The 10 Most Devastating Franchise Relocations in Professional Sports History
After a period of time without a team, last week the NHL approved the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to a group that plans on returning a franchise to Winnipeg, Manitoba—a team that was robbed of its franchise back in the mid-1990s.
Unlike the Atlanta Thrashers, last month the NBA's worst owners—the Maloof brothers—threw the Sacramento Kings a bone when they decided to keep the Sacramento Kings in the city for one more year.
However, Sacramento is not out of the dark yet. If the city refuses to pass a measure to build a new stadium within the next year, the Maloofs are taking their team to greener pastures—presumably Orange County/Anaheim, California.
In the Maloofs' mind, ARCO Arena's lack of suites and declining season ticket sales (thanks to the slashing of the payroll over the last few years) doesn't stack up to Anaheim's abundance of luxury boxes and millionaire residents.
But what the Maloofs fail to recognize is that their greed may rob the NBA of one of the league's best environments.
Since 1985, the city of Sacramento has supported their only professional sports team with all of their might, through one of the NBA's most rabid fan bases. Considering that the team only had three or four years of success in Sacramento, that means this city has certainly given more to its team than it has received.
I remember watching the 2002 Western Conference Finals where the Kings lost in a controversial series to the Los Angeles Lakers. ARCO Arena was rocking. The fans were decked out in black and purple, and you could feel an intensity in the small arena that could not be matched anywhere in the NBA.
In celebration of the Kings staying in Sacramento, but acknowledging that next year they may be the Anaheim Royals, let's take a look at my idea of the 10 most devastating franchise relocations in professional sports history.
The telling trend in this list is that many small market teams with only one professional team have been abandoned for large markets. I think that's a sad situation, because in my mind teams that are the only show in town tend to have some of the most supportive franchise bases—as long as their owners invest in their team.
Portland, Montreal, Salt Lake City, Green Bay, Vancouver, Oklahoma City and San Antonio come to mind as successful one-team endeavors. Even cities like Columbus and Memphis support their teams (so long as ownership is devoted to the team's success).
Hopefully next year Sacramento is NOT on this list.
Close but No Cigar...
The following teams were close to making this list, but I decided against them:
Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants (MLB)—These two teams could have made the list. Their history in the New York metropolitan area was deep. The Giants played at the storied Polo Grounds; the Dodgers played at history-rich Ebbets field.
I couldn't keep them on the list for a few reasons. First, the result of their Westward expansion had too many benefits. Moving west opened up Major League Baseball to a new area of the country. Prior to their move, the team farthest west was the Kansas City Athletics.
Second, New York still had the Yankees, and their dominance of the New York market was an influential factor in the Giants and Dodgers heading west.
Los Angeles Raiders—First, Los Angeles isn't the Raiders' hometown. Oakland is. The team was founded in 1960 in Oakland and decided to move to greener pastures in Los Angeles in 1982.
When the Raiders headed to Oakland in 1995, they had only been in Los Angeles for 13 years. That's simply not enough time to devastate a city if the franchise packs up and leaves town.
Most importantly, they are owned by Al Davis. Getting the Raiders out of LA did that city a favor. No one needs to deal with Al Davis.
Charlotte Hornets (NBA)—Even though the team was putting out competitive squads annually, owner George Shinn's sexual assault allegations caused the city of Charlotte to abandon its team.
Once one of the most rabid fan bases in all of professional sports, the city disliked Shinn so much that it just stopped going to games. The result? Shinn packed them up and left for New Orleans in 2002.
This seems like a devastating set of circumstances, but as soon as the Hornets were gone Charlotte was awarded an expansion franchise. The Bobcats haven't had success, but at least Charlotte has a team.
Houston Oilers (NFL)—This was probably the toughest team to leave off of the Top 10 list. Owner Bud Adams demanded a new stadium in Houston shortly after the city had paid for extensive renovations to the Astrodome.
Adams began looking for cities to move the Oilers. Two years before the team's lease was up in the Astrodome, Nashville made a monster offer for the franchise. Houston tried to play out the lease, but crowds of less than 20,000 people showed up for their games.
Realizing a lost cause was at hand, the Astrodome released the Oilers from their lease a year early. The Oilers were playing in Nashville in 1997. The only redeeming factor about this devastating situation? The Texans became an expansion franchise in 2002, bringing professional football back to Houston.
10. Buffalo Braves (NBA)
This team was only in Buffalo for eight years. However, the way they left warrants the No. 10 spot on this list over the Houston Oilers—just because I like their story better. No other team has been traded by its owner, just so it could be moved out of town.
The city of Buffalo was awarded an expansion team in 1970 by the NBA. The Braves experienced a significant amount of success, making the playoffs in 1974, 1975 and 1976 behind the play of NBA MVP Bob McAdoo.
In the summer of 1976, the owner of the Braves tried to move the team to Hollywood, Florida (where the hell is that?), but the move was blocked by a lawsuit brought on by the city of Buffalo.
So what did owner Paul Snyder do? He sold half his interest in the team to John Y. Brown, previous owner of the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. Then he sold another partial interest to another individual, leaving Brown as the majority owner.
During the 1978 season, Brown approached Boston Celtics owner Lev Irvin, a California native. Brown offered to swap franchises just so Irvin could place a second professional basketball team in the Southern California area. Irvin accepted the Braves, handed the Celtics over to Brown and moved the Braves out of Buffalo for greener pastures in San Diego.
The bright side? The Buffalo Braves can always say that they were given the same value as arguably the most storied franchise in all of professional sports.
The downside? The Braves turned into the Clippers, arguably the most ridiculed franchise in the history of professional sports, and professional basketball never even sniffed Buffalo again.
9. Minnesota North Stars (NHL)
Why are the Minnesota North Stars on this list? This alleged quote from Norman Green, owner of the Minnesota North Stars, sums it up:
"Only an idiot could lose money on hockey in Minnesota."
I guess he's the idiot.
For those who don't know, American hockey is Minnesota. There's a reason the movie The Mighty Ducks, perhaps the greatest hockey movie of all time, takes place in Minneapolis: Kids grow up skating on ponds and dream of dropping gloves in the NHL.
Hell, Minnesota is home of the World Pond Hockey Championships.
With a long and storied history spanning 26 years in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota North Stars booked it to Dallas in 1993. This was two years after advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals behind the puck wizardry of budding superstar Mike Modano.
Many reasons were cited as to why Norman Green moved the franchise to Dallas, the first in a long string of northern franchises heading for warmer weather.
Some thought that his wife made him move the franchise after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against him (I sense a recurring theme here). Others believed it was declining attendance before the Stanley Cup Finals run in 1991 that led to the team's demise in Minneapolis.
Regardless, it was a devastating move for a team located in the heartland of the American hockey landscape.
In 1999, the Stars franchise won their only Stanley Cup.
With Mike Modano as the captain of the team.
In other words, this was a giant slap in the face, as the Minnesota Wild franchise was about to embark on its expansion season two years later.
8. Washington Senators (MLB)
This may be the most controversial inclusion on this list, but in my mind it is more the way the team ended its reign in Washington than the devastation it left on the city.
The third incarnation of the Washington Senators was created in 1961, after the second version bolted out of town following the 1960 season to become the Minnesota Twins. Major League Baseball rushed to create the team because of threats that its operations constituted a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
It's obvious that Washington probably would have preferred to not have a team. Over 10 seasons in D.C., the Senators compiled a record that would scare a skunk away. To put it bluntly, they stunk. The Senators averaged over 90 losses a season.
The bright spots in the Senators' short stay in Washington? They hired Ted Williams as manager, and Richard Nixon threw out the annual Opening Day first pitch. That's it.
After MLB owners agreed to move the team to Arlington, Texas (where they would become the Texas Rangers), fans got pissed. The franchise hit a low point on its last game in Washington.
25,000 fans just walked into the stadium. The Senators were leading 7-5 in the ninth-inning and fans started storming the field. Mayhem ensued and the Senators were forced to forfeit the game.
This classy scene ended professional baseball's presence in our nation's capital until the 2000s, when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals.
7. Hartford Whalers (NHL)
The only professional franchise to have ever been located in the great state of Connecticut, the Hartford Whalers are the second NHL team to make an appearance on our list—but they won't be the last.
Admitted into the NHL in 1979 after seven successful seasons in the World Hockey Association, the Hartford Whalers never experienced success in the NHL.
Why are they on this list then?
Because the city of Hartford, and probably the state of Connecticut, will never have a professional sports franchise again. That doesn't change the fact that the Whalers were widely loved in the Hartford area.
Sandwiched between the massive New York and Boston markets, the Whalers just couldn't compete. With only three winning seasons and one playoff series victory, it became that much more difficult to succeed.
The low point for the franchise came in 1991 when the Whalers traded cornerstone forward Ron Francis to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a lopsided trade. When the Penguins went on to win two consecutive Stanley Cup trophies with Francis playing a key role, it added insult to injury.
Even with a promising young core of stars like Chris Pronger, Geoff Sanderson and net-minder Sean Burke, fan support continued to go downhill when six players and two coaches were arrested in 1993 after a bar fight.
The team was sold in 1994.
New owner Ken Karmanos made efforts to keep the team in Connecticut, but poor ticket sales made it evident that the team was destined to leave Hartford.
The killer move was that management seemingly wanted to force poor sales by only offering a 41-game ticket package, eliminating the shorter packages that were more popular with the fan base.
During the 1996-1997 season, Karmanos announced that the team would be moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, where it ultimately became the Carolina Hurricanes.
When the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in the mid-2000s, fans of "The Whale" must have been left wondering what might have been.
6. Winnipeg Jets (NHL)
Ah, the Winnipeg Jets. Located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the city of 300,000 people is one of the smallest markets to ever host a professional franchise.
Even without much success in the NHL during its 17 years in the league (the team did have some good fortune in the WHA in the 1970s), the team had a long list of star players: Bobby Hull, Keith Tkachuk, Shane Doan and the never-aging Teemu Selanne.
One would think that the NHL would proudly support a franchise in the Great White North, right?
Not so much.
A combination of many factors led to the Jets' demise: the sinking Canadian dollar, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's desire to expand the game of hockey to new locations and the almighty draw of a bigger bottom line in a large market. It became clear that Winnipeg was going to lose its team.
The city tried to rally the troops; 35,000 residents attended a rally and within two days over half of a million dollars was raised to keep the team in Winnipeg. But no deal was struck to keep the team in Manitoba.
So, during the 1995-1996 season, a deal was struck to move the team to the hockey mecca of . . . Phoenix. With all the trouble the Coyotes have had, in retrospect this was a horrible move.
Luckily for Winnipeg, it may get the last laugh.
Last week, it was announced that the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to a group from Canada that will move the team to Winnipeg, returning glory to the small market. Unfortunately, the team won't be called the Jets.
5. Los Angeles Rams (NFL)
Unlike the Raiders, the Los Angeles Rams had long-time roots in L.A. before they booked out of town for St. Louis prior to the 1995 season. It still seems odd that a team left the big city and bright lights for the City of the Arch; but alas, it happened.
The first NFL team in California, and at the time the only team west of Chicago, the Cleveland Rams uprooted after winning the 1945 NFL Championship and began their tenure at the L.A. Coliseum for the 1946 season.
The team experienced great success early on in L.A. and won the 1951 NFL Championship (with Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin behind center of an offense that some consider a predecessor to the "spread offense" that is so prevalent today).
The team achieved significant regular season success throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But it was the 9-7 1979 team captained by Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood that finally broke through and reached the Super Bowl, eventually losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19.
After a series of inept front-office moves, starting with a move to Anaheim and the inexplicable trade of Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts, the Rams began their L.A. decline. Under the ownership of Georgia Frontiere, L.A. residents' support of the team diminished.
Eventually, after a failed move to Baltimore, Frontiere struck up a deal to move the team to St. Louis, taking the team name, colors and logo with it. The NFL—somehow, someway—has not returned to the United States' second largest market since. Now the city is poised to get the next NFL franchise, whenever it becomes available.
4. Quebec Nordiques (NHL)
The last of the four NHL teams on our list, you may be asking: What is a Nordique? I'm glad you asked.
The term is French for "Northerner," and the team obtained its name for being one of the northernmost professional sports franchises in North America.
Similar to the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques began play in the NHL in 1979 after a seven-year run in the World Hockey Association. Also similar to the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec City saw its franchise ripped from its grasp and watched it head to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche.
So, why are the Quebec Nordiques ahead of the Winnipeg Jets on this list? A few reasons.
First, the Nordiques actually experienced success in Quebec City. Beginning with the 1980-1981 season, the team made the playoffs for eight straight seasons. Behind the play of perennial All-Star's Michael Goulet and Peter Stastny (as well as the other three Stastny brothers), the team became a force to be reckoned with and won its first division title in 1985-1986.
Three seasons later the Nordiques had the league's worst record, and Goulet and Stastny were traded soon thereafter.
The team drafted Joe Sakic in the late 1980s, Mats Sundin in 1990 and Eric Lindros (with the first pick) in 1991. Since Lindros refused to play in Quebec, the Nordiques traded him for—wait for it—Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall and enforcer Chris Simon.
Quebec was once again a Stanley Cup contender and had the fourth-best record in the league in 1992-1993. In 1994-1995, the Nordiques had the best record in the NHL, but faltered in the first round of the playoffs.
After that division title, the Nordiques ran into significant financial trouble due to the faltering Canadian dollar; it soon became apparent that professional hockey in Quebec City was not feasible.
Players didn't want to play there because of the dominance of the French language, and the city was too small to maintain a team even with a rabid fan base. The team left for Denver that summer.
Second, the devastation was magnified during the 1995-1996 season, when Forsberg, Joe Sakic, recent Nordique draftee Adam Foote and traded-for net-minder Patrick Roy led the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup Championship in their first season in Denver. The Avalanche added another Stanley Cup in 2001.
Finally, Quebec City still has no viable prospects for getting its team back. Toronto has been mentioned as having a second team, and Hamilton almost obtained the Coyotes a few years back. But Quebec City still hasn't come close to realizing its dream of finding another team to restore professional hockey in the town.
Here's hoping that the fans in the picture above—members of the "Blue March" that still rallies in Quebec City periodically—doesn't have to wait long.
3. Cleveland Browns (NFL)
Now, I know what some of you are saying, and you're saying one of two things.
One half: "How are the Browns only No. 3 on this list!?!?!?!"
The other half: "How are the Browns all the way up at No. 3 when they got a team back three years after they left?"
Well, you're both right.
If Cleveland hadn't received a team in 1999, they could very easily be No. 1 on this list. But because they got a team back in 1999, that's why they're only No. 3. It doesn't change what happened, but it at least made it semi-manageable for a city that knows nothing but heartbreak.
Founded in 1946, the Cleveland Browns had significant success in the All-America Football Conference and the NFL, winning eight titles before the NFL-AFL merger.
Although they have never been to a Super Bowl, the Browns have always been known as one of the most historic franchises in the NFL. The team has been on the cusp of the Big Game, but we all know about "The Drive." They also have the most rabid fan group—also known as the Dawg Pound.
After a solid 1994 season which ended in the second round of the NFL playoffs at the hands of the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers, owner Art Modell dropped a nuclear bomb on the city of Cleveland in November 1995.
He was moving the team to Baltimore.
The next day, the city approved a measure on the ballot to approve $175 million in stadium renovations—a measure that Modell had asked for. Modell still went ahead with the move, and during the 1995 season the team stumbled to a 5-11 record.
He may still be more hated than LeBron James by Clevelanders.
Cleveland fans, understandably, were outraged. If Drew Carey is holding rallies to save your team, you know it's in trouble.
In the last Cleveland home game, the Dawg Pound set fires in the stadium—the environment was so hostile that referees moved the action to the other end of the field if it got too close to the Pound.
Luckily, the NFL stepped up and immediately ruled that the Browns would return to Cleveland for the 1999 season and the team would retain its colors, name and archives.
Unfortunately, the team's success on the field hasn't seemed to recover yet.
2. Baltimore Colts (NFL)
The team that was led for seemingly forever by the great Johnny Unitas thought it was leaving Baltimore without so much as a word.
With a great history in Baltimore, few teams were as steeped in tradition as the Baltimore Colts. The team won two NFL championships before the NFL-AFL merger and went on to also win Super Bowl V with Johnny U behind center.
The team continued to experience success throughout the 1970s, but in 1982 an NFL strike resulted in a significant decrease in attendance. Ownership had already been frustrated with the Baltimore stadium situations, and in the mid 1970s owner Robert Irsay had discussions about moving the team to either Phoenix or Indianapolis.
Even with repeated requests for stadium improvements, Irsay had no luck with Baltimore officials but received an amazing deal from Indianapolis. But Baltimore wanted its team.
In 1984, The Maryland Senate passed a bill giving the city of Baltimore the right to takeover the team (which had never been done before) by eminent domain. In order to prevent losing the Colts, Irsay had no choice but to move.
The same night the Senate passed the bill, Irsay brokered a deal with Indianapolis to move the team before the Maryland House could pass the bill. By 10:00 the next morning, the entire Colts franchise was gone—on its way to Indianapolis.
In order to prevent Maryland State Police from stopping the moving trucks (which was within their power), every single truck took a different route to Indianapolis. The Maryland House passed the eminent domain bill the same day, but it was too late.
The Colts moved to Indianapolis, drafted Peyton Manning and the rest, they say, is history.
1. Seattle SuperSonics (NBA)
The No. 1 team on this list shouldn't surprise anyone. The most recent, deceitful and heartbreaking franchise relocation in professional sports history happened in 2008.
The SuperSonics were moved to Oklahoma City, where they became the Thunder. The Sonics were Seattle's pride and joy—their oldest professional franchise. Sure, the city still has the Mariners and the Seahawks, but the SuperSonics were Seattle's team.
In 1979, the Sonics won Seattle's only title behind the play of Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, Paul Silas and Jack Sikma.
After a dismal 1980s, the team re-rose to prominence behind the high-flying play of Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf. As a kid, I remember watching that team take on Michael Jordan's Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals.
Their success continued into the early and mid-2000s behind sweet-shooting Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. But the franchise sank lower in the standings after the 2004-2005 season.
Just as things started to seemingly get better—the Sonics drafted Kevin Durant and Jeff Green with the second and fifth picks in 2007 and drafted Russell Westbrook (in a Sonics cap) in 2008—the team was pulled out from under Seattle.
Imagine how Sonics fans felt watching the Thunder.
Admittedly a small arena, in 2004 Seattle ownership demanded renovations to KeyArena even though it had just been remodeled in 1995. After unsuccessful efforts to obtain funding for the renovations, owner Howard Schultz suddenly sold the franchise in 2006 to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett.
Bennett claimed that he wanted to keep the team in Seattle, but later revelations showed that it seemed to be a sham all along. Bennett "attempted" to get funding for a new $500 million arena, but by late 2007 it seemed inevitable that the team was gone.
The Oklahoma City Thunder started playing in 2008-2009.
Unfortunately for Sonics fans, the pain is only going to get worse as they continue to realize what could have been. With the youngest team in the NBA, led by a core of young superstars including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to be ready to contend for titles for years to come.
Hopefully Seattle will one day obtain another NBA team, because let's face the facts—they were robbed.