Gone But Not Forgotten: Sports Franchises That Left Town
Breakups are always hard, but when it’s your favorite sports team leaving town, the pain can be unbearable. In some cases, a city that loses its sports team manages to get one back in the future via relocation or expansion. Other cities, however, aren’t so lucky and remain without a team.
Here are 30 sports teams that left their respective cities for greener pastures.
The best thing to grace Hartford since, well, ever, was the Hartford Whalers, the state of Connecticut’s only major professional sports team ever. From 1979-1997, the Whalers called Hartford home, although it wasn’t much of a home to New England’s second professional hockey team. In their 18 years in the NHL, the Whalers only had three winning seasons and made the playoffs eight times.
Located on a geographical fault line between New York and Boston, the Whalers struggled to build their fan base and hardly ever sold out the Hartford Civic Center, one of the NHL’s smallest arenas. In 1997, the Whalers moved to Carolina and became the Hurricanes, winning one Stanley Cup since their move.
Hockey has been ripped from the city of Atlanta twice, with the most recent move coming in 2011. In 1997, the NHL granted Atlanta an NHL franchise which began play in 1999 for the 1999-2000 season. Nicknamed the Thrashers in honor of Georgia’s state bird, the Brown Thrasher, the Thrashers spent the majority of their time in the NHL getting thrashed, not doing it.
In 11 seasons of fairly miserable hockey down south, the Thrashers only qualified for the playoffs once and were promptly eliminated. In 2011, the Thrashers were sold to a Canadian entertainment group which relocated the team to Winnipeg, rebranded as the Jets, in time for the 2011-12 NHL season.
St. Louis Rams
St. Louis really struggles to hold onto their NFL teams. The Rams were the second NFL team to ditch St. Louis after the Cardinals did so in the late 1980s, which we’ll address later. In 1995, St. Louis was given the gift of football again after the L.A. Rams left L.A. in search of greener pastures. Those pastures apparently were located in St. Louis, Missouri, where the Rams played from 1995-2015.
In that time span, the Rams won one Super Bowl in two appearances and gave its fans the “Greatest Show on Turf.” However, problems with the Rams’ ugly, aging domed stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, meant St. Louis would need a new home. In 2016, the Rams left St. Louis and returned home to Los Angeles.
They owned some of the most classic, palatable uniforms in professional history, but that, sadly, wasn’t enough to keep the Oilers in Houston. From 1960-1996, the Oilers occupied the now-vacant Astrodome. The Astrodome was initially a solid venue for the Oilers, but over time it became inept. Oilers owner Bud Adams began growing disenfranchised with his dome and demanded the city of Houston help pay for the upgrades, lest he move them to another city. Houston initially obliged and upgraded the stadium with new turf and box seats.
However, years later, the upgrades became dated and Adams again demanded the city help pay for additional stadium upgrades. Houston fans, this time, were not down with funding more upgrades while Adams, sensing the fans’ disillusionment with him and the team, and secretly decided to move the team to Tennesee. In 1997, the Oilers moved to Tennesee under the same name before becoming the Titans in 1999. Football did return to Houston in 2002 in the form of the Texans.
Quebec, the second most populous province in Canada, has lost two professional sports teams, one of them being the Quebec Nordiques. The Nordiques, French for “Northerners,” played in Quebec City, Quebec from 1972-1995. Despite a loyal fanbase, Quebec City was the smallest market in the NHL and the second-smallest major-league city in North America, trailing only Green Bay.
In addition, Quebec was strictly French-speaking, and the team operated exclusively in French, making their marketability very limited. Even non-French speaking players feared playing for the Nordiques. In May 1995, the Nordiques moved to Colorado to become the Avalanche. Quebec has been longing for a team ever since.
For those of you who need clarification on the Expos logo (on the helmet), it is as simple as this. The “e” is for expos, the “b” is for baseball, and together it forms a stylized “m” for Montreal. Pretty cool right? What wasn’t cool was the cavernous stadium Montreal played in for the majority of their time spent in Montreal. The Expos, aptly named after the 1967 World Fair in Montreal, began play in 1969.
In 1977, they moved into Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a venue with bad sight lines, a horrible playing surface, and way too many empty seats. Free agents specifically stated they would not play in Montreal as long as Olympic Stadium was their home. Although the Expos’ owner tried to gain funding for the stadium, it proved to be impossible because the city of Montreal was still strapped with debt from the Olympics and the stadium was not yet paid off. With no options, the Expos left for D.C. at the end of the 2004 season.
Cleveland just can’t catch a break. In 1995, the Browns’ owner Art Modell, who bought the team in 1961, suddenly announced that he planned on moving the Browns to Baltimore. While the city of Cleveland panicked, Modell and the NFL struck a deal that allowed the Browns’ records, logos, name, and history to be kept in trust.
At the same time, Baltimore was given an NFL team dubbed the Ravens which began play in 1996. From 1996 through the end of the 1998 season, Cleveland was without a football team while the Browns remained suspended in limbo. In 1999, the Browns resumed play as an expansion team, one that has struggled mightily since.
From 1953-1983, the Baltimore Colts were the main attraction in Baltimore. However, problems with securing funding for a new stadium (we’ve heard that one before) meant Colts’ owner Robert Irsay was looking for a new home, preferably one where a new stadium would be built using taxpayer money. After visiting Indianapolis and their newly-built RCA Dome, Irsay was convinced he had a new home. In the middle of the night on March 29, 1984, Irsay clandestinely hired moving trucks to transfer everything from Baltimroe to Indy.
The reason he and the Colts needed to abscond in the cover of darkness was because of an eminent domain bill that the Governor of Maryland planned on signing the very next day, which would have stopped the Colts from leaving. Long story short, the city lost its team in the middle of the night and has been bitter ever since. Football returned to Baltimore with the aforementioned Ravens in 1996.
There’s a lot of bark behind the soon-to-be-gone Oakland Raiders, but not much bite. The Raiders started in Oakland before moving south to Los Angeles from 1982-1994. In 1995, they moved back to Oakland and made their home in the horrible Oakland Coliseum (which is also home to the A’s), meaning they play a part of their games on a baseball diamond.
Anyway, on March 27, 2017, NFL team owners almost unanimously approved the Raiders move to Las Vegas. Oakland owner Al Davis could not find funding for a new stadium in Oakland and saw a more lucrative opportunity in the desert. The Raiders will begin play in Vegas in 2020, leaving the city of Oakland, who is also losing the Warriors, devastated beyond belief.
Seattle has not been the same since the SuperSonics left the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City. In 2006, the Sonics were sold to OKC businessman Clay Bennet, who bought the team for $350 million. Immediately after the sale, locals became concerned with Bennett’s motives, chiefly if he would keep the team in Seattle.
After failing to find appropriate funding to revamp Key Arena or rebuild an entirely new arena, Bennett opted to move the franchise to OKC with the stipulation that the Sonics nickname, colors, logo, and banners remain in Seattle, available for use for Seattle’s next NBA team. Prior to the 2008 season, after lawsuits were settled, the team officially moved to Oklahoma City as the Thunder. Seattle has been waiting ever since for the NBA to return. As a consolation prize, Seattle was awarded an NHL team that will begin play in the 2021-22 season.
Kansas City Scouts
Bringing hockey to the heart of the country was an experiment that did not pan out. In the 70s, the NHL was rapidly expanding and they thought Kansas City was the perfect place for a new franchise. Thus, in 1974, the Scouts, after failing to get permission to use the name Mohawks, were born, albeit to little fanfare.
While the Scouts built one of the largest arenas at the time, the 17,000-seat Kemper Arena, they were hardly able to fill it, averaging just over 8,000 fans per night. Just two years after making their debut, the Scouts folded and left for Denver to become the Colorado Rockies.
California Golden Seals
The California Golden Seals seemingly spent more time changing their name than playing hockey. The Seals made their debut in the NHL in 1967 as the California Seals, which was, mid-season, changed to the Oakland Seals. That name stuck for two years before they became the Bay Area Seals. Not shockingly, that name lasted only two games before ownership changed the name to the California Golden Seals.
Why all the name changes? Because the franchise was trying to attract more fans from both sides of the bay (Oakland and San Francisco) but was entirely unsuccessful. With losing records and a shallow fanbase, the Seals moved to Cleveland prior to the 1976-77 season. On a positive note, the Seals had a goalie nicknamed the “Cobra” who wore the sweetest mask in the NHL.
Cleveland rocks, unless you’re a hockey fan. In that case, the city was rock bottom. As we mentioned the Golden Seals left for Cleveland in time for the 1976-77 season. The relocated team rebranded as the Barons in honor of an old AHL team and played in the largest NHL stadium at the time, the 18,500-seat Richfield Coliseum. Although they had a massive arena, they were hardly able to fill it.
That’s because Cleveland’s approval into the NHL wasn’t officially finalized until late August of ’76, just months before the start of the season. And that meant there was little time to promote the fledgling franchise. The Barons kicked off their new beginnings with little fan support and struggled out of the gate. Two years later, the team merged with the struggling Minnesota North Stars and left Cleveland for good.
After the Kansas City Scouts realized Missouri wasn’t a fruitful endeavor, they packed their bags and left for Colorado. The original Colorado Rockies began play in Denver in 1976-77 and lasted there until 1982. Problems with tickets and an atrocious record meant the Rockies never really captured the hearts and souls of the Denver faithful. In their six seasons of play, the Rockies made the playoffs just once.
Starting in 1978, rumors began to take hold whether an imminent move out of Colorado was on the rise, and in 1982, those rumors became true when the team was sold to a shipping tycoon who moved the team to New Jersey for the 1982-83 as the New Jersey Devils. The NHL returned to Denver when the Nordiques moved to become the Colorado Avalanche for the 1995-96 season.
The Vancouver did one thing right in their existence: capturing the essence of the 90s perfectly with their outlandish, cartoonish jerseys. When Vancouver entered the league in 1995 (along with Toronto), everyone knew they would be bad. So if they weren’t going to sell a good brand of basketball, they better be able to sell some merchandise, and that’s exactly what they did. In their first year, the Grizzlies weren’t allowed to draft a high draft pick, and in subsequent years, high picks refused to play there.
The team lacked talent and finished in last place in their division five out of six seasons. With attendance lacking and a weakened Canadian dollar, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis in time for the 2001-02 season. Today, Toronto is the only Canadian city with an NBA franchise.
The proud city is known for a few things, namely their eponymous wing sauce, Buffalo sauce, the Bills, and the Sabres. They were never a huge basketball town and when the NBA tried to build a market for their product in Western New York, it failed. It didn’t fail as badly as some of the other teams, but the Braves lasted from 1970-1978. During those eight years, the Braves made the playoffs and had a winning record only three times.
The fanbase never really adopted the team and when the Braves’ owner John Y. Brown had the opportunity to swap franchises with Celtics’ owner Irv Levin, who was from California, he pounced. Brown now owned the Celtics while Levin, the new Braves’ owner, took the opportunity to move the team to San Diego as the Clippers.
San Diego Clippers
The city of San Diego has been cursed with its professional sports. Prior to the Braves becoming the Clippers, San Diego had lost a different NBA team which we’ll discuss shortly. But in 1978, all was well with America’s Finest City because they got a new basketball team and named it the Clippers in honor of the ships.
In their first year in S.D., the Clippers posted a solid 43-39 record, which turned out to be their last winning season for 13 dreadful years. To attempt to resurrect the franchise, the team was sold to L.A real estate developer Donald Sterling for $12.5 million, and in 1984, the team moved to L.A. where they’ve been ever since, soaking up whatever limelight is leftover from the Lakers.
San Diego Chargers
This one really was like a punch to the gut of San Diego. The city lived and died and breathed Chargers. We all know the Padres have been largely irrelevant, and the Clippers experiment was dreadful. That left the city with the Chargers. Attendance at the games was good, the fanbase was strong, and the team performed well, year after year.
But like many things, it came down to a stadium, one the Chargers desperately needed to replace their dilapidated eye-sore of a home, Qualcomm Stadium. After numerous talks with San Diego fell through, Chargers’ owner Dean Spanos announced the team would move to L.A. for the 2017 season. The Chargers plan on sharing the Rams’ new $5-billion stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals
Another city that has struggled mightlily when it comes to holding down their football teams, St. Louis got its first taste of losing an NFL team back in 1988. Prior to ’88, St. Louis fielded two Cardinals teams, one on the gridiron and one on the diamond. The reason for this remains unclear. Did anyone think that this could cause a lot of confusion? Guess not.
Well, the Cardinals football team was in St. Louis from 1960-1987, and during that 28-year stay, they made the playoffs just three times. With an old stadium not built for football and a dwindling fan base, the team packed up and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1988. Football returned to St. Louis from 1995-2015 as the Rams before they, too, left for the West.
The Brooklyn Dodgers broke some of the most important history in baseball and North American sports when, in 1947, they signed Jackie Robinson as the first black player to play in the Majors. From 1884 through the 1957 season, the Dodgers, known by that name because of the deft ability of Brooklyn residents to dodge trolly cars, played in Brooklyn.
Their home, Ebbets field, was as legendary as their logo. However, a cool logo and color scheme didn’t translate to World Series wins, and the club only won it once, in 1955. AS stadium problems mounted and the ease of flying across the country increased, ownership decided to move the club to L.A., where they played their first game on April 18, 1958.
It was fun while it lasted. One year to be exact. The Pilots opened up shop in 1969 and closed up shop in 1969 after one disastrous season. The Pilots got off to a rough start by playing in a minor league stadium that was beyond inadequate. Problems mounted as the roster wasn’t competitive and fans hardly showed up. With their finances backward, the Pilots were forced to move to Milwaukee where they became the Brewers, who kept the colors of the Pilots, albeit with darker shades of blue.
Baseball did make its triumphant return to Seattle in 1977 when the Seattle Mariners made their debut. So far, they’ve yet to win a World Series, but they can be considered incredibly successful if the metric by which we measure success is the number of seasons played.
New Orleans Jazz
This name made perfect sense for New Orleans. The Jazz and their Mardi Gras-colored uniforms screamed New Orleans. What didn’t scream basketball, however, was playing in the Super Dome, a venue much too large for the Jazz and their limited fanbase. The Jazz were also troubled by a slew of bad trades and assembling rosters void of talent.
One final, crippling blow to the franchise was the absurdly-high 11-percent amusement tax that the city levied on the struggling franchise. After the 1978-79 season, the Jazz left New Orleans for Salt Lake City, just five years after they began play in the Big Easy. Basketball returned to New Orleans in 2002 after the Charlotte Hornets relocated.
San Diego Rockets
The first team to leave San Diego, the Rockets were established in 1967 as an expansion team. Although many people think of San Diego as a surfing city, the owners opted for the name “Rockets” because of San Diego’s constant growth and their connection to helping built part of the Atlas missile. Sadly, the Rockets never really took off.
The team never really built a solid fanbase and the team was mediocre at best. In 1971, a Texas conglomerate bought the franchise for $5.6 million and promptly moved the team to Houston, becoming the first NBA franchise in Texas. From a name standpoint, the Rockets worked even better given Houston’s connection to NASA.
Kansas City Kings
The Kings franchise has had its name and location evolve many times over the years, but the nickel tour behind it is this: the franchise began as the Rochester Royals. That team lasted from 1948-1957 before moving to Cincinnati, still as the Royals. They lasted there from 1957-1972 before moving to Kansas City. Wanting to avoid confusion with the already established Kansas City Royals of the MLB, the team changed its name to the Kings (take note St. Louis on how to do this).
Initially, the team split its time between Kansas City and Omaha. During that time, they were called the “Kansas City-Omaha Kings.” Eventually, the Kings phased out the Omaha market and played strictly in K.C., where attendance was low. Prior to the 1985 season, the Kings moved to Sacramento where they’ve remained since.
Hockey left Winnipeg not because of a lack of fan support, but because of the serious economic downturn in the 1990s that struck the Canadian dollar hard. The Winnipeg Jets were founded in 1972 as a member of the WHA and became a member of the NHL in 1979. The team lasted in Winnipeg, the NHL’s second-smallest market, until the end of the 1995-96 season. In the 90s, the NHL allowed Canadian clubs to pay their players in U.S. dollars, and top free agents specifically stipulated that they wanted to be paid in U.S. dollars.
The problem was, the Canadian clubs generated revenue with the Canadian dollar. At the time, the exchange from Canadian to U.S. dollar was lopsided, and teams began losing money at an unsustainable rate. To boot, the Jets had an old building with no luxury boxes. In 1996, the franchise moved to Phoenix to become the Phoenix Coyotes.
One thing is clear: Atlanta is not a hockey town. Never was, probably never will be. The Atlanta Flames began play in 1972 and were relatively successful for a new team, making the playoffs in six of its eight seasons. However, the team played in the Omni Coliseum, one of the few arenas that lacked any luxury boxes.
The dated arena and lack of interest for hockey made selling tickets exceedingly difficult. After the 1979-80 season, when it became abundantly clear that hockey and Atlanta didn’t mesh, the team was sold to a Canadian business group which purchased the club for a then-record $16 million. Today, the Flames play in Calgary and still operate as the Flames, while Atlanta is without a team.
Minnesota North Stars
In the land of 10,000 lakes, it should be a given that hockey is popular. It should also be a given that the state has an NHL team. And from 1967-1993, that was the case. The Minnesota North Stars entered the league in the ’60s and had some decent playoff runs but never managed to capture the Cup. Unfortunately for the North Stars, a fitting name for the team, there were…you guessed it…stadium problems. The NBA’s Timberwolves played in the Target Center while the North Stars played in the aging Met Center in Bloomington.
With attendance declining, the North Stars sought to build a new arena, but struggled to find the necessary funding. So why not move to the Target Center, you may be thinking. The North Stars had Pepsi as their sponsor at the Met Center while the Target Center used Coke. This soda rivalry created an impasse that forced the team to seek other options, including relocating. In 1993, the team moved to Dallas to become the Stars. The NHL did return to Minnesota in 2000-01 as the Wild.
New York Giants
Another New York baseball team to jump ship in the 1950s, the New York Giants played as the Giants (in New York that is) from 1885-1957. In New York, the team won five World Series titles and saw memorable moments such as the “Shot Heard ‘Rond the World” and Willie Mays defensive marvel known simply as “The Catch.” The Giants were also part of the baseball triumvirate in New York that consisted of the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees.
But their home stadium, Polo Grounds, was crumbling and was quickly becoming entirely inadequate. After the 1957 season, baseball in New York was devastated after the Dodgers and Giants announced their moves to the West Coast, with the Giants going to San Fransico. However, New York still had another Giants namesake to keep, their New York Football Giants of the NFL.
In 1988, the NBA awarded Charlotte, a basketball hotbed, an NBA team, dubbed the Hornets. The team, owned by George Shin, was exceedingly popular at first and wasn’t as miserable as many expansion teams. Solid drafting and a core of decent players, along with awesome uniforms, made the Hornets a loveable team. What fans didn’t love was their owner, Mr. Shinn, whose reputation suffered greatly in the late ’90s.
With attendance falling, the Hornets packed their bags and moved to New Orleans in 2002, keeping the name the Hornets. Basketball wouldn’t be gone for long though. In 2004, the NBA established the Charlotte Bobcats, meaning Charlotte was without a team for just two seasons. In 2013, the New Orleans Hornets rebranded itself as the Pelicans, opening up the possibility for Charlotte to get their original name back, and in 2014, the Bobcats were renamed the Hornets.
New Jersey Nets
From 1976-2012, New Jersey had an NBA team, the New Jersey Nets. The Nets never won an NBA Finals but fielded competitive playoff-bound teams for most of their existence. The problem was, they lacked a certain flair. New Jersey was stuck in the massive shadow cast by New York. They were an afterthought, despite the numerous all-stars that came through town.
After the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, the Nets left New Jersey for Brooklyn, New York, marking the first time that Brooklyn would have a professional sports team since the Dodgers back in the ’50s. Since the move, the Nets have fluctuated between embarrassment and on-the-cusp playoff contender.