by Keith Aksel
In the first two editions of this series, I suggested that fans opposed to team relocation should focus their anger on the franchise model of pro sports ownership. When leagues allow a franchise model to flourish, teams are tethered to their cities only tentatively. In this model, the most important relationship is between the team and the league, not the team and the city it was founded in. Franchises start as huge entities right off the bat, and have to retain enormous financial support from their communities to stay alive. That relationship is under extreme stress from the start, and when the financial situation in a specific city goes south, franchises move to greener pastures.
The counter example to franchise ownership is the sports club model. Sports clubs exist in most other countries as the primary mode of team ownership. The relationships between clubs and their communities are quite different than the city-franchise relationships in the United States. I argue that the club model is in fact more sustainable because clubs are more deeply tied to the communities they exist in, and achieve a more desirable type of fandom than American franchises.
The example I will use is the famed Spanish sports club, Real Madrid. According to its official website, Real Madrid was first established in 1902 as a soccer club. The scale of the operation was small- a group of backers wrote up a constitution and articulated the goals of the club, and was ultimately established of its own volition. No league or national authority oversaw the establishment of new clubs, and the organizations were permitted to start small and grow at the rate they saw fit. By drawing competition where they could, usually from other amateur teams, early clubs resembled a community venture more than a big time entity.
By the time the Spanish League (La Liga) came about in the late 1920s, clubs like Madrid and Barcelona had been playing for decades. The league, which summarily moved to institute greater oversight over Spanish clubs, emerged only after these clubs had time to slowly ingrain themselves into the fabric of their communities. Pressures to bring in more revenue and professionalization were mitigated by the fact that the Madrid fan base was emotionally and financially attached to the club. Even in hard economic times (save for the suspended play for the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s), Madrid pulled in spectators and stayed afloat without the need to move to a more supportive city.
Clubs are also supported in their respective cities by their league hierarchies. Like most soccer playing nations, when a team in La Liga’s first division begins to lose support and is unsuccessful on the field, the team will drop down to a lower tier league through relegation. Relegation is thus, at the very least, an inhibitor for clubs relocating from one city to a more supportive locale. When a team begins to fail in the club model, it doesn’t just fold or move like the gigantic franchises in the United States. Teams have a chance to reorganize and rebuild themselves into money making contenders in the lower tier in order to move back up later. In this sense, the go-big-or-go-home American model is counterbalanced by a European model that is anything but. The Spanish League maintains five levels of competition- and most of the lower tier clubs have small, locally-flavored fan bases who follow the club through thick and thin. The stadiums erected in these clubs are dramatically smaller than American venues (the average La Liga stadium is under 40,000 at full capacity), thus they are easier to fill and maintain.
The secret to the club model and its close ties to the community is that they are permitted to start small-sometimes beginning as amateur teams-and gradually increase in scale over time without excess pressure by a league to stay big. If a team does expand to a larger footprint, they bring along the city to which it was tied, only increasing the marriage between city and club. Furthermore, clubs are more often owned by fans than American sports franchises, deepening those ties even further in a sustainable way.
That having been said, clubs sometimes do move or fold, but this is exceedingly rare. Teams that move often relocate just a handful of miles down the road to a nearby town, or merge with another club of similar size. One of those rarities was the English club Wimbledon FC which moved just sixty miles to Milton Keynes in 2003 under the name Milton Keynes Dons. Stories like the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL, which went from expansion team to total relocation to Winnipeg in just over a decade, just don’t happen in club sports in major leagues. Club sports teams have fostered ties that go too deep to abandon when teams fall on hard times, and even if they did, relegation allows the remaking of a club into something that could compete at a high level again. Your current English Premier League leaders, Leicester, serve as the most obvious example that the relegation system works.
The takeaway is that the club model produces better relationships between teams and their cities because of the slow and gradual growth model they are allowed. If and when a team falls on hard times, they are relegated, not pressured to fold or move to stay alive. Fandom is better when it is cemented in place. Franchises, on the other hand, put fans in uncomfortable positions with regard to their allegiances and who owns the heritage of the team. Does the Colts’ Super Bowl V win belong to the city of Baltimore or the Colts’ franchise in Indianapolis? These are questions I argue no one should have to ask. Unfortunately, relocation and the franchise model makes them part and parcel of American fandom, and dilutes the ties to a city that franchises are known for.
Suggesting that American pro sports emulate the club model is like asking Americans rethink the electoral college in its general elections. Such ideas will be floated time and again, but the institutions are just as ingrained in the American way of life as club models are to everyone else in the world. Americans will continue to deal with the Rams of the world moving every decade or two, with the typical outcry that we have seen this NFL offseason. But, perhaps the discussions surrounding that outcry could be tinged with a little understanding of the club vs. franchise dynamic- it can only make fans smarter.
 Liz Crolley and David Hand, Football and European Identity: Historical Narratives through the Press, Routledge, 2006, 96.