SBJ/November 4 - 10, 2002/Opinion

Local team, foreign name

Years ago, when Richard J. Daley was mayor of Chicago, the Chicago Bears made it known that they were interested in moving into a new stadium that the suburb of Arlington Heights was talking about building for them.

Daley reacted apoplectically. Fine, he said in effect, let 'em go. But if they moved, they could darned well call themselves the Arlington Heights Bears, because he was taking back the name of Chicago.

People had a good laugh at Da Mare's expense, because he could no more withhold his city's name from a football team than he could from, say, the Chicago Pizza Co., which is domiciled in Mesa, Ariz. Still, he raised a point that deserves as much consideration now as it did then.

The issue is apt, I think, as the enlistees of the National Basketball Association begin their new season. Among their number are some wearing the jerseys of the New Orleans Hornets, a team that moved from Charlotte after last season ended.

The Hornets' parting from Charlotte was rancorous enough that many there probably wish they had some recourse against the organization they'd supported with league-leading attendance during much of its stay in their town. By the same token, some in the Big Easy might be wondering if they too easily adopted a franchise that one day could leave them the way it left Charlotte.

New Orleans particularly might be prey to such qualms because it lost an NBA team before, to Salt Lake City. That move created the kind of anachronism that reminds us of dislocations past, because the team's owners elected to transplant its New Orleans nickname of Jazz to the Utah metropolis, even though the music most often associated with the latter place emanates from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Similarly, if you go swimming in Los Angeles it's more likely to be in an ocean than a lake, and if you think you've encountered a grizzly bear in the vicinity of Memphis, it's probably because you spent too much time on Beale Street.

Inappropriate nicknames aside, it's long been obvious that a sports team's most valuable possession isn't its players, who come and go, or its owners, who often don't go quickly enough, but the name of the city it represents. Most of us root for the teams based in the cities where we live, have lived or might like to live, or have fond memories of visiting.

Our attachment to place is profound, making fans of people the instant a team says it's coming to their town, yet that sentiment isn't always returned. As far as some team owners are concerned, loyalty is a one-way street, dependent on their getting top dollar for seats and suites in taxpayer-subsidized stadiums that become obsolete the day after they're completed.

City boundaries aren't sacrosanct, and neither are state lines; the New York Giants and Jets have long since hied themselves and the revenues they generate to New Jersey, and the St. Louis Cardinals are looking into moving across the Mississippi River to Illinois.

Mayor Daley was right, and cities should have weapons to use against teams that jilt them. Some litigious fan should file suit under truth-in-advertising laws to make teams carry the names of the places where they really make their homes. In that case you'd see such standings listing as the East Rutherford Giants and Jets, and the Irving Cowboys.

Better yet, until a team has established residency somewhere for five or so years, it should be required to carry the names of its principal owners. I wonder how happy folks in New Orleans would have been to welcome the Shinn-Wooldridge Hornets.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@sportsbusiness-journal.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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