Sports

Caitlin Clark leads charge for NCAA basketball popularity

Opinion: Relocation talk in the NHL is the downside of the week in the winners and losers in sports business.

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Bulls of the Week

For the second straight week, two words (Caitlin Clark) and one number: 12.3 million average U.S. audience, watching the Iowa Hawkeyes dethrone LSU in the Elite Eight of NCAA women’s basketball.

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Bears of the Week

Relocation is the dark underbelly of pro team sports. It’s the worst.

Just ask fans of the Vancouver Grizzlies of the NBA. They endured an awkward move to Memphis, Tenn., in summer 2001 and hearts were broken, at least among the hard-core basketball fans of the Lower Mainland and B.C.

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Promises were broken as well — including by national anthem singer and relocating owner Michael Heisley — giving that move such a sour aftertaste. The Vancouver to Memphis move was also one of the biggest regrets of the late David Stern, NBA commissioner during the birth and relocation of the Grizzlies.

No major sport operating in Canada has been immune to relocation. In hockey, the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, only to win the first of three Stanley Cups in franchise history the very next year.

Also in 1996, the Winnipeg Jets flew south to become the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes, creating a 15-year void for NHL hockey in Manitoba until the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg to fill that hole in 2011. It marked the second time that the NHL has relocated out of Atlanta and into Canada, with the original Flames moving to Calgary in 1980. Yes, there are some happy endings, even when it comes to relocation.

In baseball, the circuitous transfer of the old Montreal Expos to become the Washington Nationals in 2004 may very well be the saddest of the lot, at least in Canada, especially when you consider what the Expos could have become in the strike-shortened and cancelled 1994 MLB season.

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That’s why this week’s news — the confirmation that the Oakland Athletics will play at least the next three seasons at Sutter Health Park in Sacramento, Calif., before officially relocating to Las Vegas — must have seemed so eerily familiar for fans of the Expos. Identical drawn-out death watches for the franchises. Same attendance woes and stadium politics. Comparable economics being aired in public for years on end.

And, to rub everything in, similar villainous black hats in the form of owners who ultimately got what they wanted — out of Montreal 20 years ago and out of Oakland this year.

In hindsight, in both Montreal and Oakland, the inevitable happened, making it that much more painful for the fans.

Yet make no mistake; there’s nothing quite like the stories of Oakland and Vegas, and they’re inextricably connected. By 2028, Las Vegas will have gained at least three new major league franchises, two of them from Alameda County in California (the NFL Raiders and now the MLB Athletics).

And Oakland will have lost all three of its major pro teams in the span of five years. That’s a sad collapse by one of the most storied sport markets in North America and a torturous lifetime for fans who fell in love with the Raiders, A’s and the Golden State Warriors, only to see that love unrequited by owners looking for new markets, new stadiums and new revenue streams.

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Tom Mayenknecht is the host of The Sport Market on Sportsnet 650 on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Vancouver-based sport business commentator and principal in Emblematica Brand Builders provides a behind-the-scenes look at the sport business stories that matter most to fans. Follow Mayenknecht at: twitter.com/TheSportMarket.

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