5 Pro Sports Towns Doing Just Fine Without the NFL

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Can a city consider itself major league when the biggest game in the country isn't played in its metro area?

A National Football League franchise is not only a civic status symbol, but a way of grabbing your town some air time and -- potentially -- some cash. Last year alone, the NFL produced $9.5 billion in revenue. That's $2 billion more than the $7.5 billion produced by Major League Baseball over the same span and more than the revenue produced by the NCAA ($5.3 billion) and NASCAR ($4.1 billion) combined. Its television revenue is slated to rise from an average of $4 billion a year to $5 billion annually as new contracts kick in. The networks are more than happy to pay after 31 of the 32 most-watched television shows in the fall of 2012 were NFL games.

A spot in the NFL's big game comes at a cost, though. Ask Bills fans in Buffalo, whose team ships one home game a year to Toronto and forced local government to shell out $200 million for stadium renovations just to get the team to stay in town for eight more years. Ask fans in Minnesota how psyched they felt at this time roughly two years ago, when Vikings management was threatening to move the team to Los Angeles before finally getting the state to fund a new stadium.

Ask Buccaneers fans in Tampa, who have their team's home games regularly pulled from television. Ask Jaguars fans in Jacksonville, who are about to lose a home game per season to exhibition games in London. Ask Falcons fans in Atlanta, who just had their team owner ask them to replace the team's stadium -- built less than 20 years ago and renovated less than a decade ago for more than $200 million -- with another building paid for with $200 million to $300 million in tax dollars. Ask Chargers fans in San Diego, who are not only being asked to shell out for a new stadium under threat that the team will move to L.A., but who just saw the mayor they elected to take on Chargers management become embroiled in sexual harassment allegations.

Ask Bengals fans in Cincinnati, where the surrounding country put itself in debt up to its eyelids building a stadium for an owner who wants even more renovations.

That's what you have to put up with when you want an NFL team in your town, and that's the price you pay just for the off chance people will stop into your bars and restaurants and stay at your hotels on game day weekend. For some cities and markets, it's their shot at the big time. For towns that have been burned by the NFL before or don't feel like heading down that path anytime soon, it's a burden they're all to pleased to avoid bearing.

We looked at U.S. cities that have pro sports, but no NFL presence, and found five that will be just fine if they're never ready for some football:

Los Angeles

If you're an 18-year-old football fan, you've never known a time when the NFL has called your city home.

The Raiders vacated the L.A. Coliseum and went back to their old home in Oakland in 1995. The Rams, who still bore the Los Angeles name despite playing in Anaheim at the time, followed the Raiders out the door and headed for new digs in St. Louis. While Los Angeles has made it quite clear it wouldn't mind having an NFL team again -- and uses a proposed City of Industry stadium as a lure for NFL owners fed up with their small markets or current stadium deals -- it's not in any rush to bring one back.

Since the NFL left, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have taken home five NBA titles, while the L.A. Clippers transformed themselves from a league disgrace into the Blake Griffin/Chris Paul "Lob City" contender. Even the L.A. Sparks of the WNBA added to the city's trophy chest with two titles in 2001 and 2002.

The NHL's Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, which is only the city's first if you're a purist who isn't counting the Anaheim Ducks' 2007 title. Speaking of Anaheim, the team that now calls itself the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim earned itself a World Series title in 2002, while the L.A. Dodgers sit atop the National League West.

Want to include soccer in the mix? Major League Soccer's Chivas USA may not be much to look at, but the L.A. Galaxy have won the MLS Cup four times since 2002 and won the CONCACAF Champions League Cup in 2002.

We know: Unless you're European, none of that's "football." We'd mention the two titles the University of Southern California won in 2003 and 2004, but NCAA sanctions, Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush knocked out that second one and only The Associated Press and USC alums recognize the first. The Trojans finally returned to bowl eligibility last year, only to get thumped by Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

In short, Los Angeles might want the NFL to come knocking someday, but it doesn't need it by any means. Nielsen still ranks it the No. 2 television market in the U.S. with 5.6 million households and nearly 5% of all U.S. TV viewers. Of the five cities ESPN.com dedicates specific pages to -- New York, Dallas, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles -- only L.A. gets the honor without an NFL team. The Raiders, Rams and San Diego Chargers are just a few of the NFL teams that have expressed interest in calling the city home, but considering the City of Angels has been spurned by each of those three before -- the Chargers had a cup of coffee in town in 1960 -- NFL heaven can wait.

Columbus, Ohio

Before 1996, Columbus was the largest city in the U.S. without a professional sports franchise. Depending on who you're talking to, even that might be a stretch.

Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew arrived in 1996 and, three years later, gave MLS its first soccer-specific stadium in the small, 20,000-capacity Crew Stadium. Three years later, it gave the city its first major league sports championship by beating the L.A. Galaxy for the MLS Cup. By then, however, it had some big-league company courtesy of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, who arrived in 2002.

Though a Major League Soccer team, which just sold for a league-record $68 million (or $11 million more than Washington-based DC United sold for last year), and an NHL team that's made the playoffs only once in its existence don't suggest that Columbus can just shrug off the NFL, that big mass of scarlet in Ohio Stadium sure does.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is arguably the most famous football coach in Ohio and has more championships than the state's two NFL coaches combined. Though Meyer's team didn't make a bowl last year because of a one-year bowl ban courtesy of the tattoo-and-memorabilia-related shenanigans of ex-coach Jim Tressel and some Buckeyes players, his was the only football team in Ohio to post 12 wins last season. His Buckeyes ran the table in 2012, and expectations are high.

As they should be. This is a team that's won the Big 10 title 34 times, won 10 of its last 12 match-ups with the University of Michigan, but has only one national title to show for it since 2002 despite championship game appearances in 2007 and 2008. With Meyer at the helm, the marching band dotting the "I" in Ohio and 102,000 people cramming Ohio Stadium, Ohio State gets all the attention of its NFL neighbors -- with slightly better results.

Since basketball coach Thad Matta arrived in 2004, the Buckeyes have been worth watching even after football season. The team made two Final Four appearances in 2006 and 2012 and made the national championship game against the University of Florida in its first.

There may not be room in either Columbus or Ohio for an NFL team, but that's the NFL's loss. All that rabid fandom takes place in a television market that Nielsen says is roughly equal to Kansas City and ahead of NFL markets in Jacksonville, New Orleans, Buffalo ... and Cincinnati. And what does Cincinnati get for its trouble? An owner who threatened to move the team unless local communities mortgaged their future on a new, publicly funded stadium and a team that's made the playoffs two years straight, but spent half of last season off local television because it couldn't draw.

Columbus doesn't need that hassle. Besides, the NFL already swung through here once: From 1922 to 1926, when the Columbus Panhandles/Tigers compiled a 10-31-1 record in the league's earliest days. Judging by what's transpired since, Columbus doesn't miss sub-.500 NFL action in the slightest.

Salt Lake City

Every so often, some joker makes an offhand comment about moving the NBA's Utah Jazz out of Salt Lake City and into the waiting arms of some larger market such as Seattle or Anaheim. Each time, the deft hand of mainstay coach Jerry Sloan slapped some sense into them and the matter was closed.

Even with Sloan gone and star players walking out the door, the Jazz aren't going anywhere. The Jazz are Salt Lake City's sports and entertainment anchor and far too vital to the SLC area and financial interests of the Miller family of owners to uproot themselves. Maybe John Stockton and Karl Malone aren't suiting up and hitting the floor of EnergySolutions Arena anytime soon, but Sloan showed that he didn't need them to be successful. Salt Lake City has a fervent fan base similar to those NBA fans have seen in both Sacramento and Oklahoma City. They're the folks you'd want in the building if you're trying to draw a team to your town, and they're the last people you want in the seats if you're trying to move a team out from under them.

The Jazz, meanwhile, have had exactly two losing seasons in the past 30 years. They've made the playoffs in all but five of those seasons. They've largely held up their end of the bargain, but they've also made Salt Lake City a viable option for other major league sports. Major League Soccer set up camp in nearby Sandy in 2004 and both the city and league have galvanized around Real Salt Lake. The team draws an average of 18,547 fans per game to 20,000-seat Rio Tinto Stadium and outdraws big-market teams in New York (18,401), Philadelphia (17,591), Dallas (15,060), Boston (13,669), Washington, D.C., (13,365), Chicago (12,723) and Los Angeles (not the Galaxy, but Chivas' 8,896 per game).

Again, none of this is football, but all of it adds up to a town doing just fine on its own. Besides, the University of Utah has been trying to tell anyone who will listen that its football team belongs in the national discussion. Granted, that was true when the aforementioned Urban Meyer guided the Utes to an undefeated season in 2004 and trounced the University of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl -- but wasn't considered a contender for the national championship. The argument even had some merit in 2008, when current coach Kyle Whittingham went 13-0 and beat the powerhouse University of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl -- but also was left out of the title discussion. It's been a bit tougher since the team moved to the Pac-12 conference in 2011, though. An 8-5 season and a Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech was followed by a 5-7 campaign last year that was bearable only thanks to a win over then-ranked rival Brigham Young University.

All that said, Salt Lake City sports fans keep themselves busy and take up a whole lot of televisions doing so. Their market, according to Nielsen, is larger than NBA markets in Milwaukee, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Memphis, Tenn. It's also larger than that of the NFL's bottom five markets in Cincinnati, Buffalo, N.Y., Jacksonville, Fla., New Orleans and Green Bay, Wis. (though the combined Green Bay/Milwaukee market is larger). Even after it hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002, the NFL didn't give Salt Lake City so much as a sniff. In Salt Lake City's defense, it really doesn't seem to care.

Orlando, Fla.

These are trying times for the NFL in Florida. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have blacked out most of the team's home games on local television since 2010. The Jacksonville Jaguars tarp off seats at EverBank Stadium and had their owner sacrifice one "home" game a year to London. The Miami Dolphins have needed help from sponsors and television affiliates to buy up tickets and avoid blackouts while trying to squeeze funding for a new stadium out of the stone that the Miami-Dade County tax base -- which already feels burned after shelling out for a new Miami Marlins ballpark, only to watch management gut the team.

None of this is Orlando's problem. Not even in the slightest.

Beyond the "America's Vacation Capital" facade and the flocks of tourists heading to Walt Disney World ( DIS), Universal Studios ( CMCSA), Sea World and other economy-driving attractions in a city with a thriving tech center and a rapidly growing population. It also puts a lot of stock in the Orlando Magic, who've spent more than two decades giving fans short bursts of greatness followed by tough stretches of drama and misery. Big men Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard each brought the Magic to the NBA Finals (in 1995 and 2009), but each also left for a bigger market and spotlight.

Magic fans who have been around for the whole stretch have seen two All-Star games come through town, but have also watched their franchise win little more than half the games it's played and foster some fan cynicism that would impress even the most jaded Northeast transplant.

As for football, don't get this town started on football. The University of Central Florida has a nice little rivalry going with the University of South Florida just down Interstate 4 but has a hard time getting athletic conferences to play along. Its football team has changed conferences three times since 2000, jumping to The American Athletic Conference formerly known as the Big East this year. The UCF Knights have a program good enough to produce talent including former NFL quarterback Daunte Culpepper, Detroit Lions running back Kevin Smith and Atlanta Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel, but have been just good enough under coach George O'Leary to earn trips to the Beef O' Brady's Bowl, St. Petersburg Bowl and AutoZone Liberty Bowl during the years they didn't go 3-5.

If football fans can hold out, better match-ups await each year at the Citrus Bowl -- which hosts great match-ups between ranked non-contending teams in the Capital One Bowl and the best of college football's unranked teams in the Russell Athletic Bowl. It's not the pros, but professional football has always treated Orlando like a novelty act anyway. The World Football League set up shop here for a season in 1974 before moving to San Antonio the next year. The USFL's stay was similarly brief in 1985, when the Orlando Renegades went 5-13 just before the league folded in 1986. The World League of American Football at least stuck around for a few seasons in the early '90s before the Orlando Thunder and all the league's other U.S.-based teams were dropped in 1995. The XFL brought the Orlando Rage in 2001, but that 8-2 team was upset in the first round of the playoffs and the XFL never saw another season.

No, the only football Orlando is actively wooing these days isn't called that in the U.S. With Major League Soccer recently announcing its intention to expand to 24 teams by 2020, the owners of competing league USL-PRO's Orlando City SC have made it clear that they'd like to jump to the MLS by 2015. The push for a stadium site and funding has begun and the 8,000 or so fans who show up regularly for Orlando City games at the Citrus Bowl believe firmly they can succeed where MLS' Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Sol failed when they folded in 2001 and 2002.

The NFL may be struggling in Florida, but Orlando's soccer fans are on a mission to prove that soccer not only lives in the Sunshine State, but thrives there. Meanwhile, the second-largest television market without an NFL team -- one bigger than St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, N.C., Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Diego -- seems content not to shell out taxpayer money for an NFL stadium or worry if enough people will fill it to keep games on television.

Portland, Ore.

We really wanted to throw San Antonio into this last spot, given the Spurs' long run of greatness in the NBA, but San Antonio hasn't exactly been shy about its desires to one day host an NFL team of its own: Hosting Dallas Cowboys camps and getting both Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to boast about its merits as a potential NFL host city.

Portland, meanwhile, shows zero interest in bringing the league to town.

It's not that the town is anti-football by any means. The Seahawks get a decent following, as do the Green Bay Packers for reasons that still aren't 100% clear (answers include Midwest migrants, the team's public ownership and a color scheme distinctly similar to that of the University of Oregon). Even Oregon and Oregon State have team stores right downtown, with Nike ( NKE) benefactors including Chief Executive Phil Knight turning the former's athletic facilities into a pro-style melange of tech-heavy coaches lounges, high-end spas and player barber shops. As an NFL TV market, it sandwiches right between St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

It's just that Portland doesn't do anything with any degree of what the rest of the country considers normalcy. Sports exist as a niche here just as coffee roasting, craft beer and cycle culture do. Sports don't tend to just be on the television at local bars -- if those bars have televisions at all. Sports bars are a subcategory in the city, opened with the express purpose of watching sports. It's not assumed that everyone in town knows that the Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard was unanimously voted the NBA's Rookie of the Year this year. The fact that the NHL's top prospect in 2013, Seth Jones, played for the Portland Winterhawks this year seems more like a bar trivia question than an accepted truth. Beyond the die-hard suburbs, even the fact that the Winterhawks won junior hockey's Western Hockey League championship isn't a point of universal pride.

So what does grab a sports fan's attention here? The easy answer is the Trail Blazers when they're winning -- as this is a town that still has deep affection for the departed Brandon Roy and lingering resentment toward draft bust Greg Oden and the "Jail Blazers" of the early 2000s. Unfortunately, the team has only posted a winning record in four of the past 10 seasons and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs during each of those campaigns. That's kept excitement at a minimum.

The other answer is the Portland Timbers, who've sold out Jeld-Wen Field since joining Major League Soccer in 2011 and who pack the Max trains and supporters' bars with green and gold each game day. Even that is more a communal, subcultural experience than an all-encompassing citywide affair, though. The Timbers Army of supporters does its best to keep face-value tickets available in its section and to bring new fans along, but the songs, chants, pecking order for rivalry game tickets, approach to national team games and friendlies and other smaller aspects of the game can get borderline tribal and esoteric.

Yet it all results in a breed of fan that's inherently Rose City specific. When the Cascadia Cup rival Seattle Sounders signed U.S. team standout Clint Dempsey little over a month ago -- getting some help from the league in bypassing player distribution rules -- Timbers fans didn't just rail at the Sounders, their fans, their turf field and their stupid faces. They used it as an opportunity to call out MLS head Ron Garber and open a discussion about exactly what kind of soccer league the MLS should be. It was perhaps a bit pedantic, but it was convincing enough to sway even Seattle's Emerald City Supporters to their side of the argument.

Basically, Portland isn't going to reject football because football is somehow inherently bad -- or even because it lacks anything even remotely resembling an NFL-caliber stadium. It's because the NFL is the exact opposite of a niche sport, and Portland may not have any niches large enough to accommodate it.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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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.

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