Relocation Rivalry

Every few years, a sports team in one of the United States’ ‘big four’ sporting leagues—the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League— either moved from one locale to another or was created anew. Recent examples of such moves include the flight of the NFL’s Saint Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles, and the creation of the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team. Although team moves invariably anger dedicated hometown fans, reasons for moving normally derive from purely financial last-ditch attempts to save failing franchises.

However, in certain cases, moving a team can create its own set of little-known financial hurdles. The first of these can come before the team is officially allowed to relocate. Though each league has its own set of rules dictating how teams can gain permission to move, it generally includes a voting process in which the owners of other teams can voice their opposition to proposed relocations. Such is the case in the NFL, where a recent skirmish exemplified the financial stakes at play for all team owners when one team decides to move.

The NFL’s Raiders, currently based in Oakland, are looking to move to Las Vegas, where, as the NHL’s Golden Knights proved, there exists an untapped market for professional sports. When the matter came to a vote at the 2017 league owners’ meeting, all but one team—the Miami Dolphins—voted in favor of the move. The Dolphins’ owner, Steven Ross, expressed distaste in the opportunistic move and suggested instead that Oakland fans should be given more thought in the decision. CBS Sports’ John Breech, at the time, offered an alternative explanation—Ross, to keep his Dolphins in Miami, paid millions out of his own pocket to revamp the team’s stadium, while the Raiders will receive an astounding $750 million from Nevada’s state government to construct their new playing home.

Another frequent financial battle occurring when teams look to relocate revolves around television broadcast rights. Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals relocated from their previous home of Montreal in 2005 and brought with them a storm of controversy around market competition. Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, publicly expressed distaste with the plans to put a second team in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. Although other major metropolitan markets, such as Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, support multiple MLB teams, the Baltimore Orioles decided that the installation of the Nationals in the nation’s capital would damage the Orioles’ financial prospects.

In an attempt to appease the Orioles franchise and successfully complete the move, a deal was inked wherein the Orioles would control all of the Nationals’ broadcast rights through a shared network called MASN, in exchange for the franchise relinquishing their exclusive rights to the geographic market. This deal has largely remained in place since the move in 2005. Many point to this deal, which massively cuts the amount of revenue the Nationals can pull in from broadcasting their games, as rationale for high ticket prices at Nats Park.

In recent years, opposition to the deal has become more public and more mobile, and it appears that after 13 years, the Orioles’ control over Nationals broadcasts may be coming to a close. In July, the Orioles proposed a deal where the Nationals would receive a 33% stake in the network. A final decision on the network’s fate has yet to be reached, but the protracted conflict represents the epitome of the bitter battles that can erupt between teams over relocation.