Professional Sports Feeling The Financial Crunch?

So what do the 1978 NHL Cleveland Barons, the 1952 NFL Dallas Texans, and the 1954 NBA Baltimore Bullets all have in common?  The average sports fan probably knows next to nothing about these three professional sports franchises — and for a pretty good reason.  These are the last franchises in each of three of our major sports leagues to have folded their tents, leaving these teams nothing more than footnotes in the history books of the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

Professional sports is an expensive business to participate in, and it shouldn’t be a shock that even the deepest pockets who’ve invested their time and resources into it have sometimes come out with those pockets emptied.  Of course, there have been a great number of teams that at the end of the day simply couldn’t pay their bills anymore — but those have almost always been from secondary leagues trying to compete at a top level when the market simply couldn’t bear any more competitors (the USFL, ABA, WFL, and the WHA), or minor leagues and/or teams from minor sports (the CBA, Arena Football, and any number of  teams from the various pro soccer leagues that have tried and failed to gain a grip on the nation’s sports consciousness).  But when it’s come to the largest major leagues, it’s always been about expansion of teams (or if a market did fail, relocation) — never contraction.

MLB has been the sport with the greatest stability;  it’s a sport that had gone half a century without even so much as a franchise shift when the Boston Braves picked up stakes and moved to Milwaukee for the start of the 1953 season.  To find a franchise that simply folded, you have to go back well over 100 years.  The proposed contraction of the Twins and the then-Montreal Expos in 2002 would have been a sharp deviation from this history , but the motives involved by MLB officials weren’t as simple as black-and-white economics concerning the viability of the markets or ownerships, and thankfully for Minnesota fans at least, it never took place (though the poor fans in Montreal found themselves sold out by their resident parasite owner Jeffery Loria, a mercenary who’s managed to kill baseball interest in multiple markets, some sort of dubious record for owners I’m sure).

The other three major sports leagues, however, have had their share of franchises that couldn’t survive — but the numbers of failed teams have remained almost completely stagnant since the 1950’s.  That’s not really a surprise, as the NFL and NBA of that decade were far different than the multi-billion dollar financial behemoths that they’ve turned into today.  And the NHL, while still a distant fourth in the league pecking order, has also remained relatively stable, so far as the number of franchises have gone over that time.  To borrow a financial term we’ve all had to hear lately, surely these leagues and their membership have become “too large to fail”, right?

Think again.  A pretty ominous column from ESPN’s Bill Simmons this past weekend suggests that the effects of the financial meltdowns we’ve seen across the country this past year are finally starting to be felt in the otherwise unreal world of professional sports.  The article is, as always, excellent reading that I highly recommend.  From my perspective, I wasn’t sure what was the most chilling part — the idea that a financially-motivated NBA lockout could cost the league more than a full season of play, the idea that a dozen NBA teams could move in the next couple of years, or that an astounding 15 NHL teams could be in danger of folding in two years time (not a prediction by the Sports Guy, but a rumor he’d heard with enough substance behind it that he felt it worth mentioning in a nationwide column — if Gary Bettman could read, he’d probably be banging his head against something very hard and solid if he saw this).

Are we headed towards a sporting landscape where we see fewer teams in the future, and franchises beginning their own versions of “Going Out of Business” liquidation sales?  The prospect certainly wouldn’t hurt the quality of play in any of the leagues, and frankly, there’s definitely sports teams right now in markets that can’t or won’t support them, and that have little to no back history between city and organization to warrant them being saved if problems occur (see Grizzlies, Memphis).  Normally, I’d say the NFL and MLB would be better able able to avoid this type of turmoil — but considering how many other unfathomable things we’ve witnessed in the financial sector over the last twelve months, a couple of pro teams shutting down operations wouldn’t carry as much weight or be as much of a shock as it would have been just a few short years ago.

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