PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- A big public investment in a big stadium for the biggest sports league in the U.S. doesn't make a U.S. city “big time”: It makes that city Jacksonville.
A National Football League franchise is viewed as civic status symbol. It's a means of getting a city some air time and brings with it the hope that some of the NFL's cash will stay in town. Good luck with that. Last year, the NFL produced $10 billion in revenue. That's greater than the $8 billion produced by Major League Baseball over the same span and more than the revenue produced by the National Basketball Association ($5 billion) and National Hockey League ($3.3 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 34 of the 35 most-watched television shows in the fall of 2013 were NFL games -- with only NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade cracking the Top 35.
But a spot in the NFL's big game comes at a cost. Ask Bills fans in Buffalo, from which the team ships one home game a year to Toronto after forcing local government to shell out $200 million for stadium renovations just to get the team to stay in town for eight more years -- if a new owner decides to keep them there. 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 pay $498 million for a new stadium.
Ask Jaguars fans in Jacksonville, who lose a home game per season to exhibition games in London and just had about 9,000 seats torn out of their stadium for space-filling swimming pools and cabanas. Ask Falcons fans in Atlanta, who just shelled out $200 million in tax dollars to replace the Georgia dome, which was built less than 20 years ago and renovated less than a decade ago for more than $200 million. Ask Chargers fans in San Diego, who are still fighting with ownership over a new stadium. Ask Rams fans in St. Louis, who just watched owner Stan Kroenke buy up land in a Los Angeles sports complex when it became clear his host city, county and state wouldn't foot the $700 million bill to renovate the Edward Jones Dome into a “top tier” facility.
Ask Bengals fans in Cincinnati, where the surrounding county put itself in debt up to its eyelids building a stadium for an owner who wants even more renovations.
Federal taxpayers are already giving the NFL an antitrust exemption that allows it to keep games off the air in their home markets if attendance is lower than the league desires. They're also giving the league tax-exempt status that basically makes the league an offshore account for owners' money that the government and public have absolutely no access to. Why should a city want to kick the league a few extra million just to vacuum out a lot of expendable income and tax dollars, only to cry about it every two decades when its stadium doesn't have all the cool new toys the other owners buildings have?
It shouldn't. As at least three NFL franchises look toward a potential move to Los Angeles and small-market NFL teams become fodder for rumors surrounding the NFL's international expansion, the following five cities serve as reminders that the “big time” doesn't always include the NFL. If the national football league never came calling, these cities would fare just as well as they do today:
Hey, remember just a few months ago when the National Basketball Association's Spurs were so dominant against Miami in the NBA Finals that they sent LeBron James running home to Cleveland and ended the Big 3 era in South Florida?
You know San Antonio does. This is a town in which the Spurs have won five NBA championships in the past 15 years. Coach Greg Popovich and longtime star and roster fixture Tim Duncan are eyeing up real estate on their second hand for more hardware. In a town filled with minor-league teams, the Spurs gave San Antonio international notoriety.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the Missions being the Double-A affiliate of Major League Baseball's San Diego Padres or the Rampage being the feeder team for the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers. It's just that San Antonio has made a name for itself without much help from any of the other major sports, mostly because it's been kicked around and toyed with too many times to go throwing itself at any big-money league that comes along.
When the original North American Soccer League spread throughout the country in the 1970s, San Antonio enjoyed some brief notoriety as home to the San Antonio Thunder and international stars including England national team captain Bobby Moore and Arsenal standout Bob McNab. When Major League Soccer warmed to the idea of a San Antonio franchise in 2005, however, certain elements didn't like the idea and forced MLS to withdraw.
Part of the problem was that, for a brief moment, San Antonio thought it would be an NFL town. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Superdome in New Orleans, San Antonio offered its Alamodome as a practice facility and temporary home stadium for the New Orleans Saints for the 2005 season. After three games, San Antonio won so much praise from former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that the city thought it could support an NFL franchise.
Of course, that was before Jones went and built himself a 100,000-seat stadium, moved Cowboys practices out of San Antonio and earlier this year when Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis met with San Antonio officials about a potential move. The once-amicable Jones is now a major roadblock between San Antonio and an NFL franchise, as San Antonio falls within a 300-mile radius Jones has deemed too close for his comfort.
While just about any Texas city would love to have an NFL franchise of its own, San Antonio has never needed one to justify its existence. Tourists line the riverwalk anyway and Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker keep the city among the sports world's elite. Besides, with a television market larger than those in NFL cities including New Orleans, Jacksonville, Buffalo and Green Bay (but smaller than the combined Green Bay/Milwaukee market), the NFL needs San Antonio's upgrade more than the city needs a team.
The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell really want a London franchise.
The league has held its International Series games in that city since 2007, drawing between 77,000 and 84,000 fans to Wembley Stadium for each of the eight games played during that span. Last season, the league expanded the series to two games and drew 83,500 fans per game.
This year, that number of games swells to three, with Wembley hosting the NFL in September, October and November. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed on to play a “home” game there every season from 2013 through 2016. NFL owners are already quite familiar with the city, with Jaguars owner Shahid Khan owning English Premier League second-tier soccer club Fulham F.C. and Rams owner Stan Kroenke owning Arsenal.
But that's the NFL's biggest problem: It's London, which already embraces a higher football power. Within the M25 loop around London alone, the English Premier League has six top-tier franchises in Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Queens Park Rangers, West Ham United and Crystal Palace. EPL produces nearly $5 billion in revenue per season and draws an average 60,000 fans for Arsenal matches alone.
That's not to say there isn't enthusiasm for the sport in London. The city hosts a number of semi-pro and school-level American football teams and saw a half-million fans gather in Regent Street last September for a rally just before a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings. When asked about the potential for an NFL franchise in London Goodell himself told Sky Sports “I think it's realistic to think that a franchise could be here.”
This is London, though. It's still a 7.5-hour flight from New York and an 8.5-hour flight back. For the San Diego Chargers, it would be an 11-hour flight. A London team would have to make eight of those trips per season, or more if it sneaked into the playoffs.
The NFL is throwing itself at London, which has just about no reason to return the favor. This is a city that just hosted an Olympics, is considering a run at the 2022 World Cup if the Qatar bid fails and is preoccupied with the EPL, UEFA Champions League, FA Cup and other pursuits during U.S. football season. Its reputation fares just fine without the NFL. It's the insecure Americans sports league that feels like it has something to prove.
When Jon Bon Jovi decided he wanted to go all-in on an NFL team, who did he partner with to bid on the Buffalo Bills? The heads of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NFL and the Toronto Raptors of the NBA) and Rogers Communications (which owns the Toronto Blue Jays).
The shame of it is that as much as folks in Eastern Canada will deny associating with the Canadian Football League -- and Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton certainly have trouble drawing more than 25,000 per game -- they aren't exactly coming out in droves for NFL games in Toronto, either. Since the Bills began their Toronto Series in 2008, the one “home” game that team plays in Toronto each year has watched attendance slide from more than 52,000 to just 39,000 last year.
Toronto fans have no problem coming out when the Raptors and Blue Jays are competitive and drew raves from Kevin Garnett and the Brooklyn Nets for their showing in the playoffs earlier this year. With the Toronto area becoming a hotbed for NBA talent and the Blue Jays seizing opportunity in the suddenly sluggish American League East, that isn't surprising.
But the home of the Hockey Hall Of Fame and a Maple Leafs franchise that would sell out if it went zero-for-the-season just doesn't seem to be enthusiastic about the prospect of an NFL franchise coming to town. Even Bon Jovi's bid for the Bills and scouting around Ontario for a stadium site has been met with tepid response everywhere but Buffalo, where a Bon Jovi boycott would still mean something in 2014.
For Buffalo, that has to be one of the more frustrating parts of the waiting game the city's been playing since owner Ralph Wilson died in March. It knows that it may not only lose its team, but could lose it to a city that needs Psy to show up at halftime to get more than 40,000 people to watch a Bills game. Toronto's reaction to American football can best be described as delightful indifference. That may be the ideal in Goodell's self-conscious international NFL, but courting a city that couldn't care less about you is not only futile, but seems downright insulting to passionate fans in smaller U.S. NFL markets.
Given the NFL's recent troubles in Florida, expansion there isn't exactly an imminent threat.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished their first full season of televised home games since 2009 after the the Glazer family of owners bought up tickets to keep games on the air. The Jacksonville Jaguars used to tarp off seats at EverBank Stadium, but this season just ripped them out and replaced them with pools and cabanas. It hasn't prevented them from sacrificing one "home" game a year to London.
Even the major-market 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.
By comparison, Orlando is getting off light.
“America's Vacation Capital” has Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and other economy-driving attractions, but it's also 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.
Die-hard Magic fans 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. In a mediocre Eastern Conference, the Magic still manage to disappoint.
Football hasn't been any kinder. 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 last year. The UCF Knights have a program good enough to produce talent including former NFL quarterback Daunte Culppeper, 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.
Better matchups await each year at the Citrus Bowl -- which hosts great matchups 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.
Orlando was far more effective in wooing a different kind of football. After Major League Soccer announced its intention to expand to 24 teams by 2020, the owners of competing league USL-PRO's Orlando City SC leaped at the opportunity. Not only will Orlando City have an MLS franchise in 2015, it'll have an international superstar in Brazil's Kaka and a downtown stadium under construction. The Orlando faithful firmly believe they can succeed where MLS' Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Sol failed when they folded in 2001 and 2002.
The NFL has its trouble in Florida, but new franchises in Orlando and Miami are proving that soccer thrives there. Meanwhile, Orlando is the the second-largest television market without an NFL team and bigger than NFL markets in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Diego. If it doesn't have to shell out money for an NFL team that will just black out games, it seems perfectly content to embrace MLS instead.
Speaking of MLS, the town that just hosted that league's All-Star Game also just played in its first MLS playoff series and got a boost during soccer's offseason when the NBA's TrailBlazers not only started winning games, but won their first playoff series in 14 years.
Though there have been low rumbles about potentially moving the Oakland Raiders up to Oregon, they haven't come from this city.
It's not that the town is anti-football by any means. The Seahawks get a decent following, as do the Green Bay Packers (thanks to 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 benefactors including Chief Executive Phil Knight turning the former's athletic facilities into a pro-style melange of tech-heavy 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 occupy a niche here just as craft beer, cycling and food carts have. Sports don't tend to just be on the television at local bars -- and many bars don't have televisions at all. Sports bars are a subcategory in the city, opened with the expressed purpose of watching sports. While the city familiarized itself with 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard during the Blazers' playoff run, minor-league hockey and baseball teams don't raise many eyebrows outside of the suburbs.
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 posted only a winning record in four of the past 10 seasons and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs during three of those four campaigns. That's yielded some guarded optimism from Blazers fans, especially with star LaMarcus Aldridge heading into contract negotiations.
Meanwhile, the Portland Timbers have sold out Providence Park since joining Major League Soccer in 2011 and have fans who pack the Max trains and supporters' bars with green and gold each game day. Its Timbers Army of supporters has created a thriving subculture of signs, songs and activism and created the raucous environment that made bringing Bayern Munich and half the 2014 German World Cup championship team into town not just novel, but necessary.
Portland isn't going to reject football simply because it's football, though Portland State University's second-fiddle status at Providence Park may say otherwise. It's because the NFL is the exact opposite of a niche sport, and Portland really doesn't know what to do with that.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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