U.S. Sports Teams: Demographic Changes Expand Franchises

(October 2006) As the population of the United States grew from 200 million to 300 million from 1967 to 2006, some fast-growing major metropolitan areas scored big time in the major league sports arena. Phoenix went from zero to four major sports teams. Tampa-St. Petersburg sports fans had something to cheer about too: the arrival of three major sports franchises, up from zero. And sports buffs in Dallas-Fort Worth can now root for four major local teams, up from one.

These major metro areas are among the 30 that added major sports franchises between 1967 and 2006. Of those, 17 acquired their first major sports team after 1967.

The expansion of professional franchises in Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL) reflects the shift of population from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West over the past few decades. (The 1967 data for professional sports teams include the American Football League, which merged with the National Football League in 1970.) The share of U.S. population that lived in the Northeast and Midwest dropped from 52 percent to 41 percent between 1967 and 2005. The South and West now account for nearly 60 percent of the population. And the West, which was the least populous of the four U.S. regions in 1967, has now surpassed the Northeast and Midwest in population.

In the fall of 1967, the four leagues contained 67 U.S.-based franchises. Nearly two-thirds (41) were in the Northeast and Midwest. And 18 of the 26 sports teams in the South and West did not exist (at least in their 1967 locales) before 1960.

The situation in the fall of 2006 tells a much different story. Thanks to expansion in the four major leagues, the number of U.S.-based franchises grew to 114. And the South and West have been the main beneficiaries of the post-1967 expansion. While those two regions boasted just over one-third of U.S.-based franchises 39 years ago, they account for more than half (63) today. In the South alone, the number of professional sports franchises has nearly tripled, from 12 to 35. The number of ice hockey teams in the South rose from zero to seven. They include the Atlanta Thrashers, Carolina Hurricanes (Raleigh), Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers (Miami), Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington (DC) Capitals.

One key factor in this sports expansion is the emergence of new economic markets. For example, of the 42 metropolitan areas that have at least one major league team, 40 had populations of at least 1 million and were among the 50 largest metros in 2005. (And Raleigh, N.C., one of the other two, ranked 51st with a population of 950,000.) This is a continuing phenomenon. In 1967, 24 of the 25 metros with at least one major franchise had populations greater than 1 million.

Many of the post-1967 major league metros grew rapidly between 1967 and 2005. As a group, these 17 “expansion” metropolitan areas grew 140 percent during that period, more than double the 53 percent increase for the 25 pre-1967 metros. Four of the expansion metros—Orlando, Raleigh, Phoenix, and Charlotte—have at least quadrupled their populations since 1967. By contrast, 12 of the 13 major league metros that increased by less than 40 percent already had at least one major sports franchise in 1967. And the one exception, Milwaukee, had lost its major league franchise, the MLB Braves, after the 1965 season, and were without a major sports team until the NBA Bucks began play in the fall of 1968.

Even the metros that already had at least one major team in 1967 did not grow at the same rate. Among the “pre-1967” major league metros, the ones that have enjoyed the most rapid growth over the past four decades were those that added their first major league sports teams in 1960 or later. These include metros such as Atlanta (MLB Braves and NFL Falcons, 1966), Miami-Fort Lauderdale (NFL Dolphins, 1966), Houston (MLB Astros, formerly the Colt-.45s, 1962), and Dallas-Fort Worth (NFL Cowboys, 1960). All four of the above metros have grown more than 175 percent since 1967. By contrast, the pre-1967 metros that already had a major team in 1959 have grown slower, just 32 percent in the last four decades.

Rapidly growing metros tended to attract multiple major league franchises. Since 1967, 13 metropolitan areas including not only Atlanta, Phoenix, and Dallas-Fort Worth, but also New York and Washington, D.C. have added at least two major league franchises since 1967. As a group, these metros grew 87 percent during this period, much faster than the 31 percent increase for the 12 metros that have the same number of major league franchises today as they did in 1967.

Population growth is by no means the sole determinant in sports expansion. Economic considerations such as stadium revenues and costs, television deals, and agreements with local governments are even more important. But like any business, professional sports leagues and their teams need a strong consumer base. As they seek new fans, they will always look to emerging new markets.

So it wouldn’t be surprising if MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL expands to such fast-growing areas as Las Vegas or Austin in the next 40 years as the U.S. moves toward a population of 400 million.

Kelvin Pollard is a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau.