Professional sports teams can unite a city. They can bring sadness or jubilation, and they can represent a city in their style of play. They can even pleasantly distract a city from its own harsh realities.
But, they can also move. In effect, teams can divorce cities to move in with a prettier, more financially accommodating city.
Across the country, fans have shared the heartbreak of team relocation. It first began when the Baltimore Colts infamously packed up and left the city during the night for Indianapolis. The footage of their Mayflower moving trucks remains synonymous with relocation.
Short of lying down in front of those trucks, fans can do little to prevent the inevitable agony. However, diehard fans have organized to demonstrate their passion for their team. They have adopted – knowingly or unknowingly – public relations tactics in their efforts.
In 2008, the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and renamed to become the Thunder. The long legal process of relocation provided the time for Sonic fans to create Save Our Sonics, an organization dedicated to keeping the team in Seattle. Probably the most effective response to team relocation, Save Our Sonics became the advocacy group for disgruntled Seattle fans.
There have been many relocations in professional sports, but none drew the same prolonged ire as the one in Seattle. Not only was the city losing a team it had been the home of since 1967, it was the victim of corporate greed. The betrayal began when hometown Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sold the team to an Oklahoma City-based investment group in 2006.
Save Our Sonics had one objective: prevent the team from leaving. It set forth strategies and tactics that included the following:
• Talk with local and state politicians
• Seek support from local businesses
• Ensure fan support remains high
• Reach out to media in the region
• Request assistance from non-fans
• Communicate with the NBA Board of Governors
Though the group ultimately failed, it indirectly targeted NBA owners who may move their teams in the future.
Save Our Sonics was grassroots public relations at its finest and was a refreshing reminder that public relations does not always consist of a large corporation promoting itself with some charity event or big announcement. It was the embodiment of a city’s support for a team that it did not want to lose.
Currently, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings are in the process of moving to nearby Anaheim. Sacramento fans organized Here We Stay last fall to prevent just that. Although it has not been as organized as Save Our Sonics, it modeled itself after the Seattle effort.
Brian Robinson, co-founder of Save Our Sonics, even gave advice to the group in a video for The Sacramento Bee. He especially stressed the importance of building a strong coalition of local businesses to support the construction of a new arena.
In the age of online connectedness, these movements are easier to organize and grow. Both professional sports team owners and fans must recognize the opportunity for such groups to form and the effect they can have. Public relations practitioners must recognize that passion is just as important as a well-written press release.