11 Expansion Teams That Just Missed the Cut
By Scott Allen
When the NFL expansion committee headed by current league commissioner Roger Goodell awarded franchises to Charlotte and Jacksonville in 1993, three other prospective teams with nicknames, logos, and color schemes already unveiled and season ticket deposits sold, were left disappointed. Here are the stories of those three (almost) teams and eight other failed expansion bids in various sports.
1. Memphis Hound Dogs (NFL, 1993)
The selection of Charlotte and Jacksonville left the prospective ownership group in Memphis, led by cotton magnate William “Billy” Dunavant, crying all the time. After Elvis Presley Enterprises, which controls the late singer’s licensing rights, became an investor, Dunavant nicknamed his prospective team the Hound Dogs. Not everyone was enamored with the idea, however. More than 70% of respondents to a poll in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal didn’t like the nickname, which was inspired by the hit single originally recorded in 1952 by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and adapted by Elvis four years later. “We don’t see a wimpy little Hound Dog logo,” Presley Enterprises spokesman Todd Morgan told reporters. “It will be rough and tough just like Elvis. He had that element of danger about him.”
But the Hound Dogs never came to be. The city was awarded a Canadian Football League franchise in 1995, but the Mad Dogs (Presley Enterprises wasn’t an investor) folded after one season. Five years later, an American Basketball Association team called the Houn’Dawgs played a season in Memphis before disbanding.
2. Baltimore Bombers (NFL, 1993)
Baltimore was another city in the running for an expansion team in 1993. Charm City had been without an NFL team since 1983, when the Colts left town for Indianapolis. Retail executive Leonard “Boogie” Weinglass and Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer, the heads of the two prospective ownership groups of the Baltimore franchise, expressed interest in buying the Colts nickname from Indianapolis Colts owner Robert Irsay, but it wasn’t for sale. Rhinos was chosen as a replacement nickname, but the backlash from fans was so great that Weinglass and Glazer reopened the search.
While Ravens was the leading vote getter in a Baltimore Sun poll, the team feared a Ravens logo would too closely resemble the Atlanta Falcons’ logo, and ultimately decided on Bombers. “It’s a cowardly bird anyway,” Weinglass said of the Ravens nickname. “It’s a scavenger. I never read a book in my life and Edgar Allan Poe never met me.” Baltimore missed out on the NFL in 1993, but had a successful CFL team in 1994 and 1995. The NFL returned to the city before the 1996 season when the relocated Cleveland Browns franchise began play as the Baltimore Ravens.
3. St. Louis Stallions (NFL, 1993)
St. Louis was the third city that came oh-so-close to being awarded an expansion NFL team in 1993. St. Louis was considered one of the favorites to land a team and a local radio station wrote a fight song for the Stallions, who would wear purple and gold.
But the Gateway to the West, which was home to the Cardinals before they left for Phoenix after the 1987 season, missed out as the result of an internal dispute over the lease for the newly built Edward Jones Dome. After awarding one of the two expansion teams to Charlotte, the NFL delayed the announcement of the second city to give St. Louis’s prospective ownership group time to resolve its issues, but the Stallions never made it out of the stable. St. Louis didn’t have to wait long for an NFL team, though. Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere relocated the team to her native St. Louis before the 1995 season and kept the Rams nickname.
4. Memphis Grizzlies (NFL, mid-1970s)
The Hound Dogs’ unsuccessful bid wasn’t Memphis’s first brush with joining the NFL. In 1974, the city was named one of five finalists for an expansion team along with Honolulu, Phoenix, Seattle, and Tampa Bay. After Seattle and Tampa Bay were awarded teams, John Bassett moved his World Football League team from Toronto to Memphis and signed several NFL stars, including Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. The team was wildly popular with local fans – Elvis reportedly attended a game – but the WFL folded in the middle of the 1975 season. Bassett immediately began a push to join the NFL, capping a season-ticket drive with a telethon that garnered 46,000 pledges.
The NFL wasn’t looking to add another team at the time, so Bassett filed a lawsuit against the league claiming that it violated antitrust laws by denying the Grizzlies, who were briefly known as the Southmen, entry into the NFL. By the time the courts ruled in favor of the league several years later, Bassett was owner of the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits. The NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis in 2001.
5. Hampton Roads Rhinos (NHL, 1997)
Hampton Roads, a metropolitan area in southeastern Virginia that includes Norfolk and Newport News, was one of nine candidates for NHL expansion in 1997. Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn, who led the bid, chose Rhinos as the team’s nickname and a color scheme of teal, purple, and blue. Shinn wowed the NHL expansion committee with a 14-minute video, which noted, among other things, that two-thirds of the United States population lives within 750 miles of Hampton Roads.
In the end, the region lost out, partly due to its relatively small television market. “We’re not in a position to deal with a market that size at this time, based on where the NHL is and where we need to expand in order to strengthen the league,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. Atlanta, Columbus, Nashville, and St. Paul, which were among the nine candidates, were awarded expansion franchises over the next few years.
6. Orlando SunRays (MLB, 1990)
In 1990, Major League Baseball solicited bids for two expansion teams to join the National League starting in the 1993 season. The last time the league expanded was 1977, when the Toronto Blue Jays joined the American League. Orlando was one of six cities chosen as a finalist and the only one without an existing stadium for its prospective team to call home. But the Orlando bid had the backing of Amway Corp. president Richard DeVos. It also had a nickname (SunRays), color scheme (quicksilver, electric blue, and SunRay magenta), and a manager in waiting (Bob Boone.) “We’re up on everybody with the nickname and the logo,” SunRays president Pat Williams said. As one reporter noted, the logo, designed by the same advertising firm that created the logo for the Orlando Magic, was “strikingly similar to the logo used by Paramount Pictures Corporation for its recent baseball movie, Major League.”
While the shades-sporting baseball never made it to the big leagues – MLB awarded expansion franchises to Miami and Denver – SunRays was the nickname of Minnesota’s AA affiliate in Orlando from 1990-1992.
7. Washington Nationals (MLB, 1990)
Washington, DC, which had been abandoned by two franchises in the previous 30 years, was another city contending for an expansion team in 1990. The prospective ownership group announced it preferred a nickname other than Senators and asked fans to submit ideas on a postcard. (I remember my dad submitted Belters, a reference to both a batter hitting a ball and the Beltway that encircles DC.) The winning name, as selected by Washington Metropolitan Baseball President John Akridge, was Nationals. “It just came to mind,” 17-year-old Tim Stump, one of several fans to submit the winning name, told reporters. “I was thinking, ‘the Nation’s Capital,’ but you couldn’t use Capitals, because of the hockey team. So I just kept going, and Nationals just came tumbling out.” Nationals was the name of Washington’s National League franchise in 1886 and the name the team adopted when the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington, DC, after the 2004 season.
8. Buffalo Bisons (MLB, 1990)
Buffalo’s 1990 MLB expansion delegation, which included New York Governor Mario Cuomo and Larry King, was upbeat about its chances to land a team after the minor league Buffalo Bisons set the all-time minor league attendance record in 1988. The Bisons drew 1.15 million fans, which was more than three major league teams, despite the fact that stadium capacity was less than 20,000. There were plans to expand the stadium to a capacity of 45,000 within 7 months if Buffalo was awarded a team. The delegation received nearly 10,000 deposits for season tickets, but the Bisons’ bid was denied.
9. Seattle Totems (NHL, mid-1970s)
In mid-1974, the NHL awarded Vince Abbey, president of the World Hockey Association’s Seattle Totems, an expansion franchise to begin play in the 1976. The WHA folded before the 1974 season and the Totems joined the Central Hockey League in 1974-1975. Abbey was scrambling to secure funding for the franchise fee that was required to join the NHL and missed a major deadline for a deposit. The NHL reneged on its offer and denied Abbey’s team an expansion bid. Abbey responded by filing an antitrust suit against the league, arguing that his team’s and the WHA’s demise was primarily the result of the NHL’s growth. The case was settled in favor of the NHL more than a decade later.
10. Los Angeles Bulldogs (NFL, 1936)
Harry Myers formed the Los Angeles Bulldogs as an independent football team in 1936 and was granted a “probationary franchise” by the NFL. Myers fully anticipated that his team would join the NFL after the 1936 season, and the Bulldogs, led by former Tulsa coach Gus Henderson, proved they were worthy by averaging nearly 10,000 fans per game and going 3-2-1 against NFL competition. The league decided to add the Cleveland Rams from the AFL instead, in part because of its concerns about the travel costs to the West Coast. The Bulldogs would take Cleveland’s place in the AFL and went undefeated in its first season in the league. The team folded in 1948, two years after the NFL’s Cleveland Rams relocated to Los Angeles.
11. Mexico City (MLB, 1994)
In 1994, Alfredo Harp Helu, the owner of the Mexican League’s Mexico City Red Devils and one of the largest banks in Mexico, submitted a bid for an expansion Major League Baseball team in Mexico City. His group planned to construct a 50,000-seat domed stadium if Mexico City were awarded a team. The following year, MLB announced the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks as its newest members. Mexico City has been an intriguing destination for expansion in several sports. “By the year 2000, we are going to have a franchise in Mexico City,” NBA commissioner David Stern said in 1994. While the NBA has played several preseason games in Mexico and the NFL hosted a regular season game there in 2005, no major professional sports league has expanded south of the border.
Saskatoon Blues and Other Franchise Relocations That Fell Through It wasn’t exactly a failed expansion bid, but the prairie town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was prepared to welcome the St. Louis Blues in 1983. The Ralston Purina Company sold the Blues to an ownership group in Saskatchewan, but the NHL’s Board of Governors rejected the move by a 15-3 vote. Angered with being forced to remain in St. Louis, the Ralston ownership group announced it had no intention of operating the team the following season. With its future in limbo, the Blues did not participate in that year’s NHL entry draft. After filing a lawsuit against Ralston, the league imposed a deadline to sell the team to a new ownership group before it would consider dissolving the Blues. California entrepreneur Harry Ornest’s bid to buy the team was approved before the deadline and the Blues remain in St. Louis today. For the stories of the Seattle White Sox, St. Louis Patriots and other almost-relocations, read this.