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Sport in Alternate History, Part 7. Teams that never were - Relocations

By Pete Usher

MK Dons; they seem to be missing a goalkeeper.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Following on from Pete's article on Mergers and Alternate Mergers in sport, we have this article on sporting movements.

Location, location, location.

Phil and Kirsty

One of the major perceived differences between American and European sports leagues (especially for association football) is around the idea of relocation. As much as fans may want the team to remain in the current location, the call of bigger crowds, newer facilities, more tax breaks may lead teams to move. The league might want to expand its footprint, as Major League Baseball did when moving teams to California. Sometimes this is done in the open; other times, such as when the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis, it is done in the dead of night. The structure of the major American sports leagues lends itself to this – there are a limited number of teams, and the only way in is to either convince the league to expand and compete for a slot, or buy a team and move it.

Baltimore Colts, 1970. They moved to Indianapolis.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This leads to teams having moved to be fairly common. Of the 32 NFL teams, 8 have moved; 2 teams have moved three times – the Las Vegas Raiders have gone Oakland-Los Angeles-Oakland-Las Vegas, and the Los Angeles Rams have gone Cleveland-Los Angeles-St Louis-Los Angeles. In Major League Baseball, 9 of 32 teams have shifted, including the 1958 move of two teams from the east coast to the west (the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles; the Giants from New York to San Francisco) which opened up new markets for the sport. Similarly, 7 of 32 NHL teams have moved – here the city of Atlanta might count itself unlucky, having lost two major franchises to Calgary and Winnipeg. The NBA is the outlier here – the youngest of the major leagues has seen no less than 15 of its 30 current franchises move from one city to another, which goes a long way to explaining some of the more unusual names – the Utah Jazz were originally from New Orleans, which makes much more sense as a nickname.

Jazz shall remain in New Orleans, regardless of what Utah Jazz might say.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the UK, simple relocations are rare, but there is not a consistent reaction to this. When Wimbledon FC relocated to Milton Keynes and renamed themselves as MK Dons, there was a significant campaign from Wimbledon fans to prevent the move, and a phoenix club was formed, which took nine years to reach the Football League and just fifteen to reach the same division as MK Dons. MK Dons remain unpopular with fans of other clubs. A few years earlier, in 1995, Meadowbank Thistle had relocated from Edinburgh to the new town of Livingston, changing their name to reflect their new home. Although there were protests from the hardcore Meadowbank fans, the move went ahead – the loss of a poorly-supported ‘third team’ for Edinburgh did not draw as much ire, possibly because Meadowbank had been a works team (Ferranti Thistle) until they joined the Scottish League in 1974.

MK Dons remain unpopular with fans.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

However, there are a number of proposed relocations that didn’t happen. The move of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes itself has a number of different possible outcomes. Wimbledon were not the first team that were wooed by Milton Keynes. In the early 1980s, there was a proposal for Luton Town to have a new stadium in Milton Keynes, just 20 miles away, as the “MK Hatters” (The Hatters is Luton’s nickname, as the town has a long standing tradition of hat making). The proposal imagined that the existing Luton fanbase would be added to by new fans from Milton Keynes. At the time, Luton were in the First Division, at that time the highest level of football in England. However, Luton fan resistance and opposition from local residents, concerned about bringing football hooliganism into Milton Keynes, meant that the proposal was dropped. Since then, Luton have been all the way down to the fifth tier of English football, before climbing back up, returning to the top flight (now the Premier League) in 2023.

Additionally, before Wimbledon moved, Pete Winkleman (who led the consortium that secured the move) had had negotiations (or at least made offers to) with Barnet, Crystal Palace, and Queen’s Park Rangers. None of the clubs took any serious interest, but the scope for MK Bees, MK Eagles or MK Park Rangers is an interesting wrinkle.

Finally, at least for Wimbledon, there was an earlier proposal which could have had a larger impact. That proposal was for Wimbledon FC to move to Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland. While opinion polls showed that the idea of Premier League games being hosted in Dublin was popular, the League of Ireland, at least twenty individual clubs, and the Football Association of Ireland were resolutely against the idea, and they refused to meet with Wimbledon owner Sam Hammam to discuss the proposal, which died a death. The impact of a successful ‘Dublin Dons’ has the potential to reshape the structure of football in Europe – apart from exceptions for microstates (Monaco, San Marino, etc) and some UK exceptionalism (Welsh clubs in the Football League, Berwick Rangers in the Scottish League), all the clubs in a national league set up are from that country. The idea that a successful, cash-rich league such as the Premier League could transplant a team into Dublin (or Glasgow or Brussels) could potentially drive significant changes. It would have been interesting to see how the European governing body (Uefa) would have reacted if the proposal had had legs.

Wimbledon might have moved here, to Dublin. I hate to think what Brian O'Driscoll would have said.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When we turn to the American leagues, there are a lot of relocation proposals that seem to be leaked in order to get concessions out of the current home, often in the form of stadium upgrades or even a new facility. Sometimes, though, the proposals have a little more meat on them. One such example concerns the New England Patriots. By the early 1990s, the Patriots were seen as perennial strugglers, having only made the play-offs five times in the two and a half decades since the AFL/NFL merger created the Superbowl, with their only appearance in the title game ending in a 46-10 hammering by the Chicago Bears. It was not for nothing that they were called the ‘Patsies’ by fans of their rivals. At that time, the Patriots were owned by Victor Kiam, possibly best known for selling electric razors. Meanwhile, the city of St Louis had lost the Cardinals (not to be confused with the baseball team) to Phoenix in 1988.

Enter James Orthwein, scion of an advertising dynasty and board member of Anheuser-Busch. Kiam was facing bankruptcy, and in 1992 Orthwein bought the Patriots for $106 million. Crucially, this did not include the stadium, which was owned by Robert Kraft, who had acquired it in a previous bankruptcy sale from the Patriot’s founder Billy Sullivan. Crucially, the Patriots were locked into leasing the stadium until 2001.

Orthwein’s plan was to move the struggling New England franchise to St Louis and rebrand them as the St Louis Stallions (which was also the proposed name of a failed expansion bid in the same time period). There was even some team material produced to illustrate what the renamed franchise would look like, some of which can be found in the Patriots museum.

Orthwein offered to buy Kraft out of the lease, but this offer was refused. Once Kraft had refused the offer, he leveraged his ownership of the stadium to initiate a hostile takeover bid for $175 million, being aware that Orthwein had little interest in owning the Patriots if he could not relocate them. Future multi-sports team owner Stan Kroenke then stepped in with an offer to buy the team for $200 million and keep relocation on the agenda. However, under this offer, Orthwein would still have to pay all relocation and legal costs, and with Kraft preparing for a long and costly legal battle if the club’s lease was broken, Orthwein felt he had no option but to sell the team to Kraft in 1994.

Orthwein left a significant legacy in New England. Firstly, he changed the look of the team’s uniforms, and also the logo, modernising the way the team looked. Secondly, in 1993 he hired Bill Parcells as head coach, who had led the New York Giants to two Superbowl titles in the 1980s. Parcells had retired from coaching in 1990, but had had numerous offers to return, including a handshake deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thirdly, with the first pick of the 1993 NFL draft, the Patriots selected quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who would lead the team until the 2001 season, where an injury would lead to him being replaced by a little known player called Tom Brady. Under Parcells, the Patriots improved significantly, and reached their second Superbowl in the 1996 season. They lost 35-21 to Green Bay, but the years of the Patriots being a joke franchise were over. After the season, Parcells fell out with Kraft, and left the team. After three seasons of coaching from Pete Carroll, Bill Belicheck was handed the reins, a day after resigning as the recently announced head coach of the rival New York Jets.

Tom Brady joined the New England Patsies, a laughing stock in the Hand Egg sport. That changed.

Picture Wikimedia Commons.

What if Orthwein does find a way to buy out the lease? Would we ever see something as dominant as the Brady/Belicheck Patriots? In a league built around long-term parity, the Patriots recorded 19 consecutive winning seasons, including 9 Superbowl appearances and 6 titles. They also came within a handful of points of a ‘perfect season’, losing Superbowl XLII to the New York Giants by a score of 17-14, having previously won all 18 games they had played.

St Louis did get another team, for a while at least. In 1995, under the ownership of Georgia Frontiere, the Los Angeles Rams moved to St Louis, where they would stay for just over twenty years, before new owner Stan Kroenke moved the team back to LA.

Sometimes a prospective owner tries repeatedly to bring a team to a particular city. One example is Jim Balsillie, one of the men behind RIM, best known for the Blackberry range of products, which in the first decade of the 21st Century was one of the biggest players in mobile telephony. Based in Ontario, Balsillie was determined to bring a National Hockey League franchise to the city of Hamilton. Hamilton had been a candidate for an expansion team in 1990, but lost out to Ottawa and Tampa Bay.

His first attempt was a 2006 agreement to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins for $175 million. At the time, the Penguins were struggling to gain support for a new arena. The purchase agreement had clauses that said Balsillie would fund a new arena, but also included the intention to relocate the team to Hamilton if a new deal on an arena could not be reached. When the NHL insisted that the new arena should be part of the deal, Balsillie retracted the bid.

Next, in 2007, Balsillie agreed to purchase the Nashville Predators for $238 million, and started a season ticket campaign in Hamilton, to show the league that there was enough support to make the new location financially viable. However, just a month later, the Predators’ owner, Craig Leopold, terminated the agreement. Leopold later sold the Predators to a local group who would keep the team in Nashville – for $40 million less than Balsillie’s offer.

Then, in 2009, Balsillie was involved in a plan to buy the struggling Phoenix Coyotes and relocate them to Hamilton. Having been involved in two failed bids, Balsillie was (or at least felt he was) persona non grata with the NHL. All changes in ownership have to be approved by the league (effectively the other owners). Balsillie may have found a loophole – if a team goes into bankruptcy, the current owner is disqualified, and a new owner can, technically, buy the bankrupt team. So, Coyote’s owner Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy, and Balsillie made a bid. The league then challenged the bankruptcy, arguing that the financial support the NHL was offering meant that the club could not be bankrupt and that the league itself controlled the team, which meant Moyes’ actions were not legal. The NHL’s Board of Governors (effectively all the other owners) voted 26-0 to reject Balsillie as an owner. Balsillie launched a PR campaign, claiming that the league had an anti-Canadian agenda. Eventually, a judge ruled against Balsillie’s offer with prejudice, making it clear that it did not comply with the NHL’s rules on relocation. The league was told they could restructure their offer, and this eventually took place, with the NHL owning the franchise until 2013.

To rub salt into Balsillie’s wounds, in 2011 the Atlanta Thrashers did relocate to Canada, becoming the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets.

Finally, there are some teams that seem to attract relocation discussion on a regular basis. One of these is the North Melbourne Kangaroos, of the Australian Football League. Since the 1980s, the Victorian Football League has expanded and rebranded, becoming the top level national competition. One team, South Melbourne Swans, relocated to Sydney. There was a merger, a rebrand, and a number of expansions as the league evolved to its current structure. And while North Melbourne remain in their original home, a number of proposals to relocate them have fallen by the wayside.

What? You said North Melbourne Kangaroos.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1986, a consortium bidding for a new team made attempts to get North Melbourne to relocate. There was no public discussion, and in 1987, the Brisbane Bears joined the league, merging with Fitzroy in 1997 to become the Brisbane Lions.

Between 1999 and 2002, the Kangaroos played some home games in Sydney, with the league hoping to make them Sydney’s second team. The Swans had put a lot of effort into establishing a fanbase in Sydney before their move, and resisted the incursion strongly, looking to dominate support in the city, and attendance at the clubs’ shared home stadium, the SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground). The Kangaroos never established a following, and by 2022, the experiment was over. It was not to be the last.

A second Sydney team (the Greater Western Sydney Giants) started play in 2012. The club had an ongoing relationship with the Australian capital of Canberra for a number of years. There was news of discussions in 1984, 1990, 1992, and 1993. In 1999, North Melbourne dropped the geographical location from their name, just being called The Kangaroos, in order to broaden their appeal. Finally, from 2002, a deal was signed for The Kangaroos to play some home games at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Attendances were good, and the hope was that the team might relocate permanently. However, in 2006, the league negotiated a new deal for the Kangaroos to play some games in Gold Coast over the next three years. This soured the relationship between club and city, and when they later looked to rekindle the relationship, the Canberra local government was not supportive. There is no AFL team in Canberra.

The next city of interest was Gold Coast, Queensland. The deal the AFL had negotiated was much more lucrative than the one to play in Canberra, and there was a high level of speculation that the team might make the move permanent. In December 2007, it was reported that the club’s board was supportive of a move, and it looked like the move was more likely than not. However, fan power proved vital. Not only did existing fans vocally oppose the move, calling for the club decision-making structure to be changed, they also challenged the financial viability of the plan, making national headlines. Additionally, Kangaroos games in Gold Coast drew lower crowds than other team’s matches. Within a week, the proposal was rejected by the board, and the name North Melbourne was reinstated. The Gold Coast Suns joined the league in 2011.

Finally, from 2006, North Melbourne began a partnership with Tasmania, playing some home games at Bellerive Oval in Hobart, as well as doing some work to foster local Tasmanian talent. Crowds peaked at 18,000, but poor on-field performance and a perception that the organisation were not fully committed to Tasmania saw cross-drop, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. Tasmania will have a team join the AFL in 2028, so North Melbourne will remain in place… at least for now.

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