When a sports team moves to a new city, should the team’s history be carried along with it? Please entertain Sport Change as Sport Change takes a break from rankings and realignment scenarios to wax philosophic on the subtle considerations involved in franchise relocation.
I’ll quit using ‘Sport Change’ in the third person and I’ll talk to you straight. This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for quite a while, and it was awoken out of dormancy by a recent post written by Chris Creamer on sportslogos.net–a favorite website of mine. The topic of that post was related to the branding possibilities brought up by the rumors of the Sacramento Kings’ possible relocation to Seattle. Chris Creamer is primarily curious about whether the Seatte Supersonics brand will be resurrected or if the Kings brand will move with the team. Chris’s piece raised the bigger question of what constitutes a team’s identity and a team’s history. Like many other sports fans, Chris’s take on the matter is that when a team moves, a team moves it’s history and vestigial identity with it. I disagree with this notion, and will attempt to explain why. There’s a lot of gray area in this discussion, but I’ll try my best to address those questions and articulate an argument.
What is a team?
Let’s start with the basic question and build from there. As far as I can observe, a team is comprised of a few elements: 1.) Players, coaching staff, and team employees. 2.) Trademarks and branding materials. 3.) History. 4.) Fans.
Who really owns a sports team?
Let’s make no mistake here: a sports franchise is an object that can be bought and sold by those wealthy enough to do so. A franchise is a company that holds the legal rights to any contracted employees and any trademarks. If a team owner wishes to sell the team, relocate the team, or make the team public property–they have the right to do so. Of the four elements listed above, the owner has the strongest hold on number 1, and the grip loosens as we move through to number 4. In my opinion, the order of importance is reversed and the definition of ‘team’ should begin with fans and history.
What is a team’s identity?
Though a team is (in most cases) a private franchise, the team’s identity is harder to pin down. History and fan support are the core of a team’s identity, but branding materials also factor in. A team’s nickname, logos, team colors, and uniforms are synonomous with the team, and though they are liable to change over the years–they are part and parcel of the team’s identity. Besides following the linear path of a team (Chicago Cardinals to St. Louis Cardinals to Arizona Cardinals) there are other unique ways a team can find definition.
An old way and a new way.
Traditionally, when a sports team would relocate, it was analogous to a person moving to a new city. Teams would move their belongings, history, and name with them. They were the same person, but with new surroundings. A franchise’s history went with the owner, of course, but so did the branding materials and in many cases–the fans. Taking a good look at the current era of franchise relocation, it’s clear that things have changed. It’s gotten more complicated.
Here are five categories that relocated teams can fall into:
1.) A team that moves to a distinct new location and retains history and brand elements. Place name and fan base change, but much of the old identity is left in tact. Perhaps the best examples of this come from the Big Four’s westward expansion of the middle twentieth century: LA Dodgers, LA Lakers, and San Francisco Giants.
2.) A team that ‘moves’ to a location that is in the same region (geographically and culturally) as the previous city and retains the basic elements of the team–history, fan base, and some brand elements. To get scientific about it, let’s say a move within 100 miles East of the Mississippi or within the same state if West of the Mississippi. The Brooklyn Nets are an obvious recent example, and the Baltimore/Washington Bullets would arguably fall into this category as well.
3.) A team that moves to a distinctly new location, establishes new brand elements/team identity, but retains linear franchise history. This is a common scenario, both traditionally and currently–whether it’s the Washington Senators becoming the Texas Rangers or the Houston Oilers becoming the Tennessee Titans.
4.) A team that moves to a new location, but picks up brand elements and fan base of a former team in that location. This is a scenario that was common in bygone eras, then essentially non-existent for several decades before reemerging in recent years. Though they reactivated their franchise through expansion, the Cleveland Browns are good example.
5.) A team that moves to a new location and leaves all elements of team identity with the former location. This is new idea that occurred notably when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore, and the Ravens started a new linear history as if they were an expansion team.
Let’s look at the last ten franchise relocations that have occurred in the Big Four, and see which category or categories they fall into:
(2012) New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn Nets. Category #2. This is a classic example of a team moving to a new location, but still within the same geographic area. Of course it makes sense for the Nets to retain the New Jersey team’s history–they even kept the team nickname.
(2011) Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg Jets. Category #4. Here’s an example of the newer phenomenon of cities being reoccupied by a pro club and picking up an old team’s brand elements. The new Jets still have Atlanta’s history, though, and the old Jets history is down in the desert.
(2008) Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City Thunder. Categories #3/#5. This is a unique one. The Thunder were born with a completely new brand and fan base–essentially all that remained of the Sonics was the players/personnel. The city of Seattle holds the rights to the SuperSonics name and team colors, though the Thunder own the team’s history. It’s likely that a new Sonics team would have to buy the history back from Oklahoma City. It’s a brave new world.
(2005) Montreal Expos to Washington Nationals. Categories #3/#4. On the surface, this relocation just looks like a classic #3–relocation and rebranding. However, there have been a few different baseball teams in Washington called the Nationals in bygone eras, and the Nats draw from their history–whether official or not.
(2002) Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans Hornets. Category #1. A simple relocation that is currently facing a rebrand–reportedly as the New Orleans Hornets. There has been plenty of talk as well about the Charlotte Hornets regaining their old moniker. Team nickname relocation is a new topic, and it reflects the trend toward nostalgia that is ever-present in the Big Four.
(2001) Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis Grizzlies. Category #1. This is a classic #1 branding gaffe–right up there with the Lakers and Jazz. Memphis could’ve pulled off a clean #3 and started with a totally new brand, but they foolishly clung to the Grizzlies identity. I can’t imagine British Columbians are as heartsick watching their old Grizzlies continue play as Brooklyn Dodger fans were over the years–it’s the brand that is the problem.
(1997) Houston Oilers to Tennessee Titans. Category #3. A rebrand/relocation that was pulled off very well. The team played as the Tennessee Oilers for a year or two, but that never felt right. It would’ve been preferable if the city of Houston had somehow been able to retain the rights to the Oilers’ brand and history and transferred them to the Texans.
(1997) Hartford Whalers to Carolina Hurricanes. Category #3. Not much to say about this one. It’s a classic number three, done fairly well.
(1996) Cleveland Browns to Baltimore Ravens. Category #5. This is where things got very interesting for the topic of relocation. When the Browns moved to Baltimore, the brand was put on hold and the Ravens were reborn as a new franchise. If only the same method had been applied to the Baltimore Colts move to Indy in the eighties. Today we would have a team in Baltimore called the Colts that could claim history of Johnny Unitas, Bert Jones, and other old Colts teams.
(1996) Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix Coyotes. Category #3. This is another basic number three, but with two funny twists all these years later. 1.) The Winnipeg Jets became a team again. 2.) The Coyotes are probably the the NHL team that is most likely to move. If only they had moved to Winnipeg instead the Atlanta Thrashers–then the history could’ve been retained. Funny how that works out.
Now let’s look at a few upcoming relocation possibilities and see where they land:
-Sacramento Kings to Seattle. This is the hottest relocation possibility in the Big Four currently, and it looks like it may very well happen. If so, it’s almost a given that Seattle would reapply the SuperSonics moniker/team colors, and look to buy back their history from Oklahoma City. It’s a shame that the history of the Royals/Kings NBA franchise would reach a dead end, but we’ll cover that in a bit. This would either be a category #4 (Winnipeg Jets) or a category #5 (Baltimore Ravens).
-An NHL team to Quebec City. There have been plenty of passing mentions of the NHL increasing it’s presence in Canada through expansion or relocation. The most likely candidate is Quebec City, who are still stinging from losing the Nordiques to Colorado in the mid-nineties. Construction on a new arena has begun, and it seems like a lock that that the league will occupy it. If so, it’s very likely that the Quebec Nordiques would be reborn as a franchise. Most likely, this would be a situation similar to the Winnipeg Jets–a category #4.
-The Tampa Bay Rays to….? There is always plenty of speculation about the Rays relocating, and Sport Change has looked deeply into this issue. If the Rays were to move to to say, Indiana, Louisville, Portland, or Oklahoma City–it would likely be either a #3 rebrand or a #1 brand retention.
-An NFL team to Los Angeles. It’s very likely that there will be an NFL team in L.A. within a few years. It’s quite unclear which team this would be, but the most likely candidates are probably the Chargers, Raiders, Rams, Jaguars, and Buccaneers. Each of the first three teams were once located in L.A. and are in-state/West of Mississippi. If they were to move, branding materials and history would likely move with them–so category #2, like the Nets. If the Bucs or Jags moved, it would likely be a rebranding and retention of team history–category #3.
As we all move forward into a new era of Big Four relocation, we should discuss what the rules of relocation are–unwritten though they may be. All of this can be grouped into two basic rules:
In most cases, the brand should be left behind with the vacated city. The city would hold the rights to these elements, like in the case of the Sonics. As stated earlier, it would be a shame to see the history of the Cincinnati Royals/Kansas City Kings franchise come to an end, but the brand should remain available for pickup (through expansion or relocation) by any city that formerly held that brand. There are exceptions to this, of course. Category #2 relocations (like the Nets) are perfectly acceptable and the brand/history should be retained. Additionally, I think that it’s acceptable for a brand under twenty years old and without a championship (like the Rays) to retain these elements as they move. This is acceptable if the brand is universal–the sun’s rays shine everywhere (well, maybe not Portland) so a team like the Indiana Rays would be fine. The Grizzlies fall into this exception, but made the terrible mistake of retaining a region-specific identity.
In most cases, history is put on hold. In this modern era of relocation, it’s unnecessary for a team like the Nationals to retain the history of the Expos. That history should be left with Montreal. If the city ever got a new team, they could reactivate and claim that history–even with a new brand. A new Sonics team or a new Nordiques team should have full access to team history within the time that the city held that brand. The history is the story of the franchise’s relationship with it’s city and it’s fans. When a team relocates, history is vestigial at best and burdensome at worst. Again, it’s acceptable to carry history if the team relocates within 100 miles East of the Mississippi or within the same state in the West. On the Eastern seaboard, we could even say 50 miles. The Baltimore/Washington Bullets and New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets would fall within that rule of radius.
That sums it up. It’s certainly an adjustment and any change can feel awkward. However, what feels more awkward is the current methods. These days, it’s like a Wild West of teams choosing from any of the five categories. This will make franchise history tracking difficult and lead to identity crises for fans. Can the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets claim their three WHA championships from the seventies? Not as long as the Phoenix Coyotes are wearing them like identification tags on a dog collar.
Thanks for reading and please leave comments to get a discussion going. Keep checking back for more posts as the winter moves along.