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9 Most Unlikely Pro Sports Cities
For pro sports teams to succeed these days, they need more than a loyal fanbase. If that was all that was needed, there wouldn’t be so many defunct pro sports teams. Instead, what pro teams really need under today’s business model is corporate sponsorship and media revenue. Without those two things, teams are going to flounder. And yet, somehow, there are more small cities with pro sports franchises than ever before.
Today, we’re taking on the task of ranking the most unlikely pro sports cities. The rankings will take into account a number of factors, but first and foremost will be the two criteria mentioned above.
But before everyone gets mad at me for insulting their town, this is in no way intended to a judgment on the quality of these cities or their fans. They are fine places, and I actually think it’s great that these fans have been able to enjoy top-tier professional sports. But you have to admit—they are unlikely homes for major sports teams, aren’t they?
Technically, with 821,000 residents, Jacksonville is the largest city proper in the state of Florida. But that’s only because in 1968 the city of Jacksonville and Duval County were consolidated into one single entity. Today, Jacksonville is of course home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the NFL’s lowliest teams with one of if not the worst media markets. The only reason they haven’t moved away from Jacksonville is that they have such a ridiculously favorable lease with EverBank Field. It runs until 2029, and it’s so cheap that it’s practically impossible for the team to lose money. But losing money is the only way the team could get out of the lease.
Note to smaller cities: study the Jaguars’ lease of EverBank Field. That’s how you keep your team. It’s brilliant.
Fort Lauderdale, with it’s population of 165,000, is not technically the home of a pro sports team. The Florida Panthers of the NHL actually play in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale called Sunrise.
“But wait,” you say, “isn’t Fort Lauderdale kind of a suburb of Miami?” And the answer is yes, sort of. All of which makes the Florida Panthers’ situation even weirder. They basically play their home games in the suburb of a suburb. Sure, they are part of the Greater Miami media market, which draws on a population of 5 million. But the heart of the population lives 30 miles away from BankAtlantic Center. So any way you cut it, Fort Lauderdale/Sunrise is an unlikely location for a pro sports team.
Memphis is a great town with a rich music history and fantastic barbecue. And it’s home to the headquarters of FedEx, which is pretty cool. But as far as sports go, it’s always been a college (Memphis Tigers) and minor league (Memphis Redbirds) kind of town.
Then the Grizzlies moved there in 2001 as part of the most inexplicable series of team relocations in North American pro sports history. The Grizzlies moved from Vancouver—huge city—to memphis; then the Hornets moved from Charlotte to New Orleans; then Charlotte got an expansion team, the Bobcats; and then, last but not least, the Supersonics left Seattle for another city on this list. Thanks, NBA.
Now, Memphis is a large city. There are 650,000 people in the actual city and 1.5 million in the region. But like Nashville (which barely escaped making this list), there is much less corporate sponsorship available than other pro sports cities. Plus, the media market is hemmed in by other pro sports markets (like St. Louis, only 4 hours north) that have been around much longer.
Orlando is nice and all, but it’s not a “normal” city. It wasn’t built on industry and manufacturing and jobs and all that stuff. It was instead just a small city until Walt Disney decided to build his world famous theme park there in 1971. That choice transformed Orlando and brought a ton of economic growth to the region—but it was all based on tourism. Which is totally fine. It just means that Orlando was kind of a one-trick pony when the Magic came along in 1989. Today there’s a lot more going on economically in Orlando, but there is a reason no other pro sports teams have followed the NBA to central Florida.
I’m glad Oklahoma City has gotten a crack at major professional sports. But with a population of half a million and a metro area of 1.3 million—and with the NBA’s penchant for relocating teams at the drop of a hat—I just can’t envision the Oklahoma City Thunder staying there for the long haul. That being said, in their early years the Thunder have made great profits, so maybe I’m just being overly skeptical.
But regardless of what the Thunder’s prospects for staying in OKC actually are, it’s still an unlikely pro sports city.
Uniondale, in Nassau County, New York, is home to the New York Islanders. Yes, it is part of the New York Metropolitan Area, which is the most populous area in the entire country. But the Nassau Coliseum is in a suburban part of New York and 30 miles from midtown Manhattan, which in New York might as well be 90 miles. In terms of the media market the Islanders are okay because there are 1.5 million people in Nassau County. Still, these guys are basically third stringers in the New York area after the Rangers and Devils. So while I hope they find a way to make things work out on Long Island, it’s not a very likely place for a pro sports team.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, has a population of about 690,000. But that’s not just the population of the city proper. It’s the population of the entire metro area. So if Canadians were not absolutely mad about hockey, there’s no way this town could sustain an NHL team. And even if the Winnipeg Jets do stay afloat, it’s hard to see how they’re going to compete with teams from major cities as the salary cap goes up. But at least Winnipeggers will get to watch top-notch hockey, which is probably all they really care about (for now).
Little Regina, Saskatchewan—population 180,000—is home to the Saskatchewan Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League. Now, while the CFL is not exactly a pro sports juggernaut like the NFL or MLB, it is a well-established and profitable pro sports league with a substantial following. And all the other teams in the league are from cities that range from three to twenty times larger than Regina. Winnipeg is the second-smallest market in the CFL, and as we’ve already seen, their population is almost four times that of Regina. So even for the relatively small scale of the CFL, Regina is an unlikely pro sports city.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Green Bay, Wisconsin, has a population of 104,000 with a total of 300,000 in the metro area. Yet the city is home to one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. The Green Bay Packers are of course a communally owned team, which means that they aren’t going to leave town to seek greater profits elsewhere. And it also helps that Green Bay is just an hour from Milwaukee. But being an hour from a major city hasn’t helped other struggling pro sports teams (like the Coyotes, Islanders, or Panthers). So the Packers and the city of Green Bay really are an anomaly.