Matthew Yglesias advocates for the free movement of sports franchises, so that they can hop from city to city with ease and thus follow the movement of population:
Right now, the New York City Designated media area contains 6.5 percent of households. LA has 5 percent. Chicago has 3 percent. Philadelphia has 2.6 percent. Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta all have about 2.1 percent. And things taper off from there. But considering that New York City has a media market three times the size of large cities like Dallas and Atlanta (and especially considering that it’s nearby to the Hartford media market with 0.9 percent of the population) why doesn’t New York have three baseball teams instead of two? There’s no iron law written that the number of teams in a given area should be directly proportionate to its population. But it seems like a reasonable strategy to try. Except in baseball there is an iron law saying you can’t try this.
A clever idea, to be sure. But I think there’s a perfectly good reason why sports leagues tightly regulate and control the re-location of franchises: fan loyalty. Every thoughtful fan knows that, at some level, his or her loyalty is utterly irrational. My “team” is little more than a corporate logo and a bunch of overpaid athletes, most of whom will play for multiple teams over the course of their career. This means that the sole link between me and my team is geographic location: when I root for a team I’m really rooting for a city (and against whatever city my team is playing against). I can only assume that such loyalty exists for all sorts of deep, primal and Paleolithic reasons. A sports team is just a proxy for our tribal instincts, and if you don’t believe that then I invite you to attend a British soccer match. (For more on the social neuroscience of sports fandom, check out Jordan Grafman’s chapter here. He blames his subgenual cortex and related limbic areas for making him love the Cubs.) And then there’s this depressing fact, which shows how the Us versus Them psychology of sports can even influence our morality:
According to a 1999 study by psychologists at Murray State, a significant minority of fans–if guaranteed anonymity–would even support injuring an opposing player or coach.
This means, of course, that one should move a franchise with great reluctance. (Besides, there are plenty of examples – Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Red Sox, etc – where the tribal ardor of fans compensates for the smallness of the media market.) Yglesias’ plan would work if the allure of sports was simply the display of physical talent. But that only explains golf and perhaps March Madness. Team sports and the big leagues depend on a much more primitive set of largely geographic loyalties. (How many Lakers fans are there in Minnesota?) When we sever that loyalty, we see sports for what it is, and that’s seldom a pretty sight.