Throwing the Challenge Flag: Can States Use Eminent Domain to Keep Sports Teams from Moving?

December 29, 2020

If a sports franchise wants to relocate, it must get the permission of its league. But, what happens when the city that it wants to leave objects? How far can a city go to keep its team? Can it use its eminent domain powers to acquire the team and keep it in the city?

Maryland tried to use eminent domain in 1984 when it threatened to seize the Baltimore Colts to prevent the team from relocating to Indianapolis. This threat led to the team moving from Baltimore in the middle of the night – the images of the moving vans pulling out of the Colts’ facilities under the cover of darkness have become iconic. While dramatic, this action stopped the proposed acquisition – the tangible and intangible property of the Colts was no longer in Maryland’s jurisdiction, thwarting Maryland’s attempts to stop the relocation.

In the 1980s, the city of Oakland tried using eminent domain to prevent the Oakland Raiders from leaving Oakland and moving to Los Angeles, but, unlike Maryland, Oakland actually started condemnation proceedings. Initially, the California Supreme Court held that the eminent domain statutes permitted the condemnation of intangible property but remanded the case back to the lower court for a trial as to whether the exercise of eminent domain would be a valid public use.

After years of legal maneuvers, a trial was held in May of 1983. Ultimately, appellate courts found that Oakland’s proposed exercise of eminent domain power would violate the commerce clause of the United States Constitution.

While the Raiders began playing their games in Los Angeles, this matter was not over. California has a litigation expenses statute that is similar to Wis. Stat. § 32.28, and because Oakland ultimately did not have the right to condemn the Raiders’ property, Oakland was responsible for all of the Raiders’ litigation expenses. Several years of legal battles over attorneys’ fees ensued.

Despite all of this litigation, which ended approximately nine years after it began with Oakland paying the Raiders a reported approximate $72 million for damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs, the Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995. When the Raiders petitioned the NFL to move to Las Vegas in January of 2017, Oakland did not try to stop the Raiders from moving. The Raiders ultimately moved, and their first season as the Las Vegas Raiders was 2020.