Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Vegas, Conventions, Populations, and Pros(e)

So Las Vegas is making a bid for the 2016 Republican convention. That shouldn't be shocking. Vegas probably has the most hotel rooms in the nation, and it's known as a convention city.

But Las Vegas has never hosted a major party political convention, and that's likely because of the, ummm, origins of what Nevada calls the "gaming industry."

The gambling stigma, and its inherent connection to sports, is such that Las Vegas is the largest US metropolitan area with no professional sports franchise. Even when the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws existed in 2001, it didn't count.

Which gets me off on a tangent that's longer than the original point, fueled by faded memories of nonstop franchise moves and name changes from the ABA, the basketball league that gave us the red white and blue ball and the three point shot. And I don't have anything real to write about till everyone gets their campaign finance reports posted tomorrow.

It helps to remember here that my dad was a coach.

Why do some cities have teams and others don't? Moneyball, my friends, moneyball. But money needs people, to watch the team on TV and less importantly to fill the stands. And sometimes public money for that sweetheart deal for a new stadium with new luxury boxes. A subsidy for the rich? Sure. But those teams are a huge part of community identity in any pro town or even Division I college town.

It also helps to have a head start. The now-fading northeast cities got their teams first, and western and Sun Belt towns had to wait for expansion or steal them away. Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves.

Let's do what I like to do and look at numbers. American metro areas over 4 million population usually have franchises for all the Big Four sports: basketball, football, baseball, hockey, though some of the southern ones don't have hockey. Which is fine by me. Hockey should not ever exist in places where natural ice does not ever exist.


That covers the top 15 or so cities. Below that, each pro league has roughly 30 teams and the franchises skip around: two franchises a town, one team and eventually they fizzle out.

The break point for a Major League City seems to be right around a metro population of a million. Over a million, you're usually in the big leagues. Under a million, almost certainly not.

Cities in the super-conglomerations called "combined statistical areas" are left off my list. For example, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, with a two county population of over 4 million, is part of Greater Greater LA. Though that still doesn't explain LA not having an NFL team.

So here's the list:

1. Las Vegas. 2012 estimate 2,000,759, #31 in the nation and growing fast. About to leapfrog two sport towns Kansas City, Cleveland and Cincinnati, they have to settle for the UNLV college hoops championship two decades ago and one XFL season.

2. Austin. 1,834,303, #35. Put a qualifier here: big college cities are more likely to confer pro-like worship (and pro-like booster support) to college teams like the Longhorns.

3. Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, 1,699,925, #37. Part of that problem is the three hyphenated cities in the Hampton Roads area. Also, as a Navy town, a lot of people are coming and going.

4. Providence. 1,601,374, #38. The National League's Providence Grays folded in 1885. The NFL's Providence Steam Roller, a rare early non-plural nickname, ran out of steam in 1931. Good. I hate non-plural nicknames. Rhode Island has been annexed by Massachusetts teams ever since. Still, Providence is bigger than two-team Milwaukee.

5. Louisville. 1,334,872, #42. College hoops dominates Kentucky but they also had a beloved ABA team, the Kentucky Colonels, led by Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, who was listed at 7 ft 2 in but was probably closer to 7-6 if measured to the top of his Afro. The Colonels, despite solid fans and finances, were excluded from the 1976 ABA merger into the NBA.

6. Richmond. 1,231,980, #44. The other team left out of that merger was the Virginia Squires, who split games between Richmond and the Hampton Roads area. Dr. J and George Gervin made stops in Virginia but the Squires swapped them away before the end. Richmond is bigger than two-team New Orleans, though in fairness the Big Easy has had a very tough decade and really needed that Saints Super Bowl win in the `09 season.

7. Hartford. 1,214,400, #45. Teamless since 1997 when the NHL's Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes, who play in #46 metro Raleigh, far south of my hockey line and worse, named after bad weather like the Miami Heat. By that logic, if the NBA ever returns to Seattle after the Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder (more non-plural weather) the team should be the Seattle Rain. And if the NFL ever comes back to LA, the team would be the California Smog. More pet peeves; teams geolocated in states or, egad, regions like Carolina or New England. Which finally gets us back to Hartford.

8. Birmingham. 1,136,650, #48. Close enough to Tuscaloosa and the Crimson Tide play in the SEC which might as well be the third NFL conference. Birmingham had the XFL's Thunderbolts for the league's lone season, and the Birmingham Americans won the only championship of the upstart World Football League in 1974 (the league died mid-season `75).

We're now to the point of the second smallest pro sports market in the United States, Salt Lake City at 1,123,712 population, a #50 rank, and the ridiculously named Utah Jazz, the name inherited from New Orleans after a 1970s move. As a rock of the westies, I mean, west of the Rockies, town, Vegas at almost twice the size would be a much more logical place to host a team. Remember, this is a post about Las Vegas.

There are two smaller cities with pro teams, but let's look at the last two American cities of a million plus people with no pro teams.

9. Rochester. 1,082,284, #51. Another 19th century baseball town and early NFL city. Just a couple notches smaller than Buffalo which has football and hockey. Metro Buffalo also has another 400,000 people on the Canadian side of the border, but they're Maple Leafs fans. The NBA's Rochester Royals left town in 1957. After stops in Cincinnati, Kansas City, and the now teamless Omaha - Omaha?!? - they're now the Sacramento Kings.

10. Grand Rapids. It doesn't surprise me that Grand Rapids has no pro teams. It surprises me that 1,005,648 people, #52 in the nation, live in metro southwest Michigan.

There are two exceptions to that rule of a million, which is less of a rule than something I just made up. Greater Winnipeg, home to the NHL's Jets, has a 2011 Canadian census population of 730,018 which would rank 74th as an American city. Clearly a Canadian city can support hockey with a smaller critical mass of people, though Winnipeg lost an earlier version of the Jets to Phoenix - hockey moving from CANADA to a DESERT?!? - before they were reborn like the Cleveland Browns.

And of course, the smallest, the great historic accident of my beloved Green Bay Packers. The Packers command the loyalty of all of Wisconsin, save for a few renegade Vikings fans on the border. But the greater Green Bay area is number 155 in the nation with a population of just 311,098. That's well less than half of Canadian ringer Winnipeg, and barely a quarter of the next smallest American pro town, Salt Lake City.

The NFL used to be full of teams like the Canton Bulldogs and Dayton Triangles and Duluth Eskimos, but only the Pack survived, by selling shares to the fans. And that makes me the proud son of an NFL owner.

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