With the Chargers on the move and the Raiders reportedly soon to follow, what can those teams expect in their new cities? And what about their former locations?
After the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Oilers (and later Titans) in 1997, the NFL went nearly two decades without a team re-locating.
Now the floodgates are open.
The Rams are in Los Angeles, the Chargers are joining them there next season, and the Raiders seem to be heading for Las Vegas. It’s the biggest mass migration of sports teams since the mid-90s, when three franchises from the NFL and four from the NHL packed up and picked new cities.
So what happens now?
Well, the moves will have vast economic, cultural and social impact on the five involved cities for years to come. To gain some context on what happens when a team bolts for another city, we look at the seven team relocations in the four major professional sports over the past 20 years and the impact those moves had on both the new city and the old one.
1997 – Houston Oilers (NFL) move to Tennessee, become the Titans
Background of the move: In the wake of seven straight playoff appearances for the Oilers, owner Bud Adams began making noise about a new stadium in Houston. Then the team went 2-14, the city refused to build a stadium and Adams bolted for the fast-growing city of Nashville, where taxpayers opened their wallets for the venue he wanted. The Oilers’ name endured for a couple years before ceding to the Titans.
Impact on old city: Only a few years after the Oilers bolted, Houston got a new stadium and a new team, the Texans. And though the Texans wandered the NFL wilderness for a long time, they’re now a perfectly respectable franchise.
Impact on new city: On the field, the Titans have been the epitome of “OK” since arriving in Tennessee. Off the field, the team and its stadium has helped boost Nashville’s status as a city and attract other sporting events like the Music City Bowl. Though the economic impact of teams and stadiums can be tough to quantify, most people seem to consider Nissan Stadium (nee Adelphia Coliseum) a success.
1997 – Hartford Whalers (NHL) move to Carolina, become the Hurricanes
Background of the move: Peter Karmanos purchased the Whalers in 1994 and pledged to keep the team in Hartford for at least four years. But he quickly got fed up with poor ticket sales and demanded a new arena. He nearly got one, before asking for more money, flirting with taking the team to Norfolk, Virginia and then finally reaching an agreement on an arena in Raleigh, where the team became the Hurricanes in 1997.
Impact on old city: The Whalers were Hartford’s only claim to being a big-league city, and with them gone, Connecticut’s capital is now just a place you might drive through if you’re going from New York to Boston. Whalers gear is trendy now though, so that’s something. And there’s always UConn basketball.
Impact on new city: The good news is the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, less than a decade after arriving in the city. The bad news is that they consistently rank in the bottom third of the NHL in attendance, placing dead last both during the previous season and this season.
2001 – Vancouver Grizzlies (NBA) move to Memphis
Background of the move: The Grizzlies had existed for only six years — playing poorly, drawing poorly and floundering financially — before moving to Memphis. When Michael Heisley bought the team in 2001, he almost immediately began the relocation process, despite David Stern’s initial objections. After considering a number of potential cities — including Louisville, Anaheim and New Orleans — Heisley chose Memphis.
Impact on old city: Vancouver never replaced the Grizzlies and don’t appear likely to do so in the near future, but no one seems particularly bothered by that. The Canucks, the only other major-league team in town, remain a good team with solid attendance.
Impact on new city: The Grizzlies are the only major-league sports franchise in Memphis and have cultivated a blue-collar image that seems to appeal to the city. Still, the Grizzlies have not once ranked in the top half of the league in terms of attendance.
2002 – Charlotte Hornets (NBA) move to New Orleans, eventually become the Pelicans
Background of the move: Hornets owner George Shinn (an alleged rapist) was so unpopular in Charlotte that city leaders insisted they wouldn’t build a new arena unless he sold the team. Officials eventually softened that view, but a referendum for public funding was voted down amid a political battle over a livable wage ordinance. Lacking a new arena, Shinn attempted to relocate to Memphis and settled for New Orleans as a Plan B.
Impact on old city: Charlotte went without an NBA team for only two years before the expansion Bobcats filled the void. That franchise was renamed the Hornets in 2014, so at this point it feels like the original Hornets never left.
Impact on new city: The Hornets/Pelicans’ time in New Orleans has been a bit tumultuous, with limited on-court success, consistently poor attendance and a temporary move to Oklahoma City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. After almost bolting permanently, the Hornets stayed in New Orleans and in 2013 were rebranded as the Pelicans.
2005 – Montreal Expos (MLB) move to Washington D.C., become the Nationals
Background of the move: The demise of baseball in Montreal began when a Jeffrey Loria-led ownership group purchased the team in 1999. Loria immediately demanded a new stadium, then alienated fans by failing to find a broadcast partner to air games. After the Expos were nearly contracted, Loria sold the franchise to the commissioner’s office, which in turn orchestrated his purchase of the Florida Marlins. MLB then ushered the Expos to D.C., where they became the Nationals.
Impact on old city: Montreal still has no team, but is always mentioned at the top of the list when fans and writers speculate about potential destinations for lagging franchises. Olympic Stadium is still standing and serves as home to the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes and to the occasional soccer game. Canada seems to have united behind the Blue Jays.
Impact on new city: D.C. has embraced the Nationals, who perennially contend in the NL East and rank in the top half of the league in attendance. The area around Nationals Park has been transformed since the team arrived, though the bottom-line economic impact remains up for debate.
2008 – Seattle SuperSonics (NBA) move to Oklahoma City, become the Thunder
Background of the move: After failing to secure a $220 million expansion to Key Arena, Sonics owner Howard Schultz sold the team to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett. Bennett claimed to make a good-faith effort to get funding for an arena in Seattle but promptly moved the franchise to Oklahoma City, which had shown it could handle an NBA team when the Hornets played there post-Katrina.
Impact on old city: Seattle was devastated by the Sonics leaving and, despite occasional rumors, the city has not come close to regaining its team. Key Arena currently hosts the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, the Seattle University basketball team and some other assorted events. The whole situation remains a sore spot for residents of the Emerald City.
Impact on new city: The Thunder is Oklahoma City’s only professional team, which makes the organization a source of great civic pride. And with Russell Westbrook and (formerly) Kevin Durant, OKC has become one of the NBA’s most popular teams. Plus, the franchise has had some positive economic impact on Oklahoma City, at least if you believe city officials.
2011 – Atlanta Thrashers (NHL) move to Winnipeg, become the Jets
Background of the move: The Thrashers, who were reportedly losing money every year, were the subject of numerous relocation rumors before finally heading to Winnipeg. Despite bids from several potential ownership groups who pledged to keep the team in Atlanta, the Thrashers were sold to True North Sports & Entertainment, which purchased the team with the intention of moving it to Winnipeg.
Impact on old city: The Thrashers’ attendance consistently ranked toward the bottom of the NHL, and hockey in Atlanta always seemed like an awkward fit. Though there are undoubtedly fans there who miss their team, the city seems to have moved on just fine.
Impact on new city: This move marked the return of the Jets, who had left Winnipeg in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes. The restoration of hockey to Canada’s eighth largest city felt like justice, and the early economic and cultural effects have reportedly been positive.