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The Cities with Too Few (or Too Many) Sports Teams

What if the Denver Broncos became the Bridgeport Broncos? Or LeBron’s Cavaliers played their home games in Riverside, California? Denver and Cleveland fans: calm down – this isn’t going to happen. But, from at least one perspective, it wouldn’t be totally crazy if it did.

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There are a lot of reasons certain sports teams play in certain cities. While market size is important, it’s far from the only consideration. Take Boston, for example. The Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots have been playing in Beantown for an average of 82 years. The Patriots are the new guys in town, having just arrived in 1960. Even if there were more demand for one of those teams in another market, it’s not likely a sports commissioner would try to uproot one of Boston’s storied franchises.

When it comes to expansion and relocation, politics and personal agendas come into play. The willingness of a given city to fund a shiny new stadium can make or break an expansion deal. Likewise, a team’s owner may favor a city with a smaller market if it means staying close to home and showing off the new toy to all their friends. Not everyone can fly 1,000 miles to attend every game, as LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer does.

In short, the landscape of American professional sports has been shaped by far more than sound financial logic. The result is messy and in some cases just plain weird. (Ever been to Green Bay?) So what would the sports world look like if each city had the “right” number of teams?

Modeling Pro Sports Franchise Location

To determine the optimal number of sports teams in U.S. cities, we looked at data on population and mean household income for each of America’s largest 100 metro areas. This reflects both the size of a given market and the amount of income after taxes the people in that market have to spend on tickets, gear and (generally outrageously expensive) stadium concessions.

Using that data, we developed a model to predict the number of “big-four” men’s sports franchisesin U.S. metro areas. Specifically, we ran a linear least-squares regression of the number of franchises on the population and mean household income. The resulting model looks like this:

Number of Teams = -0.81 + (0.532/1,000,000) * (population) + (0.1123/10,000) * (mean household income)

Our modelpredicted that an additional two million people in a metro area on average leads to one extra franchise, as does an additional $90,000 in mean household income. According to our model, a metro area like Atlanta, with 5.5 million people and mean household income of $80,000 should have about three pro sports teams.

As it turns out, Atlanta has exactly three big-four franchises, which means the difference between the value predicted by our model and the actual value – this is called a residual – was basically zero. However, that was not the case for every city.

Below, we take a look at the cities with the largest differences, positive and negative, between the projected number of teams and the actual number of teams. These are the cities with too many or too few sports teams.

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Denver, Colorado

Denver has four major pro sports franchises: the Broncos, the Rockies, the Nuggets and the Avalanche. With a metro area population of 2.64 million, it is the smallest metro with a team in all four major men’s sports leagues. Indeed, our model found that the Mile-High City should probably have just two teams.

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So which teams should go? The Avalanche are the most recent addition, having moved from Quebec in 1995, but they have arguably been the city’s most successful franchise since arriving. The Broncos are a non-starter. The most likely candidates for a move would be the Nuggets and the Rockies, both of which have struggled with mediocre on-field performance and relatively low attendance in recent years.

San Francisco-Oakland, California

As of the beginning of 2015, there were five major franchises in the San Francisco-Oakland metro area. Oakland is home to the world champion Golden State Warriors, the A’s and the Raiders, while San Francisco has the Giants and the 49ers.

When the 2015 NFL season begins, however, the 49ers will no longer be playing in San Francisco. They’ll be 45 miles away, in Santa Clara. That will place them in the San Jose metro area and lower the number of teams in San Francisco-Oakland to four. There is also potential for a move by the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles, which would put the number of major men’s pro sports teams in the San Francisco-Oakland at three, approximately the number we projected based on market size and income.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota

With a metro area population of 3.4 million and average household income of $86,712, the projected number of teams in the Minneapolis region is closer to two than the four it has. This is probably one of the reasons there have been attempts and rumored attempts over the years to move one of the Minnesota sports franchises to a new city. Perhaps most famously, the owners of the Minnesota Timberwolves tried to move the team to New Orleans in 1994 but were prohibited from doing so by the NBA.

Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland is often cited as the country’s most miserable sports city, with no titles since 1964 despite a number of famously heartbreaking close calls. Among the travails through which Cleveland has suffered was the temporary loss of the Browns, who moved to Baltimore but were replaced three years later (as part of settlement between the city and the NFL) by an expansion team.

That story had a happy ending but if our model is correct, the next may not. Based on population and income alone, Cleveland’s three professional sports teams should be closer to one. Indians, Browns and Cavaliers fans: which team would you keep?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

If history is a reason for a sports team to stay put, then don’t expect Pittsburgh to lose one of their three major pro sports franchises any time soon. Between the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins, Steel City has 14 championships, more than any other city that does not have (or has not had) a team in each of the four major men’s leagues.

That being said, if you set history aside and consider only market size and income, Pittsburgh should probably have just one professional sports team, not three.

Detroit, Michigan

Like those in Pittsburgh, Detroit’s sports teams are among the most storied in their respective leagues, having won a total of 22 championships. That’s the fourth largest total of any city in the U.S. Furthermore, two of those teams (the Tigers and the Lions) are playing in relatively new stadiums. Construction began last year on a third new stadium, this one for the Redwings. So, it’s unlikely Detroit will be losing a sports team any time soon.

Phoenix, Arizona

Historically, the National Hockey League has struggled to get sports fans in warm-weather cities to take an interest in a game that is played on a frozen pond. That has been particularly true in the desert of Arizona, where the Coyotes have routinely had among the worst attendance records in the league. In June, the city of Glendale (where the Coyotes have been playing) terminated the team’s lease agreement, meaning the Coyotes currently have no place to play in 2015.

Don’t be surprised if they move. Our model projected 2.3 teams for the Phoenix metro area, well below the four they currently have.

Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida

Another hot-weather hockey town, but in this one the fans have warmed to the ice rink, while cooling toward a more traditional pastime. That’s right: in Tampa, hockey is a bigger draw than baseball.

The average attendance at Tampa Bay Lightning games in the 2014-2015 season was nearly 19,000, eighth highest in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays rank dead last in MLB attendance so far this season, drawing 14,500 people per game. That’s bad news for Tampa, where our model suggests there should be one or two pro sports teams, not three.

St. Louis, Missouri

Based on population and average income, St. Louis should probably have two pro sports teams, not three. Well, bad news for St. Louis sports fans: that two-team scenario may soon be a reality.

Current Rams owner Stan Kroenke has expressed his desire to move the team to Los Angeles. He has even purchased a stadium-sized plot of land in the City of Angels in a perfect location for the former-LA football team to play. While this may be a ploy to gain leverage in negotiations over a publicly funded stadium in St. Louis, there are plenty of reasons to believe Mr. Kroenke is for real.

Buffalo, New York

Perhaps more than any other city on this list, Buffalo reflects the painful clash of past with present. When the Buffalo Bills came to town in 1960, the city of Buffalo had a population of 530,000. It was the 20th largest city in the country. Today it is half that size. The Buffalo metro area is just the 49th most populous in the U.S., yet it has more sports teams than 19 of those metros. This is a large reason Buffalo has been the target of relocation rumors over the years, most recently in 2014 when there was speculation that the Bills might move to LA.

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Riverside-San Bernardino, California

Did you know that the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area is the 12th largest in the country? And that every single metro area that is larger than it has at least three major men’s pro sports franchises? And that Riverside-San Bernardino has zero?

The Los Angeles metro area is close enough to Riverside that fans who are willing to sit in traffic for a few hours could conceivably attend a game, but a combined Riverside-LA market would then be able to support more than the six teams the region currently has. Indeed, the LA-Riverside metro would have a population nearly as large as that of the New York City metro, which has nine teams (and, as described below, could support two more).

New York, New York

That’s right, according to our model the metro with the highest number of sports franchises should have even more. The NYC area is home to two NFL football teams, two major league baseball teams, two pro basketball teams and three NHL franchises. Yet, with a metro area population greater than all but three states, the New York City metro area could actually support two more major sports franchises.

So, how about a baseball team for Brooklyn? Or basketball in Queens? It may not be as crazy an idea as it sounds.

Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut

While the Bridgeport metro area is only the 57th largest in the U.S. with a population of about 930,000, it is also one of the wealthiest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the mean household income in the area is $136,000. That means households have more money to spend on non-essential products like regular season NBA tickets or Eli Manning jerseys.

Austin, Texas

Austin is the largest city without a “big-four” men’s professional sports team and sits at the heart of the third largest metro area without one. Yet, for the most part, the city is left out of any franchise relocation or expansion discussions. Why?

Well, for one, there’s the Longhorns. The University of Texas sports teams have massive arenas that draw huge crowds even when the teams are losing. They function as a de facto pro sports franchise. Another possible reason is that Austin may not want a pro sports team.

The city has ample entertainment offerings (its official slogan is “Live Music Capital of the World”), which means residents are not lacking for ways to pass the time. Furthermore, Austin already has some of the worst traffic in the U.S. and Austinites may not have patience for the traffic jams that precede and follow sporting events. Lastly, there’s the question of a stadium, specifically where to build one and how to pay for it. Those could be headaches the city of Austin would rather pass on to someplace else.

Los Angeles-Anaheim, California

Of all the cities on this list, Los Angeles is the one most likely to get a team in the near future. It could even get two. Ownership of the St. Louis Rams is mulling a move to LA and indeed already owns a patch of land on which to build a stadium. Meanwhile, the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders have floated a plan to share a stadium in Los Angeles. In short: the NFL will likely be back in Los Angeles in the near future. That will bring the total of teams in the LA metro area to at least 7, almost exactly the number projected by our model.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Vegas is the second largest metro without a major men’s sports team and its name is often included in relocation and expansion talks. But there are a few reasons a team hasn’t landed in Sin City yet. The first is that team owners are afraid potential fans in Vegas will be too distracted by the city’s other attractions to fill a sports arena on a regular basis.

The other reason is that sports commissioners are nervous about placing their leagues next to the gambling capital of America. While gambling is a huge part of the professional sports economy, it has generally been discouraged or ignored by the leagues themselves. That being said, we wouldn’t bet against one of the big four leagues rolling the dice on Vegas in the near future.

Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Virginia

Virginia Beach is the largest city in Virginia, which in turn is the largest state without a professional sports team. (Although, to be fair, Washington D.C. has three sports teams, all of which practice in Northern Virginia.) The city of Norfolk made a bid for an NHL team in the late 90s, which was eventually rejected by the league in 1997.

Providence, Rhode Island

With a metro area population of 1.6 million and average household income of $74,920, Providence could support one professional sports franchise. Some might say it already has an NFL team. The New England Patriots, conventionally thought of as a Boston team, play in Foxborough, Massachusetts which is as close to Providence as it is to Boston. Indeed, the team’s stadium is located just 25 miles from downtown Providence.

Hartford, Connecticut

Until 1997, Hartford did have a major pro sport’s franchise: the Hartford Whalers. The Whalers played in Hartford from 1974 to 1997, when new ownership moved them to North Carolina after failing to reach an agreement with the city to publicly fund a new arena.

Oxnard-Thousand Oaks, California

The Oxnard-Thousand Oaks metro is located forty miles west of Los Angeles. It is among the wealthiest metros in the U.S. with a mean household income of $101,302. While there is no full-time professional sports franchise in Oxnard, they do get an NFL team for a few months a year. The Dallas Cowboys hold their annual training camp in Oxnard. Maybe Jerry Jones is considering a relocation?

So Who Should Move Where?

Keeping in mind that this a purely hypothetical exercise, intended only for entertainment purposes, here is how we would propose rearranging the professional sports landscape in order to bring some balance to the cities listed above:

  • Move the Oakland Raiders and the Denver Nuggets to Riverside, making them Riverside Raiders and the Riverside Nuggets (makes sense, right?).
  • Send the Phoenix Coyotes to Bridgeport, where it actually snows.
  • Ship the Minnesota Timberwolves to New York City, renaming them the Staten Island Slammers.
  • Send the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles. (This one may actually happen.)
  • Take the talents of the Cleveland Indians to Austin Texas. Rename them the Austin Argonauts.
  • Leave Detroit and Buffalo alone.
  • Bring the Whalers back to Hartford by relieving Tampa Bay of their hockey team and send the Tampa Bay Rays to Virginia Beach.
  • Move the Pittsburgh Steelers to Las Vegas.
  • Run for cover.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/jjwithers


1. The big four are the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. We did not include MLS, the WNBA or any other professional sports leagues because the revenue and attendance of those leagues are at least an order of magnitude smaller than those of the big four. Simply put, teams in the other leagues do not have the same effect on a market as a team in one of the big four leagues.

2. For stats nerds, the adjusted r-squared on the regression was 0.755.

Nick Wallace Nick Wallace studied Economics at the University of Washington. He enjoys getting people thinking about finances by looking at the numbers. Nick is a freelance journalist and data analyst living in Michigan. He still lends his economic and analytic expertise for SmartAsset's studies.
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