Basketball particularly can learn from the Roller Derby. Of all team sports it is easily the most mobile. Yet its teams continue to tie themselves to one downtown site in one city. Part of the trouble is the fan, who fervently believes in the home team. He got that way because the teams, usually in league with politicians, convinced him that a city without a team was second-class. It was his civic duty to love the Royal Sonic-jets.
"No sports team deserves support from a city any more than the corner laundry does," says Seltzer. The kicker is, of course, that teams feel no reciprocal need to support the city. The people of Phoenix will be asked to support the NBA Suns this year, the first major league team in that city. One of the owners is Bobbie Gentry, the singer, whose philosophy of ownership she recently explained to Earl Wilson, the columnist.
"I just bought a basketball team," she said. "Ed Ames, Henry Mancini, Tony Curtis, Andy Williams and me. About $50,000 each, I think. If we don't do well in Phoenix, we can move it somewhere else."
So now fans are warned even before a franchise arrives that they had better support it or else: one team, one city, under God, bound together, inseparable. The concept of sharing a team with one or more cities is still treated as anathema. But for how long? The regional concept may soon become a necessity and before long we may find teams reeducating the public in the virtues of multiple-city support of one home club.
To understand the full potential of the regional franchise, let us offer the new Atlanta Hawks as a contrast to what could be a classic regional franchise—the whole state of North Carolina. Atlanta is the 21st largest metropolitan area, with about 1,300,000 people and one suitable arena. Each NBA team has 41 home games. Aware that it probably would not draw well at all 41, the Atlanta management tried to peddle a few of its games to other Southeastern cities as other NBA teams have done before them. The Hawks had virtually no success. That sort of thing, which is more like oldtime big-city condescension than regionalism, does not go over very well with the rubes anymore. Atlanta did set up a good television network, but the games are all played in Atlanta, so the network cannot serve to entice very many distant fans to pay money and attend Hawk games.
Now assume that the Hawks had moved to North Carolina, a great basketball area of medium-size cities with good arenas. These cities—Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro/High Point, Raleigh and Durham/Chapel Hill—just about total the same population as Atlanta. North Carolina might comfortably be expected to outdraw Atlanta, however, because for one thing, smaller cities have less entertainment competition, less traffic and therefore invariably draw proportionately better than larger cities. More important, each of the North Carolina cities would have about eight or 10 games apiece, more of an Event schedule. Moreover, regional television would help the draw. A game in Charlotte beamed to Greensboro could be expected to encourage greater attendance the next time the club played in Greensboro.
There will be 1,003 regular-season pro games this year, far too many for the 25 city franchises or even 25 regional franchises. With so many teams there is dilution. It is not a dilution of the overall talent—few are the observers in any sport who can detect with authority a change in the level of play from year to year—but one that limits the number of appearances the few outstanding players can make in each city each year. The night the big star is not in town is the night the home team does not draw well.
As a guess, 16 is the optimum number of teams that pro basketball can be expected to support nationally in the years to come. Should the two leagues stop warring and agree to restructure along regional lines, here is a possible arrangement. Only a few of the suggested sites—notably in New England—lack adequate buildings.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Because basketball has the sites it could well be the first sport to embrace the concept of the regional franchise. Professional sports, however, traditionally react to pressures rather than anticipate opportunities, so baseball may find itself leading the way to regionalism. The reason is simple. Baseball is running out of cities that possess adequate stadiums. When baseball decides it must consolidate, many obvious pairings may be expected. San Francisco- Oakland, Baltimore-Washington, Cincinnati- Cleveland, San Diego- Anaheim, Philadelphia- Pittsburgh, and even possibly Kansas City- St. Louis, Chicago- Milwaukee or Minneapolis/St. Paul- Milwaukee.