If it seems to you like we've hit Peak Sports Team Move Threat lately, you're not alone. In the last few weeks there's been talk of the St. Louis Rams going to L.A., the Oakland Raiders to L.A. or maybe San Antonio, the San Diego Chargers to (wait for it) L.A. or who knows where, the Milwaukee Bucks (or is it the Atlanta Hawks?) to Seattle, and the Tampa Bay Rays to Montreal. And then there's hockey, where fans of pretty much any team shouldn't be surprised to wake up to rumors of their teams moving to Quebec, or Seattle, or Las Vegas, or one of those ice floes with a polar bear on it.
The problem, for sports fans wondering when it's appropriate to freak the hell out, is knowing which of these rumors are true. Teams do move, obviously--there have been six franchise relocations in the Big Four sports leagues since 2000--and franchise moves to new cities averaged just under one per year during the latter half of the 20th century. Ask a still-distraught Brooklyn Dodgers fan, or Baltimore Colts fan, or California Golden Seals fan (there have to be one or two), and they'll tell you that when sports owners start pricing moving vans, it isn't always a bluff.
Except, of course, when it is. For team owners angling for a new stadium, or a new lease, or even just a new owner willing to pay a premium to keep the team in town, the move threat is a standard part of the playbook, whether they're serious or not.
Move threats as a gambit--or what we might call "lying"--is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back in the early days of team sports, teams would generally move only when they either were going broke in their old homes, or occasionally when an out-of-town owner would buy a team because he wanted one for his city. (My all-time personal favorite remains when the fledgling American Basketball Association hired former Minneapolis Lakers star George Mikan as commissioner, and he insisted on putting the league office in Minneapolis. When the city's hastily assembled original franchise flopped, the league picked up the champion Pittsburgh Pipers and sent them to Minneapolis as a replacement.)
The shift of population to the West and South, and particularly the advent of fast, reliable jet travel between those cities, led to a bevy of moves (12 teams relocated between 1954 and 1963, though the leagues were much smaller then), but after that things settled into occasional relocations of marginal teams: the California Golden Seals becoming the Cleveland Barons, the Buffalo Braves becoming the San Diego Clippers, the Seattle Pilots being bought by some former car salesman after just one year in existence and rechristened as the Milwaukee Brewers.
The idea that you could make money not by moving a team, but by merely threatening to, didn't take hold until the 1980s, after owners realized that it was a great way of terrifying elected officials into passing stadium funding bills, stat. Since then, far more teams have threatened moves than have gone through with them, particularly when a target city has popped up that could serve as bogeyman for multiple teams at once: Tampa Bay and then Washington in baseball, L.A. for the NFL, most recently Seattle for the NBA, Kansas City and Quebec for the NHL. It's become such a standard play that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux could think nothing of saying, after years of dropping hints that the Penguins would move to Kansas City without a new arena, "Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go, and have a nice dinner and come back… That was just a way for us to put more pressure, and we knew it would work at the end of the day."
In fact, teams that have actually gone through with moves in recent years have fallen into one of just a few categories:
1) Seeking a Better Market: There aren't that many of these, mostly because sports leagues do such a good job of filling in all the lucrative markets that there are seldom good ones up for grabs. The New Jersey Nets moving to Brooklyn arguably qualifies (okayed by Knicks owner James Dolan in one of his most boneheaded moves that didn't involve Isiah Thomas), and I suppose you could consider the Montreal Expos going to Washington, D.C. as well, though the ongoing battle with the Baltimore Orioles over cable rights shows that D.C. wasn't such a slam dunk as markets go.
2) Offered a Better Deal: Most of the relocations of the modern era, the most infamous ones in particular, were prompted by some other city dangling a new building with a sweetheart lease. Colts defecting to Indianapolis? The city was offering the brand-new Hoosier Dome as move-in ready. Cleveland Browns decamping to replace the Colts? Hello, M&T Bank Stadium, paid for by Maryland lottery ticket buyers. The Rams' presence in St. Louis is probably the best example of this, since the city was so desperate for a team to replace the Cardinals that it agreed to a lease that let the team's owner break it if at any point the Edward Jones Dome wasn't kept "state of the art"--leading to the prospect of the city having to go shopping for yet another new team just 20 years after landing its last one.
3) League Machinations: This one is mostly on the NHL, which shifted a bunch of teams to places like Arizona and North Carolina as part of commissioner Gary Bettman's plan to conquer the South. The Expos could qualify here, too, given that they met their maker largely because of Bud Selig's desire to get his pal John Henry a better team than the Marlins.
4) Personal Plaything: Clay Bennett buying the Seattle Sonics and transmogrifying them into the Oklahoma City Thunder so he could have a team in his hometown is the archetypal example here, though he was aided by the fact that Oklahoma City was offering a new arena for free and Seattle was asking the NBA to live with an arena that hadn't been renovated in 14 years.
The bluffers, meanwhile, mostly should have been obvious from the start. Teams almost never, for example, moved from bigger markets to much smaller markets: the Oakland A's didn't move to Sacramento, the New York Islanders didn't move to Quebec, and the rumors that George Steinbrenner was thinking of moving the Yankees to Charlotte could have been dismissed simply by looking at the size of the two cable markets. Aside from Bennett picking up the Sonics and going home with them, the obvious exceptions--the Oilers' move from Houston to Tennessee, and the Rams from L.A. to St. Louis--were in the NFL, where thanks to the ubiquity of national TV contracts, local revenue is a minor part of teams' bottom lines.
So what does that mean for fans of the Rams, or the Bucks, or any other team currently facing scare headlines about an imminent departure? First off, ignore what the owners and the league are saying: It's their job to create leverage, so in most cases they'll be sure to leave the door open at least a crack for a move threat, whether they have any intention of going through with it or not. (You can write off, in particular, just about anything that comes out of the mouth of the exquisitely named NFL VP Eric Grubman.) And take "market size" with a grain of salt: L.A. may be a wonderful place to live, and an even more wonderful place to own a baseball or basketball team, but when it comes to football, with a good enough stadium deal you could play in Ouagadougou--or Green Bay--and turn a decent profit, so long as those checks from Fox, CBS, NBC, and ESPN kept rolling in.
If I were a Bucks fan, meanwhile, I'd be at least the slightest bit antsy, given that Milwaukee is the NBA's fourth-smallest TV market (ahead of only New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio, though it's worth noting that none of those teams are considered a likely move threat), meaning the Bucks' new owners would see their TV customers potentially double with a move to, say, Seattle. Still, there's a lot to be said for a fan base that you know over a pig in a poke--which is one reason why no team in recent memory has moved when there was even a hint that public subsidies might be available in their current hometown.
Finally, when considering over-exuberant talk about vacant cities seeking teams--Louisville has as many corporate headquarters per capita as St. Louis! If San Antonio and Austin were one city, they'd be as big as Denver!--it's also important to remember that there's a reason why they're vacant in the first place. Like the old joke about the economist goes, "That can't be a $10 bill lying in the street, or someone would have picked it up by now." There's always a chance that, say, L.A. will mean free money to some NFL team eventually--but if it were such a sure thing, would that free money really have been lying there this long?