There are NFL teams in Nashville, Jacksonville and St. Louis, but not in Los Angeles. Chicago has the same number of teams as Kansas City, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. The Bay Area has two teams despite being less populous than Chicago. The Austin/San Antonio market doesn't have a team to call its own despite being more than two hours from the nearest NFL team and similar in size to Phoenix, Houston and Atlanta.
That doesn't even get into a divisional alignment that reinvents geographic regions. According to the NFL, Indianapolis is in the south, Dallas is in the east, and St. Louis is in the west.
Of course, the current NFL was assembled piecemeal, one team at a time, reshuffling as best as possible along the way. It was never conceived as a whole, taking into account factors such as population, income and divisional alignment to minimize travel.
So here's the scenario: The NFL doesn't exist. Pro football is starting anew in the United States. We don't really know which markets like football more than others, so we can only go on playing the percentages with market sizes and hope for the best. The new league has hired me (at a lucrative salary, of course) to come up with a projection of where teams should be placed, what the divisional alignments should be, and what their team names ought to be.
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There were two important factors I considered straight out: market size and median household income. Putting a team in a somewhat-populous but poorer city doesn't make a lot of sense for a new league. Go where the people and money are.
There are a couple of caveats: If a city is incredibly populous, then median income isn't as important since they will still have a significant number of people in the middle-to-upper class. As a result, median income was more important for medium-sized markets.
In addition, for the purposes of this project, I was not satisfied with the U.S. Census' definition of metro areas. NFL markets extend far beyond the traditional "metro area," and sometimes metro areas can bleed into each other with respect to fan bases (see: Boston/New York). So I created my own definition.
Using the 2010 Census Bureau's data, I considered any county a part of a city's market if it:
1. Is within a two-hour drive by Google Maps' calculation;
2. Has a population greater than 100,000 (which is a modest figure for a county); and
3. Has a median household income above $40,000 (unless the population was greater than 800,000, in which case median income was not considered).
While far from perfect, this definition of a market size gives us an approximation of how many people might be interested in that team and could afford to give the league money on a regular basis.
In addition to every U.S. county, I also considered the metro areas of four international cities: Mexico City, London, Toronto and Vancouver. Even without historical knowledge of where NFL games have been played, these options make the most logistical sense for consideration. Mexico City, Toronto and Vancouver are the closest major cities outside the U.S. London makes the most sense for the European market, since it's English-speaking and is the closest major city. Since these are not part of the same data set, they aren't plotted on the maps below and I researched them independently.
Let's get down to it: What would a new pro football league look like?
Above is a gradient map of the entire data set for population by county (not filtered for median household income). It's pretty much exactly what you would expect: southern California and the Northeast Corridor dominate, with Chicago, Florida and parts of Texas showing up brightly as well, with the flyover states relatively monochromatic.
Now let's take a look at median income:
The legend is in the chart, but the basic rules are: shades of green are the lower-income counties, and then beige starts the median income range of roughly $45,000. From there, darkness denotes wealth.
Generally speaking, this map follows the same pattern as population, which makes sense: cities are richer in real terms. Basically, the money and people are concentrated on the coasts and near Chicago.
Of course, having money doesn't make you an NFL fan, which is why I set the boundary for median income relatively low at $40,000. This would include most counties near cities unless they were especially low-income (noteworthy exceptions were downtown Detroit and Philadelphia, although both were counted due to their population). Adding the $40,000 and 100,000 population filters, we get a much more manageable map:
Using this map and the distance range of two-hour-drive as our criterion, I then found the "market size" for each metro area. In deciding which markets to include, I used a bit of common sense in terms of centrally locating cities to prevent market overlap. For example, Cincinnati's market benefited from being able to include Dayton, Columbus, Louisville, Lexington and Indianapolis. (Remember, there are no pre-existing markets, so for all we know, Indianapolis fans would willingly adopt a Cincinnati team -- as bizarre as that may sound with the current NFL alignment -- since they have no other sporting rivalries.)
Here is what the markets look like, including the international locations:
Taking a step back from our alternate reality for a moment, how the hell does L.A. not have a pro football team? Los Angeles's market is 10 times larger than Jacksonville's. Or, to compare to some real NFL cities: almost five times larger than Dallas/Fort Worth's, more than six times larger than Denver's, and over 17 times larger than Kansas City's.
Some surprisingly vibrant markets:
- Hartford/Providence: I exercised some judgment in creating this market. Although most of the counties therein are within two hours of either New York or Boston, it was so populous and wealthy that I couldn't ignore it. I defined this market as all counties in Connecticut and Rhode Island, with the exception of Fairfield County, Ct. (the southernmost county, which is very much a part of the New York Metro Area). For perspective, the Hartford/Providence market is in the same class as Seattle, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth.
- Greensboro, N.C.: If a team were in Greensboro instead of Charlotte, it would loop in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill triangle, which puts it in the same group as the Hartford/Providence cohort.
- I was surprised at how large the Orlando/Tampa market turned out to be, putting it with the likes of Miami, Philadelphia and Boston.
- Cincinnati turns out to be a large market because it includes Indianapolis and Columbus, along with some other minor metro areas mentioned above.
Without further ado, I give you the new World Football League:
Please, Midwest United States, not in the face.
I decided to stick with the 32-team structure, since any other number would be relatively arbitrary. New York and Los Angeles should each get three teams if we strictly adhere to the numbers, but splitting six teams between those two cities would limit other markets that could get teams, so each will get two instead. Chicago and the Bay Area, at 10.71 and 9.66 million respectively, demand two teams each as well.
After that, assigning teams was relatively straightforward. The cutoff ended up being Pittsburgh at 2.69 million.
As for international cities, Mexico City is hard to ignore because of its massive population, although their purchasing power restricts it to only one team. London has high income and population, so logistical difficulties taken into account, it's a smart gamble. Toronto (including Hamilton), as the 13th largest market, deserves a team as well. Vancouver doesn't make the cut.
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So we have the cities, but now we need to name the teams. For this, I broke my own the-NFL-doesn't-exist rule, since if the current name is good, why not keep it? So first I considered the current names for the city.
I despise nicknames that have nothing to do with the city itself. There are no lions in Detroit, eagles in Philadelphia, cardinals in Arizona, or panthers in North Carolina. While we're at it, what in the hell is a "Brown"?
If the current name is no good, I looked through a city's sporting, cultural history and native animals. By division, the teams are:
A solid name which takes into account the city's history.
I jumped at the chance to correct one of the greatest wrongs in sports history and bring back the best-designed logo known to man.
I've always been partial to the name "Jets", and it makes sense for the team to be in Queens, since that's where both New York airports are located. This way, actual Jets would fly overhead during games.
New York/New Jersey MetroStars
If a team plays in New Jersey but calls itself a New York team, it shouldn't shirk from that contradiction, but embrace it. Luckily, such a name already existed.
I'm still enraged that the new D.C. baseball team didn't resurrect the Senators' name.
One of my favorite current team names, seamlessly working in a literary reference to the city's most famously depressed citizen.
Naming the London team was difficult, but I decided to go with a reference to the British Invasion and their literal invasion of a North American sport. Also, they're in this division because it keeps them on the east coast while preserving the New York/Boston rivalry.
This was a real NHL team that played one season in 1930-31.
A former Arena Football League team in Cincinnati. Seems threatening. Wouldn't want to mess with the Blades.
A great team name in the CFL. We shall steal it.
Cleveland River Flames
A great, appropriate name. However, Steely McBeam will be taken out back and shot.
Tampa Bay Conquistadors
Their most noteworthy indigenous animal is the manatee, which sleeps for half the day while floating in the water. Conquistadors seems a better choice.
Under one condition: the helmet returns.
North Carolina Hounds
There was once a baseball team in Atlanta named the Atlanta Crackers. As much as I desperately wanted to name them the Crackers, I tried to avoid the mascotization of existing cultures as often as possible (even for white people). It turns out that the team's original name was likely the Firecrackers, so that seems like a good compromise.
Mexico City Federales
It was the first thing that came to mind, and I didn't find anything better.
Can't argue with this one.
OH MY GOD THERE ARE BATS EVERYWHERE MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
I didn't change their name out of fear for my own personal safety.
For the same reason I didn't change the Cowboys' name.
Aurora is a suburb of Chicago, and when the future of Soldier Field was in question, the team briefly threatened to relocate to Aurora. So that seems like as good a place as any for a second Chicago team. As for the name, the city borders the Fox River.
Seriously, why is the football team named after a creature which doesn't live there when the city has a perfectly good established identity?
Similar to the reason I kept Cowboys and Bears, although it carries regional significance as well.
GAH! Kill it with fire!
Solid names all around. They stay. (Yes, I know there are no vikings in Minnesota, but there are no vikings anywhere, so this is allowed.)
Los Angeles Rams
You get to have them back, since the St. Louis team got nixed.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks
When the "mighty" from the Ducks was removed, we all lost a little part of our childhood. Hopefully, this helps correct the injustice.
San Francisco 49ers
San Jose Golden Seals
The Golden Seals were a hockey team in the Bay Area, and it's a fantastic name. Welcome back!
* * *
While I freely admit this is a far-from-perfect arrangement, one could come to the same conclusion regarding the current NFL alignment. Structuring leagues in a somewhat market-oriented approach is ironically anathema to American sports despite being the more common method around the world. Cities such as London show an incredible capacity to support soccer teams. America, through its rigorous and centrally-determined league structures, has never figured out what that carrying capacity is for its largest cities. It's perfectly plausible that New York, Chicago and Los Angeles could support three or even four teams in their metropolitan areas.
But this approach would contradict American leagues' desire to have demand constantly ahead of supply, keeping their teams and products hyper-valued, not to mention cities then bidding against each other (or themselves) for new taxpayer-funded stadiums.
Most of all, what this little experiment highlights is how difficult it is to predict which cities will embrace a team and which will agnostically co-exist. Why do Miami and Tampa struggle while smaller markets such as Seattle, Denver and Pittsburgh thrive? The answer is complex in its simplicity. Sports are part of a city's culture, and culture is often impossible to quantify or measure, and even more so to preordain.
Here lies the great paradox of American sports leagues. They pontificate and negotiate for years about what city ought to get a team, and then instruct that city to support it. No amount of market research can assure a team's popularity, largely because so much of what makes teams popular is whether they succeed or fail on the field. The last time Neilson made their media exposure rankings for NFL teams public in 2010 (essentially measuring a team's popularity), the top teams were a list of recent Super Bowl winners or historically great teams. It turns out, the easiest way to predict which teams will be popular is to determine which teams will be good. But on-field success is a lousy reason to conclude that a team is self-supporting, since success can always abandon you.
For now, the NFL's unprecedented popularity and financial success means a team can financially succeed (to varying degrees) pretty much anywhere. I mean, if Jacksonville can have a team, then who can't?