Do Defunct Sports Teams Have an Afterlife?

The haunting fates of some beloved local teams

Newark Bears
A Newark Bears game before the team went out of business after the 2013 season.
buba69/Creative Commons

What happens when the sports team that you’ve watched for your entire life ceases to exist? What happens when the team that genetons of your family grew up watching and cheering for vanishes into the ether — the world of vintage jersey shops and historical photos, but nothing new? 

For plenty of sports fans across the country, that isn’t a theoretical question. Given that the ongoing negotiations between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball could adversely affect dozens of teams, if not more, the prospect of losing a beloved local team is something that numerous communities are wrestling with right now. 

In a recent article for The New York Times, Tyler Kepner explored the appeal of minor league baseball, and why it endures. “Yet M.L.B. has essentially told fans in 42 communities that it could do without them, or is at least willing to take that chance,” he writes. “It is discouraging that the league so often ignores the benefits of letting more people see the game.”

And baseball isn’t the only sport where the loss of a beloved local team has stung a community. Both the Times and SB Nation have recently published moving articles on the English soccer team Bury F.C., who ceased operations after 134 years before the current season began. 

Writing for The New York Times, Rory Smith discussed the handful of former team employees currently working without pay to maintain the facilities the team had used, partly out of dedication to the club’s history and partly for more pragmatic reasons. “The hope is that liquidation might at least trigger a so-called redundancy package, the British term for a severance payment that might deliver some of his lost wages,” Smith writes about the club’s groundskeeper.

Jon Mackenzie’s article on the team in SB Nation focuses more on the circumstances that led to its implosion: one owner’s financial collapse, another user whose watch the team was declared insolvent. In an era of increasing economic uncertainty, it’s a narrative that hits home in a big way. Mackenzie’s portrait of Bury’s fans is a moving one regardless of your own favorite sport: 

Without a team to support at the weekend, without a stadium to visit, without a place to call their own, there can be no supposition that Bury supporters have not been affected by the situation of recent months. But rather than reveal the ultimate meaninglessness of fandom, Bury’s dissolution has done the opposite: fans have found renewed meaning, have been given a clearer sense of what their fandom consists.

A new team may well come to Bury next season, playing in the 10th division of English soccer. This will be AFC Bury; by comparison, Bury FC’s final season was in the English 3rd division. The term for this is “phoenix club” — a team literally birthed from the ashes of a defunct one. It’s a term that also applies in the United States — and not just for soccer. 

Not every phoenix club endures: multiple iterations of the minor league baseball team known as the Newark Bears have existed, but the team itself called it a day in 2013. And others exist in a kind of potential state: see also the Tampa Bay Rays’ flirtation with a partial move to Montreal, former home of the Expos. And the saga of the Cleveland Browns’ move to Baltimore and the revival of the team several seasons later also comes to mind. 

There’s a specific kind of pain felt by a fan of a team when that team is gone. Ask any onetime Sonics fan in Seattle; play “Brass Bonanza” around a hockey fan in Hartford. It’s something that transcends specific sports, and it’s something a lot more fans could be feeling before long. Whether you’re a dedicated hockey fan, someone who religiously watches baseball, or a hardcore soccer viewer, that should give you pause.

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