The NFL's perfectly logical choice

December 08, 1993|By John T. Starr

WHAT humiliation! No, not just for Baltimore, but also for St. Louis -- two world-class cities. The two largest American cities without an NFL team. The two cities whose fans had supported National Football League teams in the past and desperately wanted the chance to support them again.

On first blush, the selection of Jacksonville was startling news. .. "Jacksonville?" asked The Sun's front-page headline. But the NFL owners, it seems now, were never serious about awarding an expansion franchise to either Baltimore or St. Louis. These two great American cities were bypassed in favor of a smaller Sun Belt city that almost withdrew from contention last summer and again in October, when the selection of a second expansion team was delayed a month.

So why Jacksonville? And what does it say about the league's decision-making?

With both Charlotte and Jacksonville now in the National Football League, the owners have made a conscious decision to shy away from known opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest in favor of the promise of the South. In fact, Jacksonville's selection is eminently logical if we consider population patterns in recent decades.

Since 1950, for example, growth in the Sun Belt has been of such magnitude that the region has gained 38 seats in the House of Representatives. At the same time, the Northeast and industrialized Midwest have lost 45 seats. Three Sun Belt states, in particular, surged during this period: Florida, rising from 2.8 million to 12.9 million (367 percent); Texas, from 7.7 million to 17 million (120 percent); and California, from 10.6 million to 29.8 million (181 percent). This growth is persistent and shows no signs of abating.

Examination of the changing pattern of NFL franchises over the past 40 years suggests that expansion into the Sun Belt has been an implicit league policy for some time. In 1953, the year the Colts franchise came to Baltimore, for example, the league had 12 teams, 10 of them in the Northeast; only San Francisco and Los Angeles were west of Chicago.

By 1973, the League had grown to 26 teams -- largely by merging the former American Football League into the NFL. Expansion teams had been added in Minnesota, Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans. Further, the old Chicago Cardinals had moved to St. Louis. Hence, a much broader national pattern now existed, with seven (26 percent) Sun Belt teams, including three of the four expansion franchises.

Since then, the St. Louis Cardinals headed for Phoenix, the Oakland Raiders moved south to Los Angeles, and the Baltimore Colts were shifted to Indianapolis. In addition, expansion teams were added in Tampa and Seattle. With the exception of the new franchises in Minnesota and Seattle and the Colts' move to Indianapolis, all new growth has taken place in the Sun Belt. Thus, the 1994 season will open with no fewer than 12 (40 percent) of the league's 30 teams located in the Sun Belt.

While the metropolitan areas of Baltimore and St. Louis have significantly more people than than any city in the country without an NFL team, recent growth rates of each have been far less than their Southern competitors. During the '80s, Baltimore grew by 8 percent and St. Louis by 3 percent. By contrast, Jacksonville increased by 26 percent, and some other major Sun Belt cities experienced similar surges: Las Vegas, 62 percent; Orlando, 52 percent; West Palm Beach, 50 percent; Austin, 45 percent; Raleigh/Durham, 29 percent; and San Antonio, 22 percent. The only major city outside the Sun Belt to witness growth rates like these was Sacramento (35 percent). And Memphis, the other city bidding for an expansion franchise, grew in the '80s by only 7 percent.

All these figures suggest that several of these metropolitan areas of roughly one million people hold greater prospects for future NFL expansion -- should there be any -- than cities in the North, even if those Northern cities had illustrious teams in the past.

Certainly, demand for teams in West Palm Beach and Orlando has been reduced with the selection of Jacksonville to go along with Miami and Tampa. As well, Austin and San Antonio lie within the shadow of Dallas and Houston, and Raleigh/Durham within that of the new Charlotte team. This said, it seems improbable that there will be more expansion in the near future.

Should it happen, however, it will probably take place far beyond the region where the NFL was born in 1921. That year, the league's 13 teams stretched from Rochester, N.Y., to Green Bay, BTC Wis. There were no fewer than six teams in Ohio and three in Illinois. But that was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, and league decision-making on the location of new franchises tends to reflect demographic changes over those many years.

With population and the national market taking a decided southerly course, we shouldn't be surprised that Florida has three teams and California four. What is a bit surprising is that it took this long for that pattern to emerge.

The point: Baltimore's failure to gain an expansion team should not reflect badly on our city or our leaders who worked so hard to pull it off. It appears doubtful that anything we might have done would have altered the outcome. The league's owners were operating as business people do: They were driven to the inescapable conclusion that in the long term, prospects were brighter in the Sun Belt.

John T. Starr is a professor of geography at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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