The Five Most Controversial Franchise Moves in U.S. Sports


My old man once told me that sports is the universal language among guys. Find out that your new neighbor just moved in from Ohio and ask, “How ’bout them Bengals, huh?” And you can strike up a conversation with any stranger on the T by talking about the Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins or (if you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling) the Celtics.

Given the ties between city and team, it’s always a heartbreaker when a storied franchise moves from one city to another. But in the continual struggle between a team’s business interests, a city’s tax needs and a fanbase’s fervor, someone has to lose out. And it’s a shame when your team moves on and you can’t move with them.

In that vein, I give you my Five Most Controversial Franchise Moves in U.S. Sports. These are the big ones, or the sad ones, or the ones worth talking about.

5. Houston Oilers -> Tennessee Oilers

A founding team of the AFL, as well as that League’s first champion, the Oilers boasted such greats as Billy Cannon, Warren Moon and legendary coach Bum Phillips. And few teams in the game today have a loyal enough fanbase to show up at the airport, fifty thousand strong, to cheer their team returning from a postseason loss (’78 and ’79, both times to the Steelers).

However, owner Bud Adams grew frustrated with the Oilers’ continued trend of making the postseason then flunking out. After several demands for a better stadium (from the city) and better play (from the team), Adams announced the franchise move to Tennessee in 1998. The 1996 season following the announcement was so disastrous, with crowds of fewer than 20,000 in attendance, that Houston let Adams out of his stadium lease a year early.

The Houston to Tennessee move is also remarkable in that sportscasters would regularly catch themselves in calling Tennessee “Houston” for months. I think John Madden still does it, although he still calls the Bears “Decatur” from time to time. Adams, wanting to get Nashville on his side, renamed the team the Titans in 1999 and their fortunes have fared better since.

4. Cleveland Browns -> Baltimore Ravens

As legendary as the Oilers are, however, the Browns have another fifteen years of history behind them. Named after their first coach (can you imagine the Steelers being renamed the “Pittsburgh Cowhers”?), the Browns tore up the ancient All-America Football Conference before entering the NFL.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: in 1995, owner Art Modell announced his intentions to move the city to Baltimore. He cited the deteriorating Cleveland Municipal Stadium (known for the cheating Cleveland Indians and its swarms of mayflies) as one of the chief reasons. Fans reacted poorly, filing lawsuits, staging protests and even littering the field so much during games that the Browns had to play their final home game “half court,” to stay away from the Dawg Pound in the home team end zone.

The final settlement: the city of Cleveland retained ownership of the Browns’ “legacy.” All Browns’ records, championships and assorted historabilia would remain in Cleveland, which is bound to make an interesting case study for any IP lawyers in the audience. The name “Browns” would go into stasis until 1999, when Cleveland would again be allowed to have a football team.

Baltimore accepted the terms, and became the first city to name a football team after a poem.

3. Seattle Pilots -> Milwaukee Brewers

This one isn’t controversial for breaking anyone’s heart, but more for the precedent it set.

Seattle had had minor league teams since the 1890s, but it wasn’t until Kansas City got their expansion approved in 1967 that Seattle got one as well (like the Force and its Dark Side, the AL and the NL seek constant balance). However, the Pilots didn’t do well in their inaugural season, drawing less than 700,000 attendees and hemorrhaging money. Given that fans hadn’t exactly turned out in droves for Seattle’s minor-league teams, this shocked no one but Seattle.

With costs spiralling and fan support non-existent, Pilots’ owner William Daley ordered fans to start showing more support or kiss their team good-bye. Mayor Floyd Miller responded by threatening to evict the team unless they posted a bond to guarantee their rent on the stadium. A local theater owner made some noise about buying the team in order to keep them in the city, but quickly withdrew the offer when the Bank of California called in their $4 million loan to the Pilots. It looked like nobody wanted the Pilots in Seattle.

Finally, the most evil man in baseball, Bud Selig, made a $10 million bid for the Pilots during the 1969 World Series. The deal was approved in April 1970, with the move happening so suddenly that the name “Brewers” had to be stitched atop the Pilots logo on the old uniforms. Like one of those awesome iron-on patches of a tiger. God, I hate Bud Selig.

The city of Seattle sued the American League, with the case finally coming to trial in 1976. They argued that the bond issues they’d undertaken to finance a new stadium should be counted as damages against the premature move. They also argued that the secret agreements between concessionaires and the Pilots’ franchise constituted an anti-trust violation (the real money’s in Crackerjacks and glossy programs, kid, and don’t you forget it).

The American League, up against the wall, offered to give Seattle a new franchise if they’d drop the lawsuit. Seattle’s lawyers, canny players they, offered to recess the case for a year, just to see if the AL would keep up their end of the bargain. They did, and the Mariners took it from there.

Seattle Pilots’ baseball cards now trade for twenty times their original value.

2. Baltimore Colts -> Indianapolis Colts

Try to capture the essence of football in a single game – a championship contest between two legendary teams that introduced the then-unused overtime rules, a nationally televised slugfest that catapulted the sport to its current popularity – and you’ll find the perfect game already exists. It’s called the Greatest Game Ever Played, and it’s the 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. Johnny “The Golden Arm” Unitas and wide receiver Raymond Berry squared off against Frank Gifford and the accurate-if-sometimes-drunk Pat Summerall. The Colts won in overtime – the first team to do so, to say nothing of the first football championship to be decided in sudden death – and cemented their place in legend.

And it didn’t go downhill from there. The Colts remained a dominant force all throughout the 60s, regularly climbing to the postseason. They beat the Browns to become NFL champions in ’68, but lost to Joe Namath’s Jets in the third NFL-AFL interleague championship game – what we today call the Super Bowl. They remained dominant following the NFL merger in the 70s, winning pennants and championships behind QB Bert Jones and an impenetrable defensive line.

The Colts of the late 70s and early 80s were a sorrier spectacle, though, and new owner Bob Irsay began to get itchy. When their lease on Memorial Stadium expired, Irsay entered secret negotiations with the mayor of Indianapolis. For $12.5 million dollars, Irsay loaded the team’s equipment and offices into a fleet of Mayflower moving vans at 3:00 AM and moved the Colts to Indiana on March 29th.

While moving any storied franchise brings an uproar, moving a team under cover of darkness struck fans as infamously foul. The players and most of the management staff weren’t even notified of the move until after it had happened. Johnny Unitas famously refused to allow his uniform to be displayed in the Hall of Fame unless he was listed as a Baltimore Colt.

There may be more shocking or upsetting moves in U.S. sports, but nothing beats the Colts creeping out of Owings Mills in the dead of night for sheer underhanded betrayal.

1. Brooklyn Dodgers -> L.A. Dodgers

If the Underdog Made Good is the only story worth telling in sports, then the archetype for that story is the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. The long suffering “bums” played in the ancient Ebbets Field, which used to exit attendees through a gate in the outfield (neighborhood kids would lie on the street, peering through the gap beneath the gate, and watch a couple innings for free). Like many great franchises, they had a history of making the postseason and striking out; some historians suggest the phrase “Wait ‘Till Next Year” originated with them.

However, the Dodgers began to acquire some real talent in the 50s, under the eyes of co-owners Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley. Outfielder Duke Snider could play the ball off of Ebbets Field’s irregular geometry like a pelican snatching a jumping fish. Catcher Roy Campanella was a three-time NL MVP and boasted a .318 batting average. The team of LF Sandy Amoros and SS Pee Wee Reese turned a number of near runs into outs. And there were also these guys named Robinson and Koufax whom you might have heard about.

The 7-game Yankees / Dodgers World Series stacks up against any championship contest you’d care to name. From Jackie Robinson’s home-plate steal in Game 1 to Amoros and Reese’s lightning double play in Game 7, Brooklyn’s world-class talent hung in to the end. The borough’s celebration all night and well into the next morning.

In light of this explosive success, Walter O’Malley did the sensible thing and moved the team three thousand miles.

O’Malley, having bought out Branch Rickey in 1950, had been looking to buy new land for a more modern stadium for some time. In order to pressure Brooklyn into caving, he entertained some offers from Los Angeles as a contingency. That contingency came to pass after the 1957 season, when the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers both moved to California.

In an era when St. Louis was considered the Wild West of baseball, O’Malley brought the great American pastime to California – today, one of its biggest markets. He bought up cheap land along the Chavez Ravine and turned into Dodger Stadium, now one of the great cathedrals of the game. Fans have him to thank for turning baseball into a truly national sport.

But historians and nostalgic fans will never forgive Walter O’Malley for stealing the finally successful Dodgers from Brooklyn. He has yet to get more than 50% of the ballots for Hall of Fame election. Roger Kahn continues to put food on the table by memorializing Brooklyn’s few beautiful seasons and by villainizing O’Malley (insinuating in a 2000 op-ed for the L.A. Times that the O’Malley family turned down a bid to bring the Dodgers back to Brooklyn in order to accept a lower bid from Rupert Murdoch).

It’s a story that comes prepackaged with the qualities of myth. The civil rights’ champion Jackie Robinson. The amazing roster that was the 50s’ Dodgers. Brooklyn fans, hanging on through decades of heartbreak and being rewarded at last. And above all, the cold team owner, moving the team to sunnier and richer climes. If it were fiction, people wouldn’t believe it.