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.
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 franchises1 in 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 model2 predicted 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 our analysis exposed to have too few sports teams.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.