America's Next Sports Cities


A shifting population will eventually bring a shifted sports landscape. Las Vegas Nuggets anyone?

One ongoing certainty in America is that the population never stops shifting. And where people go, so do sports teams.

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Good news for Las Vegas, Portland and Sacramento. Those growing towns, among others, are likely landing spots for the next wave of expansion and franchise shifting around the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.

Housing affordability has people migrating inland from the West Coast to central California and Nevada and north to Oregon, according to urban expert Wendell Cox, who runs, which tracks population shift. The trend will continue once this recession ends.

"People realized they could cash out in L.A. and scale down to a smaller house in Las Vegas, while socking away a nice retirement fund," he says. So don't be shocked to see Vegas or Sacramento get one of the Bay Area's two NFL teams, if politicians in either of those towns are willing outdo their Oakland or San Francisco counterparts on a new stadium. The San Francisco 49ers' plans for a Santa Clara venue seem to be on hold.

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The greater Los Angeles area is still growing thanks to inward migration to San Bernardino and Riverside, Cox notes. For years, the NFL has been looking at filling the glaring hole created by the Rams, who bolted to St. Louis for a sweet stadium deal in 1995. Expect that to happen before long if an ownership group can get a modern stadium built.

Adding up the national numbers shows that the big-league U.S. sports markets hold 152.7 million people watching 113 NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL teams, setting a standard of just over 1.3 million people per team. Household incomes and other demographic factors (age, educational levels) also play a role in a market's viability to support big-time sports, but to a lesser degree. More than anything else, it's about having enough eyeballs watching the action, whether on television or at the arena.

"The single biggest factor is population," says Bernie Mullin, who runs The Aspire Group, an Atlanta-based sports consultancy. "The makeup of that population comes second."

We weighted the factors accordingly in our study, picking future sports locales primarily through population projections by, with secondary weight given to median income levels.

We also factored the presence in each market of large corporations, which fuel sponsorship dollars. Even though many big companies spend across the country on sports, being local makes a difference, Mullin points out. All else equal, companies are more likely to hook up with a team its employees root for and whose fans feel connected to the local company (Coors is synonymous with Colorado and Citi with New York, TARP controversy notwithstanding).

Sacramento and Portland, two NBA-only towns, are both projected to grow population 38% by 2030, to about 3 million people apiece. Seattle, which just lost the NBA Sonics to Oklahoma City, also remains in the mix to add a third team, thanks to a high median income and a population expected to grow to 4 million over the next 20 years.

Whispers persist that Toronto, just 75 miles from Buffalo, N.Y., could lure the NFL Bills if the club can't secure a new venue to replace outdated Ralph Wilson Stadium. That's a wait and see situation.

But Vegas, which has already grown its population 31% to 1.8 million since 2000, is expected to keep rolling toward 3.3 million by 2030. It's also 282 miles from Los Angeles, its nearest competitor. There's no reason to keep the city off the major league sports map, other than the paranoia some league officials seem to have with being associated with the nation's gambling capital.

Mullin thinks that stance is beginning to soften but that it's possible a team or an entire league could demand to be taken off local sports books as a condition for adding Las Vegas to the fold. That could set off quite the political battle, especially with any owner likely to look to major hotel-casino owners like Harrah's and MGM Mirage as major sponsors. In the end, though, it's tough to imagine Las Vegas staying on the sidelines forever, especially if it keeps growing as expected.

Other cities that could land a first major sports team include Virginia Beach, Va., expected to reach 1.9 million people by 2030, and Austin, Texas, predicted to grow to 2.8 million people and which is far enough from Houston (185 miles) to stand on its own (San Antonio, 80 miles away, houses only the NBA Spurs).

And where would any non-expansion teams, or those that would land in one of these cities through a move, come from? Perhaps the Bay Area, if the 49ers or Raiders fail to build new stadiums there (or a single shared one). Other possibilities: Minneapolis and Denver, the two smallest four-sport towns in the country. Each has had spotty attendance for some of its clubs, particularly in the NBA.

But Minnesota is home to Target, 3M and Best Buy, while Colorado has a young, active population that tends to spend its leisure dollars on sports. Then again, the Las Vegas Nuggets does sound pretty good.

America's Next Sports Cities

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© AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Los Angeles, Calif.

• Current teams: 6
• Projected 2030 population: 20.3 million (20% growth)
• People/team: 3.4 million (sports city national avg. 1.7 million)
• Median income: $58,047 ($2,945 above average)

Includes San Bernardino and Riverside, which are fueling growth as the narrower L.A. market stagnates under high housing prices. Size wise, there's actually room for a few more teams in this market, though football is where the only hole lies. Expect it to be filled before too much longer.

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© AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Sacramento, Calif.

• Current teams: 1
• Projected 2030 population: 2.9 million (38% growth)
• People/team: 2.9 million (national avg. 1.7 million)
• Median income: $59,694 ($4,592 above average)

A population boom has Sacramento outgrowing its NBA-only status.

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© AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Seattle, Wash.

• Current teams: 2
• Projected 2030 population: 4.3 million (30% growth)
• People/team: 2.1 million (sports city national avg. 1.7 million)
• Median income: $63,895 ($8,793 above average)

The Sonics deserted for Oklahoma City, but Seattle's continued growth should keep it in the hunt for an NBA or NHL franchise.

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© Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Portland, Ore.

• Current teams: 1
• Projected 2030 population: 3 million (38% growth)
• People/team: 3 million (sports city national avg. 1.7 million)
• Median income: $55,387 (right at national average)

Like Sacramento, the town's growth has it poised to spread its wings past the NBA.

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© Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

Orlando, Fla.

• Current teams: 1
• Projected 2030 population: 3.3 million (61% growth)
• People/team: 3.3 million (sports city national avg. 1.7 million)
• Median income: $50,893 ($4,209 below national average)

Slightly income challenged, but Orlando has grown into a top-20 market. Perhaps local officials could entice baseball's Rays, who have failed to land a new stadium in Tampa, to move the 85 miles up Interstate 4.

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