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The Challenge of Pro Sports in the Southeastern United States

It seems like a simple equation. Growing markets equals new growth opportunities for outside businesses seeking new markets. New economic engines in the South (new factories, new banking and financial concerns, growing tech base, growing populations, and increased buying power) have led many companies to open their doors in the South.

High end restaurant and retail chains have successfully come to many of growing markets in the Swampland.com footprint like Charlotte, Nashville, Tampa and Orlando. The South’s urban core is no longer defined by only Atlanta, Miami, and Dallas. The South is where the growth is. Any business looking for a growing customer base would be foolish to ignore the South.

By definition, professional sports by is a business like any other. All the sports leagues look at the numbers and see a pretty simple equation:

Growing market area + an existing passion for sports + good weather = $$$$

These new growing urban areas see a similar equation:

Growing market area + professional sports = THE BIG TIME!!

However, these simple equations have not always yielded such straightforward results.   Culturally and demographically, the South is often compared to the Midwest.  Both of these regions make up what is considered to be "middle America".  However, the two regions have key cultural distinctions which explains why professional sports has been less successful in the South than it has been in the Midwest up to now.

Culture is defined as, "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. "  This "totality" is the key element to examine.

Because the word "totality" is, by nature, all encompassing, this article aims to focus on a few factors that might explain why the acceptance of professional sports in the South has been a mixed bag thus far.  Perhaps there might also be some lessons to be learned by each league if they hope to ever capture the hearts of Southern sports fans.

Unlike the Northeast and the Midwest, the South was not populated by growing urban centers.  Although there were some early Southern tradeports like Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, they paled in comparison to New York and Boston.  The majority of settlers that came to the South to establish an agrarian, rural economy.  The South has always been de-centralized which does not lend itself to the standard urban-dominated culture that encompasses the "North" of the United States.

Even when looking at the dominant Southern sport, college football, the places of note (Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, Athens, Lexington, etc) usually lie outside urban areas of their respective state.  Southern sports usually comes from the hinterlands in making it far different from the "inside out" historical marketing approach of professional sports in America. 


These reversed migration patterns in the South caused sports allegiances to be imported into the South's growing urban areas as opposed to being created within the culture of the city.  This is just one reason why NASCAR has remained successful in the South.  It grew from the outside in - from rural dirt tracks to regional locations like Bristol and Talladega to the construction of Texas Motor Speedway outside of Dallas within the last decade or so.

Simply put, many if not most Southerners do not identify themselves with cities.  They are more likely to see themselves through a "state lens" than a "city lens".  Current residents of Southern cities are just as likely to identify with the small town from which they came than the city in which they now live and work, maybe more so.

So while the Giants and Bears expect a loyal fan base in the smaller, more rural areas of New York and Illinois, the Falcons and Titans cannot count on a similar connection with football fans in Columbus, GA or Bristol, TN.  Any connection like that must be built over time.  This goes squarely against the top down approach favored by the "Big Four" (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL), all of which are based in New York City.


Despite skyrocketing economic growth numbers, the South has some built in disadvantages when it comes to the economics of pro sports.  Due to consistent changes over the last two decades, the financing of pro sports focuses on two key elements - television market and facilities.  This puts the South at a sizable disadvantage.

The value of television markets consists of a few factors - the population within the market, the buying power within the market, and the ability to expand the market on a regional level.  On average, the South has smaller, poorer cities than their Northern and Midwestern counterparts.  Additionally, as discussed in the previous section, areas outside the home city do not necessarily identify their cultural sports allegiance with the home city.  Both of these factors make television markets in the South far less valuable than in the North, Midwest, or West.

The other economic issue surrounds facilities.  Teams look to stadiums and arenas as one of their primary sources of ancillary revenue.  The current wisdom that has come of age over the last two decades is to build facilities with lots of luxury boxes and club level seats.  The team then sells this high end facility "real estate" to the local corporate base.

Again, the South comes up short in this area.  The South has far fewer corporate resources because the region has historically had a smaller manufacturing and financial base than the rest of the United States.  Beyond that, corporate support of sports is directly influenced by the fan base of that sport. 

Corporations must see a bottom line value of owning luxury suites and buying groups of club level seats.  If clients and employees see this as a perk, then corporations usually get on board.  However, pro sports does not have the same kind of following in the South as something like college football or NASCAR.  Many corporations pass on the big dollars which puts a further squeeze on pro teams seeking support in an already thin market.


For pro sports to become successful they must become part of the South's "daily fabric".  This comes from building grass roots support over long periods of time.

Swampland.com will continue this story over the next weeks examining each league and rating it in terms of its current and future appeal to Southern sports fans.  We welcome your feedback as well so keep your responses coming.

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