Who'd have thunk it? (Other than Clay Bennett, that is.) The Sonics are leaving Seattle, or so it seems, and hordes of hoops fans in the Pacific Northwest are in mourning.
Can you feel their pain? You should make the effort, because you could lose your favorite home team, too. And if you do, you'll want Sonics fans' support just as much they want yours right now.
Franchise relocation doesn't happen every day in major professional sports. In most cases, you can always count on your home team to be there for you when you need it. Maybe your favorite club is locked into a long-term lease, has a thriving fan base, just signed a sweet stadium deal in the heart of downtown and has a civic-minded owner. Good for you. It's hard to find greener pastures than that. But if the Seattle situation teaches us anything, it's that nothing lasts forever.
So we took a look around the sports landscape and compiled a list of 10 less-than-stable franchises whose owners just might be watching the developments in Seattle and Oklahoma City with some special interest. Maybe your favorite owner has Bennett's cell phone number. Maybe your favorite owner is itching to make the call: Hey, Clay. How'd you do it? Think it'd work for me?
Nothin' scientific about this list. We don't have any more inside info than you do. But to us, these look like the likeliest candidates to be next, even if you'll never hear Bud Selig or Roger Goodell or David Stern or Gary Bettman admit to the possibility on the record. (That just wouldn't be the politically correct thing to do.)
Don't like our rankings? Try your own hand at it here.
One note: We didn't include the New Jersey Nets on our list because their proposed move to Brooklyn would keep them within the same metropolitan area.
1. Nashville Predators, NHL
It drives the local ownership group crazy whenever anyone suggests the Predators are a prime target to relocate, but they are. Poor fan support, poor corporate support and a major investor (William "Boots" Del Biaggio III) who may go to jail for financial shenanigans all add up to a tenuous future in Nashville, no matter how angry it makes the locals when they hear it.
2. New Orleans Hornets, NBA
NBA basketball in New Orleans was a tough sell even before Hurricane Katrina. Nearly three years removed from the disaster, the long-term viability of the NBA in the Big Easy remains murky. In January, the Hornets negotiated the right to opt out of their New Orleans Arena lease if the average attendance were to fall short of 14,735 from Dec. 1, 2007 to the end of the 2008-09 season. Some saw this new arrangement as the precursor to a move to another city. Indeed, the Hornets averaged only 14,181 in ticket sales during the 2007-08 season, fifth-worst in the league. But New Orleans did see a surge in attendance thanks to its hosting of the 2008 All-Star Game and the team's strong playoff push. And the Hornets recently announced they've sold more than 5,000 new season tickets for next season. The current prevailing view is that the Hornets and the NBA hope to keep the team in New Orleans.
3. Buffalo Bills, NFL
According to The Associated Press, the Bills will receive $78 million -- more than double their calculated 2006 operating income -- to play eight games in Toronto the next five years. The Bills say they need to exploit the nearby Canadian market for the team in the NFL's third-smallest market to compete with teams in metropolises. Still, fans worry this market expansion is the first step toward leaving Buffalo, a charter city in the old American Football League. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell dismissed fears the Bills will relocate to Toronto, adding that he believes the franchise's future is more secure with the additional revenue it generates from playing an annual game north of the border. He also said he expects the team to play in western New York for a long time.
4. Florida Panthers, NHL
Principal owner Alan Cohen has a long and attractive lease at BankAtlantic Center. But at some point, won't he get tired of owning the worst-run team in the NHL in the league's worst market? The Panthers regularly have fewer than 10,000 real human bodies in attendance for games, haven't made the playoffs since 2000 and have won more than one playoff round only once in their history. The real question is whether anyone would notice if the Panthers were gone.
5. Sacramento Kings, NBA
Despite ongoing efforts by the NBA and local authorities to get funding for a new arena in Sacramento, the writing could be on the wall. Arco Arena is the third-smallest in capacity. An attempt to get a $600 million arena deal in Sacramento was shot down by voters in 2006. Other indicators: The Kings finished with the fourth-worst home attendance in the league, and their owners, the Maloofs, spend much of their time in Las Vegas overseeing their casinos. So it's clear why there is so much speculation about an eventual move to Sin City. The NBA already has tested the Vegas waters by placing the 2007 All-Star Game and other events there, while Sacramento still has yet to host an All-Star Game.
6. Atlanta Thrashers, NHL
Fan support, never strong to begin with,
has dwindled as the team has mismanaged viable prospects. Season-ticket support has fallen dramatically. The Thrashers have made the playoffs just once in their history and have failed to win a single postseason game. Ownership squabbles also continue to dog this franchise, which should have been able to take better advantage of the oodles of corporate money that resides in Atlanta.
7. Minnesota Vikings, NFL
The Vikings have proposed a $954 million complex to be built in downtown Minneapolis, and a retractable-roof stadium was at the heart of the proposal. But in December, the Vikings and stadium proponents got the cold shoulder from the Minnesota legislature about the idea of the state funding the new building. Afterward, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said the issue "needs to be resolved in the near future." The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires in 2011, meaning the team could look at other options very soon.
8. Oakland Athletics, MLB
There have been very few updates on A's owner Lewis Wolff's ambitious proposal to construct a $1.8 billion ballpark village in nearby Fremont, Calif. The proposal has yet to be finalized and is contingent on an environmental report that could take several months to complete, pushing back the potential opening of a new ballpark as far into the future as 2012. Given that the A's have long played second fiddle to the Giants in the Bay Area and have struggled for years to secure any ballpark deal, one would surmise that the A's chances of relocation, while still very, very small, are stronger than most in baseball.
9. Memphis Grizzlies, NBA
Since its inception in Vancouver, the Grizzlies franchise has been troubled. In speculation about which teams might move to Las Vegas, Seattle, Anaheim, San Jose or Kansas City, the Grizzlies often are named. Team owner Michael Heisley has tried in vain to sell the Grizzlies and remains on the lookout for potential buyers. Since he moved the team to Memphis in 2001, Heisley has been disappointed with fan and sponsor support there. Likewise, local fans have become disenchanted with the management of the team under Heisley. But under any owner, moving the Grizzlies out of Memphis would not be an easy task. Several significant hurdles are in place, including a "shall not relocate" clause that local authorities can try to enforce. The Seattle situation proves that leases and other contractual bonds can be negotiated away, but a move from Memphis does not appear imminent.
10. Tampa Bay Rays, MLB
The Rays recently abandoned their plans to build a $450 million waterfront stadium. That doesn't mean they're automatically a relocation candidate, but they have less security now than they had while they were pushing through their ballpark proposal.
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Milwaukee Bucks, NBA:
The Bucks have several factors that have led to speculation about an eventual move. Owner Herb Kohl has actively shopped the franchise at times and almost sold it to a group led by Michael Jordan in 2003. Also, Milwaukee is one of the smallest NBA markets. And the Bucks play in the fourth-oldest NBA arena, with a proposed $300 million downtown facility not receiving much local support. For a buyer, the Bucks could be an attractive franchise. The team has a reasonable payroll and a short-term arena lease, so it could be moved to a new market with relative ease.
New York Islanders, NHL:
This storied franchise plays in one of the worst buildings in the NHL -- Pittsburgh is close, but a new facility is in the works there -- and there seems to be no real timetable for either retrofitting crumbling Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum or building a new facility in the Uniondale, N.Y., area. Owner Charles Wang remains committed to the market. But at some point, the situation simply becomes unworkable, and both the league and the team might be better off packing up those Stanley Cup banners and heading elsewhere.
San Diego Chargers, NFL:
The team's already-constant complaints about Qualcomm Stadium have grown louder (is that possible?) ever since the Padres moved out of Qualcomm and into their beautiful new baseball digs at Petco Park. The team is exploring plans to build a $1.2 billion complex in nearby Chula Vista, Calif., but that plan faces obstacles. Chargers ownership maintains that it wants to keep the team in San Diego, despite the $800 million Los Angeles-area stadium plan unveiled by Ed Roski -- a close friend of the Spanos family, which owns the Chargers.
Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL:
Funny thing about the Jaguars in Jacksonville: They win but still can't consistently sell out in college-football-obsessed Florida. According to the Florida Times-Union, the Jaguars were ranked 28th out of 32 teams in NFL revenue last season. The team's home, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, doesn't have a naming-rights deal. But the Sports Business Daily reports that Jaguars season-ticket renewals are at a record 84 percent, an increase from 75 percent in 2007.
Florida Marlins, MLB:
Long a strong candidate for relocation, the Marlins appear to have a reasonably secure ballpark deal in place, pending the outcome of a lawsuit brought by local auto magnate Norman Braman. The new stadium, to be built on the site of the Orange Bowl, is scheduled to open in 2011.