As the National Football League stages its 40th Super Bowl this Sunday, nearly half the league's teams are in communities growing more slowly than the national average. And Pittsburgh, home to one of this year's participants, has lost more population than any other metropolitan area in the country since 1990.
The Steelers' opponent in the big game is from Seattle, one of the nation's fastest growing markets.
NFL fans can be fiercely loyal, especially in places like Pittsburgh, which has had a team since the Great Depression. But when the 80th Super Bowl rolls around, several fast-growing communities will be able to boast potential fan bases that will far outnumber those of some current teams.
"Professional sports is probably going to look a lot different in 40 years than it does right now," said Charles Euchner, who has written several books on sports and economics. "They are going to be global enterprises."
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The NFL has 32 teams, but none in Portland, Ore., Orlando, Fla., or San Antonio. All three metropolitan areas rank among the nation's top 32, and all of them are growing much faster than the national average. Los Angeles is the largest metropolitan area without a team, having lost two of them to other cities in the 1990s.
The Las Vegas market is no. 32, with 1.7 million people, about 750,000 behind Pittsburgh. But Las Vegas has more than doubled in size since 1990, while Pittsburgh has lost 67,000 people.
"Las Vegas is the Holy Grail," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based consulting firm. "There are people who believe that an NFL team in Las Vegas would be the most profitable franchise in sports."
The gambling industry could fuel those profits, but it also scares the NFL, which is worried about jeopardizing the integrity of the games.
Other professional sports leagues have already given in to the allure of sunshine and fast-growing markets.
The National Hockey League has moved or started teams in such traditional hockey hotbeds as Phoenix, Raleigh, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn. The National Basketball Association experimented with a team in Vancouver, British Columbia, but eventually moved it to Memphis, Tenn.
New Orleans has unique problems. It ranked 40th in population, and that was before Hurricane Katrina scattered thousands of Saints fans across the country.
There is, however, hope for football fans in Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland and Detroit, home to this weekend's Super Bowl.
All three communities have been sliding down the population rankings for years. But their fans display a passion that team owners in Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla., can only dream about.
People who live on America's coasts smugly explain the popularity of Midwestern sports teams by saying there isn't much else to do there.
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, offers a different take: Older cities with stable populations have loyal fans because many families have lived there for generations, creating years of shared experiences cheering for teams. Fast-growing cities, on the other hand, attract a lot of outsiders with little or no connection to local teams.
"A good example is that Los Angeles doesn't have a team and Green Bay does," Frey said. "I don't know how many Green Bays you could fit in Los Angeles."
The answer is 43 — and counting.
By Stephen Ohlemacher