Relocation Less Common in MLB Than NFL, Other Leagues

In 1972, the Washington Senators packed up and moved down to Texas to become the Rangers. In the 45 years since the Senators’ departure, however, only a single other Major League Baseball franchise has relocated: the Montreal Expos (owned by MLB at the time) moved to Washington before the 2005 season and became the Nationals.

During that same 45-year period, meanwhile, the National Football League has seen the relocation of franchises on nine occasions (10 if Oakland completes their move to Las Vegas). The National Hockey League has featured nine moves of their own (including one merger); the NBA, eight.

There are quite a few reasons for MLB’s stability relative to the other leagues, including antitrust protection, willing local governments, and a little bit more patience when it comes to stadium issues. And baseball hasn’t always possessed such geographic consistency. Consider: the creation of the Rangers actually marked the end of a 20-year period that saw quite a bit of movement throughout Major League Baseball. Rarely did a move leave a city without a franchise — and for those cities left without teams, all had new teams in short order — but there was activity nonetheless. The graph below illustrates MLB’s history of relocation and expansion.

From 1903 to 1953, the league featured all the same clubs without change. In the early 50s, however, three different two-team cities lost the weaker of their clubs, as the Boston Braves, Philadelphia Athletics, and St. Louis Browns moved to towns without franchises. An even more notable exodus occurred when the Dodgers and Giants left New York for California. As populations shifted, it was only natural for baseball to move westward.

The Yankees had New York to themselves for just four seasons before MLB approved the creation of the Mets. The addition of a franchise in Houston marked the first baseball club in Texas. When Washington moved to Minnesota, the league gave the nation’s capital a new team without missing a single season. After Milwaukee moved to Atlanta, Kansas City moved to Oakland, and the brand new Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee following Bud Selig’s purchase of the team, MLB found new franchises for those cities, Seattle’s seven-year wait marking the longest.

With the presence of a club in Washington, Montreal now represent the only market to have supported Major League Baseball in the last 100 years to currently lack a team. Similarly, when the NFL has facilitated the movement of franchises, other teams have followed to replaced them — although their pace has been a little more deliberate. When Cleveland, Houston and St. Louis lost franchises at various points over the last 30 years, all those cities received replacements with seven years. Baltimore, Los Angeles and Oakland, however, all had decade-long droughts without football teams. And similar vacancies appear likely to occur elsewhere: there seems to be little interest between the NFL, St. Louis, and San Diego to replace the clubs that have fled those cities.

It makes more sense in some respects for the NFL — as well as the NBA and NHL — to feature more movement, as those leagues are younger. The graph below depicts the number of franchise locations since 1900 for the four major professional sports leagues.

The NBA has seen a steady stream of moves since its inception, while the NHL has experienced the same since it began expansion in the late 60s. MLB was pretty much done with its various relocations by the early 70s, while the NFL hadn’t really gotten started. The most obvious reason for the lack of movement in the NFL prior to the 80s was the presence of two rival football leagues. The AFL and NFL didn’t merge until 1970. The needs of underserved NFL markets were being met by teams in the AFL. When the two leagues finally merged, things remained quiet for a while. Here’s is the same graph from above, except this time starting right after the merger between the AFL and the NFL.

The NFL, NBA, and NHL have all featured a pretty similar volume of movement, while MLB has lagged behind in terms of displacing franchises. One of the biggest differences between MLB and the other leagues is that MLB still enjoys an antitrust exemption. In 1980, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis wanted to move his franchise to Los Angeles, but NFL owners blocked him. Davis sued the NFL on antitrust grounds and won. With that precedent set, there was little stopping other owners from doing the same. Generally speaking, most moves have been approved by the owners, though veiled threats of lawsuits and the construction of a football stadium — regardless of approval from the League — likely persuaded NFL owners to “allow” the Rams to move from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

MLB’s antitrust exemption regarding relocation was most recently challenged by San Jose in their attempt to woo the Oakland Athletics. As Nathaniel Grow wrote at this site, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with MLB, relying on the antitrust exemption. The Supreme Court opted not to take the case. Whether the Supreme Court might have taken the case if the Oakland A’s had been a part of the lawsuit is a different matter, but presuming a different result would be speculative given the Court’s previous decisions to uphold the exemption.

Even without the antitrust exemption that helps prevent MLB teams from moving, it isn’t clear that MLB would have featured the same sort of movement as the other major sports. While NFL owners have moved in reaction to a lack of cooperation from city and state officials for the construction of new stadiums (even though they sometimes ended up paying for them to get a new team, anyway), MLB hasn’t had the same problems. Almost every MLB franchise has received a new stadium or substantive renovation in recent years. Only the San Francisco Giants built their very successful stadium without public money, while the St. Louis Cardinals also paid the bill for a significant portion of their home. San Francisco was in danger of moving at one point, but it seems unlikely St. Louis was ever in real danger of losing its team. The graph below, from this piece on the Braves’ and Rangers’ new stadiums, points to the lack of older stadiums in MLB.

What does the future hold? It’s not impossible that a another club could move. There are problems in Arizona, for example — although it doesn’t seem likely the franchise will actually move from their general location. With regard to the A’s, neither commissioner Rob Manfred nor his predecessor Bud Selig have shown interest in a move to San Jose. That isn’t surprising, given that San Jose’s media rights are currently controlled by the Giants. The last time MLB allowed one team to move into another team’s geographic footprint — when the Nationals moved to Washington, an area previously controlled by the Baltimore Orioles — lawsuits over television money ensued and don’t appear to have an end in sight.

The two teams most likely to move in MLB are Oakland and Tampa Bay, but MLB seems content to wait things out in Oakland — and is actually spurring the A’s to move more quickly, now that the team is being phased out of revenue sharing. Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, the region is still debating where the Rays should play, and a bidding war could ensue that would result in another stadium financed mostly by the public. MLB is currently in the midst of its longest period without expansion since that trend began in 1961. That drought is likely to continue until the stadium situations are resolved in Oakland and Tampa Bay. There are decent-sized markets in Charlotte, Nashville, and Portland — with the possibility of a return to Montreal or perhaps even Mexico City at some point — representing destinations for expansion. Still, it seems unlikely that a team would try to move to those locations, nor is it likely than MLB would approve such a move.

Ultimately, moving a franchise is about profits, and MLB teams have had little reason to move of late. The league has legal precedent on its side, and local governments keep providing piles of cash for new stadiums. NFL teams can more easily rely on the spigot that is national television money, as all games are broadcast as part of a deal. MLB teams are much more reliant on their local market — from the revenues provided from ticket sales (which isn’t to be overlooked, given MLB’s relatively busy schedule) and television contracts. A stadium alone isn’t enough, and attempting to build a new audience is likely much more difficult than cultivating the old one. MLB’s strategy has been a good one thus far, and the league has had luck on its side in the form of local governments and the antitrust exemption. In combination, they have helped the league maintain greater stability over the last 40 years than their counterparts in other professional sports leagues.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

No mention of the strange Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim deal? Not technically a relocation but I figured it would have at least been worth addressing.