PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- For every North American city with a pro sports team, there's another green-eyed town just waiting to take it away.
This month, an National Basketball Association ownership committee voted against relocating the Sacramento Kings to Seattle, which lost its own beloved SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008. Seattle businessman Chris Hansen and
Chief Executive Steve Ballmer had bid $365 million for 65% of the team and had made a separate deal with a bankruptcy court to pay $15 million for an additional 7% stake. They were also willing to pay millions more in relocation fees and arena development in Seattle's industrial section to move the Kings to a larger market.
Hansen and Ballmer are still determined to build an arena in Seattle and planning to pitch the NBA's board of governors before it votes formally on the matter Monday. But the league doesn't seem to mind having Seattle around as a bargaining chip to extort taxpayer cash of of cities including Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, New Orleans or Phoenix, Ariz., for arena upgrades and other sweet publicly funded amenities. It got $341 million out of taxpayers in Sacramento, Calif., so just consider that your starting point.
It's a game that's been played in just about every major sport in the country, but the winners of arena politics are never the same. Hartford, Conn., residents are still reeling from the National Hockey League's decision to move their Whalers to North Carolina in 1997. Hockey fans in Atlanta, meanwhile, have been stripped of their NHL team twice: In 1980 when the Flames left for Calgary and last year when the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg.
Major League Baseball teams used Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., as a threat after the cities built a domed ballpark there in 1996. The Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners all used the facility as leverage for their own new stadiums until 1995, when league owners finally added an expansion franchise in Tampa and cashed out.
The line for a pro sports team hasn't shrunk. In fact, here are just seven North American cities just waiting to snatch up one of the teams your metro area is taking for granted:
Kansas City, Mo.
As Oklahoma City showed, if you build a fancy arena, a team will usually come. Usually.
The empty, $276 million
Kansas City built with a hotel room and car rental tax sits as an expensive reminder that building an arena doesn't guarantee a city a team. Built as a replacement to the 1974-vintage Kemper Arena, the Sprint Center lacks two essential items that aging facility once had: a National Hockey League team (the Kansas City Scouts called it home from 1974 to 1976) and a National Basketball League Team (Kemper hosted the Kings from 1974 to 1985 before they moved to Sacramento).
Sure, the Sprint Center's seen some Arena League action, a few big concerts, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's regional rounds in 2009 and the Big 12 Conference's Men's Basketball Tournament in 2008, 2009 and last year. But none of those events bring the hundreds of booked dates and millions in gate and parking revenue a home team does. The city and facility wooed the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007, but succeeded only in getting that team a new arena in Pittsburgh just in time for a Stanley Cup run. There was a brief flirtation with the NHL's Nashville Predators in 2008, but it turns out Predators investors really like Tennessee. The New York Islanders and Los Angeles Kings played a preseason game there in 2009, but the Islanders' miserable arena situation in Uniondale resulted only in a move to Brooklyn. The NBA's L.A. Clippers, New Orleans Hornets and even the prodigal Sacramento Kings all tease, but Blake Griffin, stubborn league ownership and the Sacramento taxpayers all left Kansas City with compliments but no franchise to call its own.
Anschutz Entertainment Group
partnered with Kansas City on the arena, but has covered only operating losses since the building opened. Both the city and Sprint Center are waiting for an opening day that just hasn't come.
Los Angeles has two teams of its own, but that hasn't stopped nearby Anaheim from lobbying for an NBA franchise.
hosts the NHL's Anaheim Ducks but doesn't seem opposed to the idea of bringing in an NBA franchise to fill some dates. Back in 2011, the Anaheim City Council unanimously approved a $75 million bond deal that would put $25 million toward improving the arena and the rest toward fees associated with moving a team. The franchise in question was thought to be the Kings, but we all saw how that turned out.
The city's still not exactly at ease with its pro baseball franchise, the Angels, putting "Los Angeles" in front of its name and wouldn't mind another Anaheim-named team within city limits. That the city wouldn't have to cough up the cash for a new building seems pretty good on Anaheim's end as well.
All Anaheim's bid and subsequent filing for the name "Anaheim Royals" did, however, was prompt the first of several counter offers from Sacramento. Like Seattle after it, Anaheim was a pawn in the NBA's game with California's capital. While Anaheim hasn't actively pursued another team, it seems to be the city best prepared to take one should a franchise become available.
There are cities that want a team to replace one that's been taken away, there are others that want one just to fill out the calendar and then there are places that want a team just to get a spot on the map.
Oklahoma City had this moment when it took the Sonics and made them the Thunder. It was the city's way of saying "Hey, we're a bigger city than Miami, Sacramento, Atlanta and a bigger metro area than New Orleans and Salt Lake City. Where's our team?"
Well, for a brief, shining moment, Virginia Beach had the same idea. It's bigger than Atlanta, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans and Salt Lake City and all of
places have pro sports teams. It's also a bigger metro than Milwaukee, Memphis and Oklahoma City, and all those areas have teams, too. It was then decided that Virginia Beach should get a team of its own, and that team should be the Sacramento Kings.
There were just two big problems with this line of thinking: There may be nearly 1.7 million people in the Virginia Beach market, but there's no arena and no commitment from the Kings or anyone else. Virginia Beach had a vague offer for a 18,500-seat arena, $80 million to offset relocation costs and backing backing from
for the arena project. In the current economy, however, some assurances are usually in order before a city throws $241 million at an arena and begs the state for another $150 million.
In December, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell made it clear he'd include no such foolhardy thing in his 2013 budget. Local government leaders followed suit and the dream was hastily dispatched. Maybe in a better economy, Virginia Beach can go pro. Right now, it's going to have to wait its turn in the minors.
We'll just say this outright: The Buffalo Bills have not been good in a long time.
Their last playoff appearance was a loss to the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Their last winning season was nearly a decade ago. Despite playing in one of the smallest markets in the league, they ask fans to fill 73,000-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium when Bears fans in major-market Chicago only have to take up 61,500 seats at Soldier Field.
Every winter, the freezing temperatures blow off Lake Erie and the lake effect snow falls. Every winter, a Bills game or two is blacked out on television toward the end of the season. Yet all of this, four Super Bowl losses and a wide-right kick from more than 20 years ago aren't even close to the greatest indignities Bills fans have to suffer.
No, that comes courtesy of Bills management and the folks who run the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Together, they devised a scheme in which the Bills would sacrifice one "home" game a year to play in Toronto in the hopes of tapping a nascent Toronto-area fan base. To no one's surprise, that hasn't happened and attendance for the Toronto games fell from 52,000 during their first year in 2008 to just less than 41,000 last year.
No, the Toronto game was there just to remind Bills fans that the team has options in the event owner Ralph Wilson passes away and the locals refuse to pay up for renovations to his namesake stadium. The Toronto series bore fruit last year, as New York state and Erie County coughed up $223 million to spruce up the joint. That bought them only an eight-year guarantee that the team would stay and, just as a reminder of what could happen at the end of that deal, the team renewed the Toronto series and will keep one "home" game a year in Canada until 2017.
If that $223 million deal for a few more seven-game seasons doesn't pry the Bills away, Toronto shouldn't worry. The Miami Dolphins just had taxpayers refuse to pay for their new stadium. Though putting two AFC East teams in such close proximity doesn't seam likely -- especially given the attendance issues on the Canadian side of the lake -- it would at least keep the division intact and give Bills fans a true rival nearby.
The recession took some of the punch out of this pick, and the pros still play coy with Sin City, citing its legalized sports betting as a major turnoff.
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said publicly in 2004 that the league was thinking about moving the Montreal Expos there, though. That team eventually ended up in Washington, D.C., but it sparked interest in the town from the Florida Marlins and the Oakland A's, who played a few games there in 1996 while Oakland Coliseum was being refurbished.
The NBA hosted its an infamously debauched All-Star game there in 2007 and still plays summer league games in nearby Paradise, while the NHL eyed Vegas as a home for the Phoenix Coyotes amid an arena dispute in Glendale, Ariz. The sports gambling is still a sticking point and the city's recovery from the recession is still in progress, but the pros seem to be at least courting the idea of gambling on Vegas.
The biggest takeaway from the Atlanta Thrashers' transition to the Winnipeg Jets is that a resurgent Canadian dollar and strong fan support have a lot more clout after a few lockouts than they did in the Southward-Expansion-Happy '90s and 2000s.
Quebec wasn't pleased that its beloved Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995 and won two Stanley Cups in the decade that followed. Unfortunately, at the time, it was the smallest pro sports town outside of Green Bay, Wis., and the league didn't see a whole lot of value in keeping it put.
My, how times have changed. With recent work stoppages putting the NHL's stability in question altogether, the league is struggling to shore up its weaker franchises and build a base in cities where the sport is already beloved. That means outdoor games in hockey-mad towns, and that means an arena in Quebec City.
Construction began on Quebecor Arena in September and the $400 million, 18,482-seat facility should be ready by 2015. It just needs a team and, as mentioned before, the league is just trying to stay relevant at this point. Expansion seems unlikely in that scenario, but its Southern expansion has left it plenty of wobbly franchises in such places as Phoenix and Florida.
When ownership couldn't make it work in Atlanta, they had no problem finding buyers north of the border. Any NHL team owner having similar trouble today now has a solid backup plan in Quebec, even if wily Montreal Canadiens fans
This is the queen mother of all pro sports bargaining chips, primarily because it's a major market that's courting only the NFL.
After the Rams fled for St. Louis in 1994 and the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995, Los Angeles became an unlikely NFL wasteland. In recent years, however, the buzz surrounding a potential Los Angeles football stadium and the NFL's return has grown so loud that the theoretical stadium already has
While there have been plenty of teams who've expressed interest in moving to this $1.5 billion stadium of dreams that the Los Angeles City Council approved last year, getting one to actually commit has been an issue. For NFL franchises, Los Angeles isn't so much an ideal as it is a threat.
The Minnesota Vikings used a potential move to Los Angeles as leverage for a stadium deal approved by the Minnesota Legislature in May. The Vikings' more than 50-year history in Minnesota remains intact, but at a $500 million to $678 million cost to taxpayers.
It also gave other teams some pretty costly ideas of their own. The Jacksonville Jaguars were sold by Jacksonville loyalist Wayne Weaver to Illinois auto parts mogul Shahid Khan for $760 million in 2011, making the league's least-valuable franchise worth less than most NFL teams' stadiums. Khan has refused to commit to a future in Jacksonville and the NFL's offer to lower the team's blackout threshold to 85% capacity. He hasn't made any noise about moving the team and poured $3 million of his own money into a new locker room, but his lease at
Field through 2028 was nearly terminated by the city's lawyers last year. The team's consistent struggles with ticket sales and with on-field quality always leave Los Angeles looming in the distance.
The Rams, meanwhile, made Los Angeles a thinly veiled option last year when team owners started pressuring St. Louis over its promise to make the
Dome a "first-tier" stadium by 2015. The Rams' definition of first-tier, however, includes a roof with a sliding panel, a glass front instead of a brick exterior and re-routing a nearby street. Those plans, combined with luxury boxes, scoreboards, concessions and offices, could bring the total to $700 million, with St. Louis on the hook for more than half of it. If St. Louis doesn't give the Rams what they're looking for, guess who will.
The most realistic option, however, lies in San Diego. The Chargers spent a season in Los Angeles in 1960 before heading south, but are getting cranky in their current home. The team's
Stadium hasn't received any renovations since 1997, and the deep-pocketed Spanos family of owners refuses to pay for them. The family has since listened to offers from Escondido, National City, Oceanside and Chula Vista, which wants the team renamed the Chula Vista Chargers as part of its proposal. It's been rumored that they've also been courted by Los Angeles.
How have San Diego taxpayers responded? By electing former U.S. Rep. Bob Filner as mayor and not so subtly telling the Chargers to take it walking. Newly minted Mayor Filner was even more forceful, saying, "Enough of the extortion from our sports teams, whether they be the Padres or the Chargers." He later added "no extortion of the public money by the San Diego Chargers when I'm mayor." He's also called for public ownership of the team, which seems unlikely under current NFL rules. Still, Filner and San Diego seem to be in no mood to hear the Spanos family pout.
This puts the other NFL owners in a tough predicament. Do they deny the Chargers the move and insist that the Spanos family bring more to the table, or do they let the Chargers go to L.A. and lose the best argument they had for upgrades to their own facilities?
-- 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.