PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- A professional sports franchise isn't a right, as money-hungry owners and cash-strapped cities are all too aware.
Since 2000, six franchises from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League have pulled up stakes and switched towns. While baseball's Montreal Expos jumped to Washington in 2005 and the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers left for Winnipeg in 2011, the NBA has seen the Vancouver Grizzlies flee to Memphis in 2001, the Charlotte Hornets break for New Orleans in 2002, the Seattle Supersonics slip off to Oklahoma City in 2008 and the New Jersey Nets pay a few tolls on the way to Brooklyn in 2011.
Meanwhile, for every town that has a faltering franchise, there's another with an empty or somewhat-empty building
From Toronto trying on the NFL's Buffalo Bills once a season to Quebec building the NHL a giant safety net for one of its southern franchises, there's always a town looking for some more television time and potential revenue. Even Kansas City hasn't been picky about potential residents for its vacant Sprint Center, auditioning fumbling franchises from both the NHL and NBA for the position. What well-funded investors in Seattle made very clear during their pursuit of the Sacramento Kings earlier this year, meanwhile, is that fans in Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Portland, Ore., shouldn't take their professional teams for granted.
After all, they could end up with nothing. It's happened before, and there are more than a few former big-league towns in North America that can vouch for the fact that it can happen again. We combed through the heavily lined map of sports franchise moves and came up with five vacant towns that once played with the big boys:
The Brass Bonanza played. Kevin Dineen, Ron Francis and the little ball of hate that was Pat Verbeek made life miserable for opponents. Even Gordie Howe lent the team some pedigree during its days in the World Hockey Association and first years in the NHL.
Life was good for hockey fans in Hartford, until a guy named Peter Karmanos came into town in 1994, bought the Whalers, traded stud prospect Chris Pronger for a disgruntled Brendan Shanahan and started grousing about the lack of corporate support and the constraints of the Hartford Civic Center. Karmanos threatened to move the team if he didn't get 11,000 season ticket holders and a new arena. Despite a swell of fan support for the "Save The Whale" ticket buying campaign and negotiations for a new $150 million facility, Karmanos announced in 1997 that he planned to move the team to North Carolina.
The Carolina Hurricanes played two seasons in Greensboro before settling down in Raleigh. To add further insult, the Hurricanes made the franchise's first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2002 -- a loss to the Detroit Red Wings -- and won the cup in 2006. The team's last first-round draft pick -- goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- would go on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Finals' most valuable player in 2003 with the Anaheim Ducks before winning the cup with them in 2007.
The question that's still asked years later is simply this: Did it have to happen? After finance companies and banks spent much of the past decade turning Stamford into a glistening sea of money-stuffed offices by the Long Island Sound, it's somewhat tough to believe corporate support wasn't anywhere to be found in the state. As for Hartford's merits as a market, Nielsen ranks the combined Hartford and New Haven market
30th in the U.S.
, with nearly 1 million viewing households. That's smaller than the 1.15 million TV homes in Raleigh, but roughly the same size as the NHL's market in Nashville (1.01 million) and bigger than its markets in Columbus, Ohio (930,000) and Buffalo (632,000). It's also bigger than NBA TV markets in Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and New Orleans and NFL markets in Buffalo and Jacksonville.
Oh, and when it comes to towns trying to land an NHL or NBA franchise of their own, Hartford draws a bigger television audience than either Kansas City or Las Vegas. While the New York Rangers' minor league team, the Hartford Wolfpack, jumped into the void when the Whalers left in the Civic Center, even the Wolfpack's efforts to retire the numbers of former Whalers including Dineen and its recently ended stint as the Connecticut Whale aren't enough to heal Hartford's wounds. So long as the Whalers' goal horn blows in Raleigh and the NHL sidesteps Hartford, the hurt can't be undone.
Don't judge Quebec too harshly for building an NHL-caliber arena and wishing for one of the current franchises to fail. Back in 1995, its beloved Nordiques were being coveted by every town in need of a team.
This team was in a small market, but, man, was it stacked with talent. After bumbling its way through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Nordiques capitalized on their futility by drafting top-line players including Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Owen Nolan. In 1991, it had the great fortune of landing the No. 1 overall pick just in time to pick up highly touted junior hockey star Eric Lindros. The only problem with selecting the player widely considered to be a brawnier Wayne Gretzky was that Lindros made it clear he had no intention of playing in Quebec City on such a horrible team.
The Nordiques saw an opportunity and, in 1992, traded Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers for Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, several other players, two first-round draft picks and "future considerations." The Nordiques used one of the picks on goaltender Jocelyn Thibault and traded some of the spare-parts players for another first-round pick that turned into forward Adam Deadmarsh.
That team was set for a deep run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but not in Quebec. Cash-strapped and strained by a then-weak Canadian dollar, the Nordiques were sold to a group in Denver in 1995 and renamed the Colorado Avalanche. That franchise would trade Thibault for Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, win a Stanley Cup during its first season in the league and add another to the trophy case in 2001. Forsberg turned into a franchise player, Ricci and Deadmarsh were both cornerstones and Roy is the Avalanche's head coach.
Did it have to happen? Unfortunately, yes. Given the economic conditions at the time, just about every Canadian team was struggling and several were in serious jeopardy. The Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and even the revived Ottawa Senators all felt the strain, while Winnipeg buckled and lost its franchise to Phoenix in 1996. While Canada and Winnipeg eventually recovered nicely, Quebec has started pressing for the return of its beloved Nordiques -- and doesn't seem too particular about how they get there.
In the shadowy rafters of the Onondaga War Memorial hangs a fading banner commemorating one of the Salt City's lesser-known achievements: An NBA title.
Back in the NBA's ninth season in 1955, which was the first season NBA games were televised by NBC, The Syracuse Nationals beat the Boston Celtics to earn a shot at the NBA's championship. Behind future Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and All-NBA forward Paul Seymour, the Nationals took the Fort Wayne Pistons to seven games and eked out a 92-91 win for their first and only NBA title.
Even in NBA history, that's still considered only the second-best thing the team did all season. At the time the NBA was a plodding and perilously slow-scoring affair. Just two years earlier, the Nationals and the Celtics took a playoff matchup to quadruple-overtime in what is still considered the longest playoff game in NBA history. The final score was 111 to 105 in favor of the Celtics, which seems like a fairly normal NBA score until you consider it happened in the equivalent of nearly two games.
During the 1954-55 season, Nationals owner Danny Biasone suggested that the NBA was turning into a giant game of keep-away featuring players on winning teams just holding the ball until the game ended. He recommended that the NBA add a shot clock to force players to put the ball in the air and calculated that a 24-second clock would result in at least 30 shots per quarter. The shot clock was a success and became an NBA fixture.
The same couldn't be said for the Nationals, who would last only eight more seasons in Syracuse. Investors bought the team from Biasone and, in 1963, moved it to Philadelphia to become the 76ers. A year later, the team acquired future Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain and began assembling the team that would earn the franchise its second NBA title in 1967.
Back in Syracuse, meanwhile, the pros never came calling again. While Jim Boehiem and his Syracuse University team started making NCAA Final Four appearances in the 1980s and 1990s before freshman Carmelo Anthony finally helped them to a title in 2003, the town was considered too small for the pros.
Syracuse University sends athletes to the NFL and NBA. The Triple A Syracuse Chiefs send their best down to the Washington Nationals. The Syracuse Crunch now play hockey beneath the Syracuse Nationals championship banner and move their best talent along to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The only remnants of Syracuse's big-league glory are the banner and a monument to the original shot clock, which was dedicated in Downtown Syracuse in 2005.
Hamilton feels like a major-league town because it functions like one. True, it doesn't have a team in any of the four big professional sports leagues, but the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger Cats have been playing here since 1950, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame calls it home and the Tiger Cats' former home field at Ivor Wynne Stadium is being replaced by the $150 million Tim Hortons Field just in time for the city to host the Pan-Am Games in 2015.
The international sports community has recognized Hamilton since it hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1930, making the first time Canada hosted an international sporting event. Hamilton's Canadian sports legacy is well established, with eight Grey Cup victories, including the most recent in 1999. The absence of the other sports leagues, especially the NHL, continues to sting a bit. Especially with 19,000-seat Copps Coliseum lying in wait on Bay Street and York Boulevard.
That's all too big of a tease for a town with the NHL in its blood, but a troubled history with that league. From 1920 to 1925, Hamilton was home to the Hamilton Tigers. The Quebec Bulldogs moved into town in 1920 with the 1913 Stanley Cup to their credit. They never quite lived up to that lofty standard, though, and spent their first four years in Hamilton stinking on ice. When the 1924-25 season came around, the team finally put itself together and went on a run good enough to secure a playoff berth.
That's if they could get their players to actually play the game. On the train ride back from the last game of the season, the players pushed their general manager for an extra $200 a pop, arguing that the season had expanded from 24 to 30 games, but they didn't get a raise. Management balked, and the Tigers players went on strike. The playoffs went on without them, with Montreal winning the final but losing the Stanley Cup playoff to the Pacific Coast Hockey Association's Victoria Cougars. That marked the last time a non-NHL team won the Cup.
That also infuriated the NHL, which awarded a U.S. expansion franchise to bootlegger "Big Bill" Dwyer in 1925. The Tigers and their players were sold to Dwyer that year and became the New York Americans by the next season.
That's where Hamilton's NHL story ended until roughly 2006, when
Research In Motion
founder and Blackberry-bolstered millionaire Jim Balsillie entered the picture. Balsillie's biggest goal was to bring the NHL back to Hamilton, using Copps Coliseum as bait. He made his first attempt in 2006 when he bid on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were seeking a new arena at the time and were being wooed by both Balsillie and Kansas City. Balsillie withdrew the bid after the league wanted more control of the franchise. Balsillie withdrew his bid and the Penguins eventually got their new arena, a slew of new prospects and a Stanley Cup.
Balsillie resurfaced a year later when he announced a tentative deal to buy the Nashville Predators. That agreement turned out to be non-binding, and Balsillie had to go shopping yet again. Finally, in 2009, it looked as if he'd hit paydirt by making a $212.5 million bid for the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes. But the NHL was so opposed to the move that it stepped in, prevented the Coyotes' owner from making business decisions and took control of the franchise itself. A judge prevented Balsillie from making another bid on the team, which was batted around like a hot potato until this year, when a new ownership group pledged $225 million, vowed to change the name to the Arizona Coyotes and promised to keep the team in the desert for at least five years -- avoiding a league plan that potentially would have moved the team to Seattle.
Meanwhile, Balsillie resigned as CEO of Research in Motion last year and left its board of directors a few months later. He hasn't made much noise about bringing a team back to Hamilton, and would have to get approval from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres even if he did. If Hamilton's NHL dreams aren't dead, they've at least been put on ice for the foreseeable future.
Professional football hasn't been played here in 80 years. Universal Stadium was renamed Spartan Municipal Stadium more than four decades ago. Still, Portsmouth was once and NFL city and any fan who's ever watched a playoff game or a game under the lights owes it a debt.
The Portsmouth Spartans were formed in 1929 by lumping together a bunch of pro and semi-pro players from Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia and seeing if it worked. The team performed well enough that Portsmouth residents decided to build Universal Stadium around them. That caught the attention of the NFL, which invited the team into the league in 1930.
At the time, Portsmouth was bigger than the Packers' home Green Bay, Wis., and made a nice addition to the Midwest-focused NFL. What the spartans lacked in talent -- they went 5-6-3 their first year in the league -- they made up for in character. Their nighttime game against the Brooklyn Dodgers that year was the first ever played in the NFL. In 1932, coach Potsy Clark refused to substitute any of his players in a game against Green Bay and won the iron man game 19-0 with the same 11 players lining up on both offense and defense.
At the end of that season, the Spartans were tied for first place with the Chicago Bears and played one game to decide the season. A blizzard in Chicago forced the teams to move from Wrigley Field to the indoor Chicago Stadium. On an 80-yard field, the future Hall of Famers Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange hooked up for a touchdown pass that gave the Bears the league title. The spectacle drew so much attention that, the following year, the league set up conferences and ended each season with a playoff.
While the game fueled the Bears' legacy, it was the beginning of the end for the Spartans. The Great Depression pummeled Portsmouth and the Spartans' revenue plummeted. In 1934, a Detroit radio executive bought the Spartans and moved them to Detroit, where they became the Detroit Lions. Some of the greatest rivalries in the NFL were saved, but Portsmouth would never be a pro sports town again.
Since the Spartans' heyday in the 1930s, Portsmouth's population dropped from nearly 42,600 to little more than 20,000. By comparison, Green Bay's population swelled from 37,400 to 104,000 during that same span. As Portsmouth struggles, the memory of those glory days grows more distant.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.