The past two years produced some pro sports relocations that have brought older tensions in American sports back to the surface. Namely, who really “owns” a sports team in a given league? Is it the named ownership, the same people who make the call to move a team from one city to another? Is it the fans who invest their time, money, and heart into following a team? Is it the broader community that houses the team and its facilities, usually granting tax incentives to the team in the process? For fans of the St. Louis (now L.A. Rams) and San Diego (now L.A. Chargers, for some reason), such questions continue to follow each franchise to their new locations. And for pro teams currently slated to move from their homes, such as the MLS’s Columbus Crew, those questions are poised to become relevant in Central Ohio very soon.
The broader model of American sports is one that relies on franchising, a model that I critiqued on this site in the past. My general argument was that franchises are forced to start big and to stay big, and instead of shrinking or folding altogether in tough times, owners have recourse to simply move the team elsewhere and ostensibly start anew. Although this means these teams can remain afloat in their new cities, they can only establish tenuous ties to their communities, and the more they move, the less ingrained in their cities they become. I don’t believe, for example, that the Rams are done moving. Their past of relocation portends more moving in the future.
The very concept of relocation plays on the hearts of fans who identify a team to a city, and want to be able to retain the civic-athletic identification that often brings fans to root for a particular team to begin with. When franchises move, they screw with fan emotions and minds, breeding new resentment in their places.
All of this is to say that the only viable solution in American sports is not upending the franchise model, something that requires vast resources and commitment from lots of people in many segments of society. Rather, the solution is a greater commitment to the only institution guaranteed not to move and take fan hearts with it: college sports.
College sports are rooted, inextricably, to their communities. They do not move when economic times get tough, or when a team struggles on the field. They don’t force fans to question whether they are supporting a town or a team- in college sports, those two concepts are one and the same. Not only that, college sports invite greater allegiances than pro sports due to the fact that you as a fan can actually become a part of the institution you pull for on the court or field. As a student, faculty member, or alumnus, your college team follows you wherever you go in ways not possible in pro sports. Unless you are part of the small percentage of America that becomes a pro athlete or high level front-office executive, you will never become a L.A. Ram the way you can become a Temple Owl or Purdue Boilermaker. And no matter how dire things get with a college athletic program, your team will not move to another locality. College programs may fold or demote themselves to a lower-tier division before that happens, but that’s an exceedingly rare occurrence these days.
Certainly, college sports have their issues. The recent college basketball corruption scandal that has seemingly damaged a number of high profile programs, shed more light on an enterprise (extracurricular payments of amateur athletes) that has followed college sports for a century. And yet, college sports have weathered this and countless other challenges over their existence to remain a central part of the American sports landscape. For fans who know the passion that follows college fandom, the pull they have on us is real and overall, very rewarding. To those disgusted with the games pro ownership play with fans (namely threats to move unless new stadium facilities are constructed), know this; colleges may present fans with its share of unsavory characters, but they will never leave you. Thanks to its cemented relationship between sports and place, college sports remain a welcoming beacon for American sports fans alienated by pro franchises.