What if Sacramento and Seattle were European Cities?


My latest for Freakonomics (or Huffington Post) looks at the NBA’s recent decision to keep the Kings in Sacramento. But the post also discusses how the process by which cities acquire sports franchises differs between the United States [Editor’s note: and Canada!] and Europe. Those who follow European sports are familiar with the process of promotion and relegation. What you may not know (I certainly didn’t) is how much movement there is in English soccer.

Stefan Szymanski – co-author of Soccernomics (both the book and the blog) – was nice enough to provide data on the teams that have played in the top four divisions of English soccer since 1960. What I find interesting is how much movement we see:

  • Across the past 53 years, 30 teams have spent at least one season in each of the top four divisions.
  • Only two teams – Arsenal and Everton – have never left the top division of English soccer.
  • Only seven teams have always played in the top two divisions of English soccer.

Imagine if we had a similar system in the NBA. Seattle could get a team simply by entering a team in the lower divisions. And Sacramento – where the Kings currently play – would have been relegated after the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons (obviously, with relegation in place the second demotion wouldn’t have happened, but both would be relegation-worthy seasons).

With this kind of a promotion/relegation system in place, the ability of the NBA to elicit public subsidies would be diminished. After all, why invest in a state-of-the-art arena for professional basketball if all you get is a lower division professional team? And why invest in such an arena for an existing NBA team if there is a chance your team could be demoted?

Of course, the NBA is not likely to embrace the European system. If your current system gets you free stuff from taxpayers, it’s rather unlikely that you would willingly switch to a system where the free stuff disappears. Nevertheless, each time we see a scenario like the one we just had with the Kings, we can spend a moment thinking: ‘if this was Europe, the Mayor of Sacramento might spend a bit more time on the actual problems of Sacramento, instead of begging for the opportunity to transfer public money to the owner of an entertainment company.’

– DJ (with a little help from Devin)

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