Short-Term Sports Relocation Has Long-Term Consequences

by January 11, 2021

When star point guard Chris Paul joined the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019, a few journalists seized on an under-the-radar storyline: Paul was returning to the city where he began his career and won Rookie of the Year.

Yes, Paul went fourth overall to the New Orleans Hornets in 2005. But mere months later, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, the Hornets sought refuge in Oklahoma City — which had experienced its own tragedy a decade earlier — selecting it over other candidates such as Nashville and Kansas City.

The Hornets ultimately spent the better part of two seasons in Oklahoma City, during which time they brought in an estimated $137 million in economic impact. The displaced team received a warm reception in the Big Friendly; attendance at the Ford Center that year vastly exceeded what the Hornets had been getting in New Orleans.

Commissioner David Stern said Oklahoma City had rocketed to “the top of the list” for potential NBA relocation, and sure enough, in 2008 the Seattle SuperSonics moved there and became the Thunder.

Few other disasters would prompt temporary relocations as lengthy as the Hornets’ stint in Oklahoma City. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a flurry of movement, particularly from Canadian teams forced to operate in the U.S. due to travel restrictions. 

Perhaps spurred by Oklahoma City’s success in the 2000s, cities have been publicly campaigning to host these displaced squads. Journalists covering sports business should pay close attention to these proposals. A team’s temporary stay means not only a short-term economic boost, but possibly a long-term expansion candidacy.

For instance, the pandemic has disrupted Toronto teams in the NBA, MLB and MLS. These teams have moved into temporary homes in Tampa, Florida; Buffalo, New York; and Hartford, Connecticut, respectively — all cities without major-league teams in their respective sports.

The battle to host the NBA’s Raptors, who selected Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Nov. 20, was particularly hard-fought. In Kansas City, where the downtown T-Mobile Center sits unoccupied for most of the year, politicians and Chiefs players led a full-court press, but encountered opposition from local civil rights groups. Other cities like Newark (a former NBA venue, close to the Nets and Knicks) and Louisville (also hurt by its social justice reputation) were in the mix, potentially aiming for “the Oklahoma City model” of offering hospitality, then courting expansion.

The potential economic impact of hosting a professional sports team, even just for a few months — and even during a pandemic — is significant enough on its own, and of such great interest to audiences, that journalists should report on their cities’ proposals’ viability. 

Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, a AAA venue, spent millions upgrading prior to the Blue Jays’ arrival. While key components of economic impact like job creation and local business revenue are severely diminished due to COVID-19, Buffalo officials still expected a significant boon to the hospitality industry, and an increase in future tourism from Canadians.

Many of these proposals are really just that: bets on the future, like Oklahoma City’s after Hurricane Katrina. Hosting a team in the short term proves competency and lays the foundation for future expansion or relocation candidacy. Business journalists should get in on the ground floor by covering these pitches for temporary relocation, even in their earliest stages.