Hope and Glory

A major league team could be the ticket to putting Hampton Roads on "the map", but after so many defeats, are local fans still able to stand and cheer?

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Hampton Roads has tried multiple times for a pro sports team

In other words, can Hampton Roads have downtrodden fans without a team for them to feel downtrodden about?

A few years ago, the broadcaster and avid baseball fan Keith Olbermann assembled a list of cities where the St. Louis Cardinals could move if they were to hypothetically leave St. Louis.

He wrote about the ideal spot this way: “If you could perfectly place a franchise somewhere in Virginia where people in Richmond and people in Newport News could all think of it as theirs, it would have a market to draw from of 2,912,685— big enough that in theory the Cardinals could think about moving there.”

He was essentially describing Hampton Roads.

City and state officials are quick to point out southeastern Virginia is the largest market in the country without representation in any of the four major sports leagues (the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League). Their figure is accurate but requires some generous gerrymandering of the region’s boundaries to include part of Richmond.

They say Hampton Roads has more fans than 22 cities blessed with franchises—but again, only if you view these statistics with a distinct home crowd advantage. Still, for all the cynicism, for all the empty minor league seats, for all the times the fans have asked if they could cheer a little more quietly, true-believers see an unrequited, if un-served, passion for major league sports.

They point to the time in 2001 when Smithfield Foods had agreed to put up $40 million for naming rights for an NBA arena. Or in 2004, a potential MLB team in Norfolk sold 60 suites and 4,000 season tickets almost instantly. Or last year, more than 11,000 fans liked the idea of bringing a pro arena to Virginia Beach on Facebook.

This spring, the General Assembly passed a bill that would give Virginia Beach additional flexibility to build for a pro team. And at the same time, city leaders have called for the re-institution of the Hampton Roads Sports Facility Authority to help a pro-team in the region. There’s a reason for all of this support and foam-finger waving among the masses and even non-sports fan.

Michael Danielson, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, wrote in his 1997 book, Home Team: Professional Sport and the American Metropolis, that “having a team marks a city as being in the Big Leagues, while not having one, meant a place is a minor league or bush league city.” In sports talk parlance, a cow town.

Many supporters believe a professional franchise in Hampton Roads could help solve one the region’s most superficial problem—a long lingering identity crisis. The quickest way to prove Hampton Roads is not minor league or bush league, the way to get on the proverbial big-time map, is to land a team.

In 2010, after the upstart United Football League announced a franchise for Virginia Beach, Kevitz immediately started the group’s official fan club.

“I knew it would take more than passive support to make sure something stuck,” he said.

If done right, he hoped, the Destroyers could prove to the world, or at least to franchise owners, that Hampton Roads was ready for a major league team of its own.

Kevitz plopped down $300 for season tickets. He traveled to road games out of state. In an extreme case, he once spent more than $1,000 on noisemakers.

For the team’s first game, without the major marketing power of the major leagues, without an ESPN television contract, or non-stop hype on sports talk radio, 15,000 fans showed up at the Sportsplex ready to scream for their hometown team.

Kevitz started to believe. “The fans showed we can spend a professional team in Hampton Roads,” he said.

Later in the season, one player told him the Sportsplex was the loudest he had seen any stadium in the league.

Kevitz was convinced.

But, almost just as quickly, the next season of football was scuttled by the league’s financial difficulties, and today Kevitz doubts what kind of influence the fans’ efforts in Hampton Roads made to the rest of the country.

Amid rumors of the Sacramento Kings landing in the Beach, the same jokes about the region resurfaced.

National pundits cracked that Hampton Roads was too racist. Others said it was too small to be considered small market. A Sacramento columnist referred to the region as “the backwater sticks.”

“I think the biggest thing for us is just getting out publicly what the Norfolk/ Hampton Roads area is,” Will Somerindyke, one of the organizers hoping to bring major league baseball to Norfolk, said in a 2004 interview. “Not only what we are demographically, but how corporately we could support a Major League franchise.”

That struggle continues nearly 10 years later.