Kings to Virginia Beach: The “Largest” Small Market
There have been many talks about moving the current Sacramento Kings NBA franchise to another location. Multiple new locations have been proposed over the last 4 or 5 months, with the top three destinations being Seattle, Kansas City, and Virginia Beach (in that order). Seattle makes the most sense, among the three, in all the major categories from geographic location, to population, to fan base, and socio-economic demographics. However, I say Seattle had their chance and had their run with the Super Sonics and it ran its course. I will say that Kansas City in the heart of the Heartland already has their beloved sport in football, both college and professional. I will say that the love for basketball in the deep Midwest, in Big 12 country, doesn’t compare for the love of basketball in the urban set, east coast, in the middle of ACC-land.
So I would argue that Virginia Beach and the state of Virginia would be the best location. But I’m bias.
I’m bias because I’m a Virginia native and grew up 25 minutes from Virginia Beach. However, this “bias” actually gives me great insight on why the Kings relocating to Virginia Beach will be a successful move by the organization and the NBA. I know first-hand the demographics in this part of the state of Virginia and I know first-hand the want and desire of the people in this community to have a professional sports team (of any kind). The Kings organization has essentially until March 2013 to make a decision. March 2013 was chosen as the pseudo deadline because it’s estimated that this is the last possible month a decision can be made and still have enough time to be ready for the 2013-14 NBA season.
When looking at the topic of bringing a professional sports franchise to the state of Virginia, and more specifically the city of Virginia Beach, I always have three other sports franchises and towns in my head. Those franchises are the Green Bay Packers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Charlotte Bobcats. The thing that all three of these franchises have in common is they are the smallest markets in their respective leagues. If Virginia Beach were to land the Kings, they would instantly be part of this list.
The two Virginia cities that seriously flirted with bringing a professional sports team to the state of Virginia have been Norfolk and Virginia Beach, but the biggest knock and concern over the decades was do these towns have enough people (population) and enough people with enough disposable income to sustain these franchises.
Well….let’s take a look.
The population of Charlotte is 751,087. The population of Oklahoma City is 591,967. The population of Green Bay, WI is 105,809. Green Bay may be an extreme example. Lambeau Field seats 73,094, that’s roughly 75% of the entire town of Green Bay. Football is America’s most popular sport, so the NFL can get away with having such a small market. The NBA couldn’t get away such an extremely small market. However, Virginia Beach has a population of 437,994 and by being the NBA’s smallest market could be the “NBA’s Green Bay”. For me this novelty is something I would enjoy and embrace if the Kings or any other professional sports team were to come to Virginia Beach. However, for investors I understand that this fact could be discouraging and may prevent them from investing or at the very least the amount of money they will invest in the team, the venue, and every employee and staff that would work at the arena. Ordinary people’s lives would be directly affected.
What investors or sponsors or even the Maloof brothers (the owners of the Kings) may not know is Virginia Beach is the largest and biggest “small” city in the entire country. If you never lived in this region of the state you have no idea what I’m referring to, so I’ll explain.
Southeast Virginia is geographically defined as being, southeast of Richmond, all the way east to the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, and all the way south to the border of North Carolina. This region is a cluster of cities and towns known as Hampton Roads. Normally, larger cities usually stand alone. Meaning it is very clear when you have entered and exited that city and would have to drive multiple hours to get to the next prominent city. Sure, every larger city has their small towns and suburbs that surround it. However, Hampton Roads is different in that regard. Hampton Roads and the cities that surround Virginia Beach are legitimately sized cities of their very own (not “suburbs” of a city). If you were dropped in the middle of Hampton Roads and there were no city limit signs, you wouldn’t know where one city ends and the others begin, it will feel like just one really large city/metropolitan area.
Even though Hampton Roads has the nick name “The Seven Cities”, there’s actually eight. Let’s take quick look at their populations:
- Virginia Beach – 437,994
- Norfolk – 242,628
- Chesapeake – 225,050
- Newport News – 179,611
- Hampton – 136,401
- Portsmouth – 95,684
- Suffolk – 84,930
- Williamsburg – 14,444
The population of Hampton Roads is estimated to be between 1.4-1.7 million people. If Hampton Roads was officially one city, it would be the 5th largest city in the United States, only behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. It would be larger than Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas (all top 10 cities as far as population and cities with NBA teams). Now I know there’s more than just the size of the city to take into account. Do you have the fan base and more importantly for the owners the socio-economic population to support a team and for that team to thrive?
The household median income for Charlotte is $49,779. The household median income for Oklahoma City is $47,023. The house hold median income for Green Bay is $40,857. The median incomes in these other small professional sports markets are less than Virginia Beach which has a median household income of $63,370. Virginia Beach has been ranked previously as having the 5th highest median income among large cities. So you have a city population in Virginia Beach that is 25% less than Oklahoma City but with 25% more income. On a greater scale, the entire Hampton Roads area has a median household income of $53,472. This median household income is still larger than Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Green Bay but with a population as high as 1.7 million people, more than 2 times larger than Charlotte and 3 times larger than Oklahoma City.
The math works. Numbers don’t lie.
So we have the people, we have the money…..there’s one important element left and this is probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Strong fan base.
Virginia Beach the NBA’s Green Bay?
Okay, okay, Green Bay’s rabid fan base for the Packers is and will always be on another level, so much so that I probably shouldn’t compare it to a possible team in Virginia Beach so……I won’t. But I can compare the potential strong fan base to Oklahoma City and their team the Thunder. How has a town, only slight larger than Virginia Beach been so successful with the Thunder (even before they became Championship contenders)? How have Oklahoma City and the Thunder been so successful as far as their fan base? It’s because the state of Oklahoma had no professional sports team before the Thunder arrived. That’s what decades and decades and generations after generations of no professional sports teams to root for and call your very own will do to people, it makes them go nuts with excitement, pride, and loyalty when a pro team finally does set up shop in their town. They describe the Thunder fans enthusiasm as a “college atmosphere” well, that’s because that’s all they have been rooting for, college teams, all of their lives. Uhmm…., all of this sounds very familiar. I wonder what other city and state falls into that category? I more than believe that a professional team, in this case the Kings, arrival in Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads will have the same effect.
The thing about really small markets is the closeness the community feels with their pro team. Why? Because when see you Kevin Durant at your grocery store every other week picking up some Cheerios and a loaf of bread you can’t help but feel closer to that team as if they are really a part of your community. However, a little less glamorous reason why such small markets are so loyal to their pro teams is, well, there really isn’t anything else to do in that town. Now, before people take this the wrong way, I say that in comparison to the really large cities where on any given night or weekend you can find a hundred other fun and entertaining things to do rather than see a ball game. Let’s take Miami for example. The reason why they are notoriously known as being the capital of “fair weathered fans” (which is a very ironic saying in this case because every day there’s good/”fair” weather in Miami and that in fact is part of the problem), is because when you live in a place that is the party capital, full of beautiful beaches and beautiful women, people rather be out on South Beach than in an arena or stadium on a Saturday night (or any night for that matter). But with smaller markets the professional sports team is the talk of the town and the highlight of the night.
Will It Finally Happen for Virginia?
Now I know my peers in Northern Virginia (near Washington DC) will say “hey what’s the big deal, we got our sports teams in D.C.”. But what they don’t understand, it’s different where they are and Hampton Roads. My peers up north are so close to DC (within 30-40mins) that they can “adopt” those teams as their very own and love them like they are their biological children. But for the rest of us in Hampton Roads (3+ hours away from D.C.), it’s not the same. Yes there are many of us that root for D.C. or Maryland teams but it’s almost because we “have to” because “what else would we do”?
It’s just not the same.
The NBA and the Maloof brothers need to realize that they will be moving from the 35th largest city in Sacramento to essentially, virtually, the 5th largest “city”. Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads is one of the best hidden gems (maybe a little too well hidden) that any professional sports team, investor, or sponsors has yet to tap into. It will be a steal for any team owner. Team owners may believe all the best major markets are taken and they have to settle for the scraps. What they don’t know, is that they have the “largest” small market right under their nose in Virginia.