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How sport reflects America’s changing demography

Sports teams, like people, are moving south and west

This article was originally published by The Economist on 29 April, 2022

The words “Las Vegas” conjure up, in many minds, images of free-spending, tacky tourism. No surprise then that the local economy was hammered in the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, when lockdowns kept bachelor parties and newly minted 21-year-olds from frolicking in Sin City. But to think of Las Vegas only as a temple of tourism is to miss how the place is changing. Ever more people are choosing to make Las Vegas their home, rather than just a weekend stopover. The population of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has more than tripled since 1990. The suburb of Henderson is one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

Another way to measure Las Vegas’s transformation from a neon island in the Mojave desert to a growing metropolis is to consider some recent additions to the landscape: T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights play ice hockey, and Allegiant Stadium, home to the Raiders American football team (pictured, in the black jerseys) - and where this year’s National Football League (nfl) draft got under way on April 28th. Until 2017 Las Vegas had no professional sports teams at all (although your correspondent once spent a pleasant evening watching the local minor league baseball team, the Aviators). The Golden Knights played their first games that year and the Raiders relocated from Oakland, California in 2020.

Much like Americans themselves, the country’s sports teams seem to be moving to blossoming cities in the south and west. In 2018, the National Hockey League approved a new team in Seattle. The Kraken began playing in 2021 (but didn’t wake: the team is bottom of its division). Like Las Vegas, Seattle is growing rapidly. Its population surged by 21% between 2010 and 2020. Among America’s biggest 50 cities, only Austin and Fort Worth, in Texas, have grown faster. Unlike Las Vegas, however, Seattle has hockey history. In 1917 the Seattle Metropolitans became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup, the sport’s championship series.

Both Seattle and Las Vegas are rumoured to be in the running for a professional basketball team should the National Basketball Association decide to expand. Seattle’s new mayor, Bruce Harrell, recently told residents that the chances were high that the city would net a franchise. That would delight Seattlites who still mourn the loss of the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008. Developers in Las Vegas are building a 20,000-seat arena as part of a new $3bn entertainment district.

The shift in America’s sporting centre of gravity is not new. Of the 12 American teams Major League Baseball added between 1962 and 1998, only three were in the Midwest or north-east (Canada also gained two). In 1957 baseball executives voted to allow the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers to move to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. California offered team-owners massive fan bases without existing loyalties (at least locally) and, crucially, available land in city centres for shiny new stadiums. The theory, you might say, was: if you build it, they will come.

At least New York got another baseball team, the Mets, a few years later. Other places haven’t been so lucky. In 1950 St Louis was the eighth-largest city in America. But the former industrial powerhouse has been haemorrhaging residents since the 1970s. The owner of the Rams, the city’s nfl team, cited St Louis’s declining population and economic troubles in 2016 when he applied to move the franchise back to Los Angeles, where it had been based from 1946 to 1994. The city sued the Rams and the league in 2017, alleging that the team broke its own relocation rules. The nfl settled the suit last year, to the tune of $790m. That was no consolation to St Louis’s football fans when the Los Angeles Rams were crowned Super Bowl champions this February.

Lately, however, the biggest loser of all has been a western city. In the past five years Oakland, in California, has lost the Raiders to Las Vegas and the Golden State Warriors basketball franchise has skipped across the bay to San Francisco. Now the Athletics baseball team seems increasingly likely to join the Raiders in southern Nevada. The Nevadan poachers can offer not only a growing fan base but also the scope to build new stadiums - in the Raiders’ case, partly at taxpayers’ expense. (It is hard to build anything in California these days, let alone a massive sports complex.) Perhaps Oakland’s misfortune also reflects another trend, which may come to shape America’s sporting geography in years to come: people leaving California. 

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