MLB realignment ranging from a simple move of one National League team to the American League to scrapping divisions altogether. One of the issues with baseball is that the owners actually have veto power over whether their own teams move leagues or divisions, which means that no one can be forced to move against their will. Another issue is that no NL franchise is going to willingly move to the AL unless it gets placed in the AL East, where it would receive a bunch of seat-filling dates with the Yankees and Red Sox. The cornerstone franchises in the NL Central (Cubs and Cardinals) and, to a lesser extent, the NL West (Dodgers and Giants) are significantly greater attendance draws than their counterparts in the AL such as the White Sox, Angels and A’s (and I say this as a massive White Sox fan). That’s why the Brewers ran to the NL Central as quickly as possible when they received the opportunity – they get to enjoy sellout a dozen or more sellout crowds from traveling Cubs and Cards fans that never came when they were playing the White Sox and Twins.
This is where the prospect of the Astros moving to the AL West makes a lot of sense. They’re going through an ownership change that needs to be approved by MLB, which means that this is a rare opportunity to force realignment by making such approval conditioned upon a league switch. The Astros likely would never have agreed to switch leagues on their own, but a new owner that’s trying to get into the MLB club is going to have to acquiesce to the iron-fisted demands of Bud Selig. Look at what Selig just did to Frank McCourt and the Dodgers. Bud might as well be sporting a “Thug Life” tattoo.
NHL realignment is also on the radar with the impending move of the Thrashers franchise from Atlanta to Winnipeg. It appears that the Thrashers (or hopefully the Jets) will end up staying in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference for next season, which makes some sense as it gives the Phoenix Coyotes another year to figure out whether they’re staying in that market and the league wouldn’t want to realign two years in a row.
What I was a bit surprised about was seeing how much the Red Wings and their fans seem to be pushing for (AKA whining about) switching conferences because they were supposedly promised by Gary Bettman first dibs on a move to the East back in the 1990s. (Apologies to the generally level-headed Wings fans that read this blog. All of you guys are OK.) First of all, why anyone would believe a thing Gary Bettman says about anything (especially something from nearly 2 decades ago) is beyond me. Second, the Red Wings presumably don’t want to move to the Southeast Division (as it appears that their goal is to reunite with Toronto in the Northeast Division), which means that the NHL would have to switch around a whole number of teams in the Eastern divisions (including possibly marquee franchises like the Bruins and Penguins) in order to make that happen. Why would the Penguins agree to be separated from the Flyers or the Bruins from the Canadiens to accommodate the Wings? Detroit moving conferences is the most logistically messy option out there. Third, switching the Red Wings to the East would mean 5 of the Original Six franchises would be in that conference along with breaking up the team’s rivalry with the Blackhawks. I know that a lot of Wings fans seem to think that reviving the Maple Leafs rivalry is more important (maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder or, more likely, there’s a denial of this self-evident truth), but let’s look at it from an NHL business perspective. The East is already receives a disproportionate share of TV coverage because it has 4 of the Original Six franchises plus 2 other marquee franchises in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and currently another superstar in Washington (Alex Ovechkin). The NHL is almost solely dependent upon the Red Wings and Blackhawks for national TV drawing power in the West. Is the NHL seriously going to let the revitalized Chicago market sit out on an island when the Blackhawks franchise helped the league get the highest Stanley Cup Finals TV ratings in the last 4 decades? And forgetting about the Blackhawks (as one may argue that my status as a Hawks fan causes me to be biased), but why on Earth would the other franchises in the West let the Wings move? That would be like the Western Conference teams in the NBA allowing the Lakers to leave for the East in terms of attendance and TV ratings. It simply doesn’t make any business sense for any of them. Finally, there’s already one franchise located further east than Detroit in the Eastern Time Zone (Columbus) and another that’s much more geographically suited to be in the Southeast Division (Nashville), albeit in the Central Time Zone. There’s no reason why moving Detroit, which would cause a massive domino realignment of the entire Eastern Conference, makes more sense than simply plugging Columbus or Nashville in the Southeast without any other repercussions.
Therefore, going with the “less is more” mantra and assuming that the Coyotes work out some type of deal with Glendale where they don’t end up moving, I believe the best switch is simply slotting Nashville into the Southeast Division, putting Minnesota in the Central Division and sending Winnipeg to the Northwest Division. While Nashville is located in the Central Time Zone, the Predators are simply much more of a regional fit with the other Southeast teams (and geographic rivalries are arguably more important in hockey than any other sport). It also makes more sense from a regional rivalry standpoint to keep Columbus with the other Midwestern teams in the Central Division. I personally like the prospect of a semi-recreation of the old Norris Division with Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Minnesota. It would be nice if Toronto could switch back to the West so that there would be 3 Original Six teams in each conference again, but much like the desirability of the NL over the AL (outside of the AL East), none of the Eastern Conference teams would willingly move to the West barring an actual franchise move (like the Thrashers situation).
The Sacramento Kings are the current threat to move markets if they don’t end up with a new stadium deal to replace ARCO Arena. Sacramento mayor (and former NBA star) Kevin Johnson has a proposal on the table for a new arena for that market, but with the long track record of aggressive stadium plans falling apart in California over the past decade, I wouldn’t bet on any groundbreakings there. While I’m personally not a huge fan of the LA market getting a third NBA team if the Kings ultimately move to Anaheim, I can see how it could financially work since drawing from Orange County alone (not to mention the San Diego market directly adjacent to it to the south) is more than enough of a population base to support a franchise. Add in the more valuable suite situation at the Honda Center and MUCH higher potential TV rights and it looks like a strong financial deal for the Kings by heading to Anaheim. The only caveat is that this would bail out the Maloof brothers, who don’t deserve it.
I’m a firm believer than an NBA franchise would make a killing in Las Vegas with its high-roller culture, yet that’s another market that can’t ever seem to get a concrete arena deal into place. Kansas City, on the other hand, has a beautiful state-of-the-art arena (the Sprint Center) ready-to-go without a regular major pro sports league tenant. That market seems to make a lot of sense for a franchise like the Hornets to move to if they decide to leave New Orleans. The Hornets were already struggling financially prior to Hurricane Katrina, but David Stern was committed to staying in that market in the wake of that disaster. After witnessing terrible attendance even with a great superstar in Chris Paul playing there, it seems that the NBA simply is not going to work in New Orleans.
The NBA Western Conference divisions are probably the screwiest of any of the 4 major pro sports leagues at this point where a larger realignment would be justified, yet it’s tough since, as we’ve seen in other leagues, you’re not going to get a franchise like the Bulls to willingly move from the East to the West. Sacramento moving to Anaheim wouldn’t require any type of change to the Pacific Division. However, if the Hornets move to Kansas City, I’d put Oklahoma City into the Southwest Division and move the new KC Hornets to the Northwest. It’s not that pretty, but that at least continues to provide Minnesota with a Central Time Zone mate and OKC gets to be with its natural geographic counterparts in Texas.
The franchise that should move is the Jacksonville Jaguars. They’re in a small market that has to compete with 2 other NFL franchises in its home state (Buccaneers and Dolphins) and the fan base is apathetic. However, the Jags have a stadium lease deal that essentially handcuffs them to their market until 2029. There’s also been talk about the Vikings moving if they don’t a new stadium, but my feeling is that the political willpower will be there to push that through. The NFL letting them move would be almost Browns-like and I doubt the league lets that happen again. As a result, the Chargers and Raiders are much more likely candidates to move to the goldmine of Los Angeles (assuming that there’s a stadium deal, which is a dangerous assumption even though this latest downtown proposal next to the Staples Center looks perfect). There’s also a possibility of the return of the Rams, who can leave St. Louis in 2014 if the Edward Jones Dome isn’t renovated. Personally, I think the Raiders are best-suited for LA, as they have some history there (today was a good day, Ice Cube), the AFC would benefit more than the NFC in having an LA franchise (as the NFC already has the top team in the New York market plus Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, which results in Fox paying $90 million per year more for the NFC TV package compared to the CBS AFC TV package) and the San Francisco Bay Area might be the most overrated place to locate a pro franchise in the country. Don’t get me wrong – I think the Bay Area is fantastic and Napa Valley is on my retirement locale short-list. However, I’m continuously perplexed as to how many proposals that I’ve seen to move additional NBA and NHL teams to that market (Larry Ellison’s recent bid to bring the Hornets to San Jose, for example) when they’ve only proven to support the 49ers and Giants (and only after they built a ballpark that’s as much of an attraction as the team itself). A strong sports fan culture just doesn’t exist there and the Raiders should have never moved back to Oakland. Regardless, a Raiders, Chargers or Rams move to LA would be easy enough for the NFL and wouldn’t require any division switches (as they are all currently in one of the western divisions). The Vikings moving to LA would likely require the Rams to move into the NFC North, while a Jaguars relocation would kick the Chiefs to the AFC South (which would be sad considering the history that Kansas City has with the other AFC West teams, but ultimately necessary).
We’ve had a relatively long period of stability in the pro sports world with only the Sonics and Thrashers having moved within the past 5 years. The combination of a weak economy, a more cautious electorate regarding publicly-financed stadiums and a gaping NFL hole in LA is going to put that stability to the test in the near-future.
(Image from Nacho Donut)