Discovering the Driftless

What if you lived in the middle of a geological curiosity and didn’t even know it?

Well, maybe not the middle, but just beyond the western edge? That was me, growing up in Austin, Minnesota. Austin is on the eastern edge of the prairie, flat and surrounded by corn and soybean fields. It’s a small company town, headquarters of Hormel Foods. A union town. And as a kid, the only thing I knew about the area that was noteworthy was that we invented Spam.

But I did also know that just a bit farther to the east, the terrain got… weird. Flat cornfields turned into rolling hills, and then into steep bluffs as you approached the Mississippi River. On the other side of the river, in Wisconsin, things got even weirder, with strange rock formations dotting the hilly landscape, until eventually farther to the east things flattened out again. And I knew the place was weird below the surface too, with caves and underground streams.

I often wondered what made the areas just to the east of my hometown so much different than where I lived, or anywhere else I had ever seen, for that matter. But not enough to really explore or investigate it. Even as an adult. After all, the Midwest is boring. If you want interesting landscapes, you go to Utah or Arizona or really anywhere besides what feels like the least exotic place on the planet.

Catch My Drift

Last year, while working on the Land Stewardship Project website, I encountered a term I had never heard before: “Driftless.” Specifically, the “Driftless Area,” a name applied to that “weird” part of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin near where I had grown up.

I wondered why it was called “Driftless.” I assumed it had to do with drifting snow. That would seem to be a logical assumption: from Austin west to the South Dakota border, snow drifting across the windswept prairie is such a problem that there are permanent gates at most entrances to I-90, so the road can be shut down easily during big winter storms. Drifting snow is not as much of a problem farther to the east, where the hilly terrain keeps it (somewhat) in check.

But I found it a bit strange that the area would be called “Driftless” for that reason. And it’s not.

Drift, in geological terms, refers to sediment and rocks left behind by retreating glaciers, which in addition to leaving behind drift, tend to flatten out and otherwise disrupt whatever landscapes had previously existed before them.

It’s no surprise to anyone who understands even the most basic principles of geology that most of the Upper Midwest was covered by glaciers in the last ice age. But, strangely, a large area was completely untouched by the glaciers, bounded roughly by the cities of Eau Claire, Wisconsin on the north; Rochester, Minnesota on the west; Madison, Wisconsin on the east; and the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois on the south. This is the Driftless Area, so named because it was untouched by the drift left behind as the glaciers of the most recent ice age retreated.

The Driftless Area is so different, then, primarily for two reasons: first, its landscape and features were not flattened and transformed by the glaciers themselves; and second, because the runoff from the melting glaciers further carved and shaped the already odd landscape. Where the retreating glaciers had left behind prairies dotted with lakes, the untouched Driftless Area was left with deep river gorges, sinkholes, bluffs and monadnocks. The Mississippi River runs right through the middle of the Driftless Area, and its gorge and present course were formed during the melting period.

“That Sounds Like a Desert or Something”

The biggest question I have now is not how did this place get the way it is, but why had I never heard of it before? I’m still just beginning to explore the answer to this new question, but I suspect partly it’s because the geology and geography of the area are still being studied, just beginning to be understood.

A documentary film project is underway, exploring Mysteries of the Driftless Zone. The filmmakers are exploring the area both above and below the surface, studying its strange topography, rock formations, caves and unique life forms that survived the ice age and now exist here and nowhere else.

As this clip shows, they’re also touching on the other mystery of the Driftless Area: how people who live in it (and La Crosse, Wisconsin is as “in it” as you can get) don’t even know it exists.

It’s fascinating how giving something a name can give it importance and meaning. Although I’ve always liked and been interested in this area, I find it much more compelling now that I can think of it as a distinct thing with a name. Why is that?


As another final curiosity, and harkening back to a blog post I wrote after the 2008 election — discussing the fact that the curious distribution of votes for President Obama in the Deep South in that year’s election closely followed the contours of the Atlantic coastline from the Cretaceous Period, 85 million years ago — we have this blog post by Scott Sumner.

While Mitt Romney carried most rural parts of the country except those that have a specific historical or demographic reason to favor the Democrats (African-American voters in the Deep South, non-whites in the Southwest, miners in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range), there was one fairly large, weird blob in the rural Upper Midwest, an area populated largely by white farmers, that is uniformly blue on the 2012 election map… the Driftless Area.

Sumner gives no explanation or theory for why the Driftless Area favored Obama — simply noting that it did. The county I grew up in is on the edge of that blob. It’s always gone for the Democrats as far back as I can remember, but that’s always been primarily because of the strong union presence in Austin. And I’ve always felt that farmers in Minnesota might favor the Democrats more than their counterparts in other states because of our state’s peculiar political history: we don’t have the Democratic Party. We have the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL, resulting from the 1944 merger of the Democrats with the Farmer-Labor Party, a left-wing third party that was fairly successful in the early 20th century and was a key to the enduring progressive populist bent of the state’s politics to the present day.

But that’s a bit of a tangent here… I still don’t really know or even have a theory as to why the Driftless Area — all of it, not just the part in Minnesota — went for Obama. (Especially when you consider that Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is from the Driftless Area, or just east of it.) I just think it’s interesting and… weird, like the place itself.

Ode to the locker room

Being a runner in Minnesota can be difficult, because it forces you to make one of three choices:

  1. Run outside in subzero weather.
  2. Get a gym membership and run on a track or treadmill for 4-5 months.
  3. Stop running altogether in the winter.

Since #3 is not a viable option, you’re left with either bundling up with many layers and tiptoeing hesitantly along icy sidewalks or park paths with blustery winds buffeting your face, or paying a monthly fee for the privilege of driving to a building and running indoors on a treadmill or (if you’re lucky) a track, a tedious but climate-controlled solution.

Being an uncharacteristically wimpy Minnesotan, I’ve gone with the gym membership. I’m very fortunate, I suppose, to live close to the Midtown YWCA in Minneapolis, where I have access to first-rate facilities including a 1/6 mile indoor track. I loathe running on a treadmill. The track can be tedious, but at least I’m actually moving. And if I pick the right soundtrack, I can even visualize running around Lake Nokomis instead. (I’ve run Nokomis to the sounds of my own The Long Run enough times that I know precisely where I am in relation to the lake as each of the 11 sections of the 40-minute piece comes on.)

But as much as I can trick myself into enjoying (or at least tolerating) indoor running in the winter, there’s one aspect of Y membership that I will never like or be able to reconcile with my desire to be outside and alone when I run: the locker room.

I was not a jock in school. In fact, I was pretty much exactly whatever the opposite of a jock is. So what little time I did spend in a locker room was an exercise in taunting and humiliation (real or imagined, and probably more imagined than I believed at the time). I’m no longer afraid of the locker room. I just don’t like it.

I don’t like how crowded it is. I don’t like having to find a space on a bench to put my stuff while I change, or coming back to the locker room after my run to see someone else has chosen bench space directly in front of my locker.

I don’t like listening to other people whistling in the showers. What is so great about this experience to make them want to whistle their tuneless little non-melodies?

I don’t like people who are too comfortable being naked in the locker room, and I also don’t like people who are too uncomfortable with it. Be naked in the shower, the sauna, and at your locker, but nowhere else. Don’t be afraid to take off your swim trunks in the shower. Conversely, don’t stand at the sink naked while you shave, or at the counter by the hair dryers, reading a newspaper. (It kind of just seems logical to me to cover up certain parts when you’re wielding a razor blade, electronics, or paper. Especially paper.)

I don’t like listening to other people’s conversations, even when I am deliberately eavesdropping. I don’t want to be eavesdropping. I especially don’t like listening to teenagers swear loudly. And get off my lawn.

I don’t like how hot it is in the locker room, and how by the time I’m done drying off after my shower, I’ve started sweating again before I can even put on my shirt.

Given my dislike of winter in general, and especially my dislike of the compromises it requires (like spending so much time on the corollary disliking of myriad characteristics of spending time in the Y locker room), I’ve been asked by certain individuals in my life why I want to live in Minnesota at all.

They just don’t understand.

I’m not sure if it’s the harsh conditions of life in the Upper Midwest, much like the harsh conditions in the Scandinavian countries where many of our ancestors came from, or whether we’re just resentful of how easily our existence is ignored by the rest of the country, but part of the joy of being Minnesotan is to be able to complain about being Minnesotan. For us, to love something is to feel comfortable complaining about it.

Of course, that would suggest that perhaps I really love the locker room. But love and hate are not opposites. The opposite of love is indifference. And whether I love the locker room, or hate it, the one thing I clearly am not is indifferent.

But whatever the reason for my strong feelings, there is one that is stronger than all. Spring can’t get here soon enough.

Why I’m voting no, twice (and I think you should too)

Tomorrow, finally, is Election Day. One of the most excruciating and interminable campaign seasons in modern memory will in a matter of hours be behind us. But the decisions we collectively make tomorrow will shape our state, our nation, and our world for years or decades to come.

Everyone who cares at all about any of this is watching the presidential race, to be sure, but here in Minnesota the big story is two proposed amendments to the state constitution. I believe these amendments are deeply, profoundly wrong for our state, and I will be voting NO on both. Here’s why.

The Marriage Amendment

The marriage amendment would insert a sentence into Article XIII of the state constitution, which would read as follows:

“Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.”

What does this mean, exactly? Well, essentially it means that gay marriage — which is already illegal in Minnesota, by the way, and would remain illegal even without this amendment passing — would be far less likely ever to become a reality in Minnesota, at least in our lifetimes, because it’s a lot harder to change the constitution than it is to change a law.

So, why should gay marriage be legal? I’m not saying it should. (Well, OK, I am saying it should, but that’s not on the table here.) The legality of gay marriage in Minnesota isn’t even the question. By changing the constitution as such we are saying two things:

1. We don’t want to recognize legal marriages from other states where gay marriage is currently allowed.

2. We want to take away from future generations the right to decide the legality of gay marriage for themselves.

This last point is key to my larger argument about what’s afoot with both of these amendments, but I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s focus on the impact this amendment will have, specifically on Minnesota’s same-sex couples and their families.

I have friends and neighbors who are in committed, long-term same-sex relationships. They own houses together, they have kids together, they will grow old together. They are great friends and neighbors, and they are just like our family, except for the genders of the adults in the household. That difference doesn’t change the love they feel, or the commitment, or their engagement with the community. But it does affect a lot of things large and small in their daily lives and long-term futures that heterosexual couples take for granted. Buying a house together. Having kids together. Paying taxes. Getting health insurance. Sending the kids to school. Growing old together. Visiting each other in the hospital. Saying goodbye. Every step in the journey of life is met by unnecessary hurdles and challenges, simply because of who they are.

Sound familiar?

Imagine if in the 1940s Minnesota had passed a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriages. Seems pretty absurd today. Well, in another couple of decades this constitutional amendment will look just as absurd — unless it passes tomorrow. Then it will endure as the law of the land. This is a civil rights issue, and on civil rights, though we have struggled mightily along the way, our nation has always moved forward, not backward. Let’s not start now.

Voter ID

The text of the question on tomorrow’s ballot pertaining to voter ID reads as follows:

“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?”

Seems logical and fair, right? Many of us, in fact, are quite surprised when we arrive at the polls and we don’t need to show a photo ID already. Instead, we simply state our name and address, the volunteer looks us up in a big binder, and we sign on a line next to our name, indicating we’ve shown up to vote already, so we can’t come back again later.

Curious. Why aren’t we required to show a photo ID to vote? And why shouldn’t we be? The answer is quite simple: Not everyone who has a right to vote has a photo ID. Senior citizens, full-time students, low-income residents who don’t own a car… these are just a few of the groups of people who do have a right to vote in Minnesota but may very well not have a valid form of state-issued photo identification.

But wait, you say, the text of the proposal specifically stipulates that the state must provide free photo ID to all eligible voters. Problem solved.

Great… how will that be implemented? What is the process for these citizens to properly identify themselves to obtain the ID? Where will they go to get their pictures taken (and how will they get there)? Who will pay for all of this? (“Free” is great but this is going to cost somebody some money, probably a lot.)

So here we have two arguments against the amendment already: 1) plenty of eligible voters don’t presently have a valid photo ID, and 2) the process by which those voters would obtain said ID is not specified, nor is there any consideration of the cost of this unfunded mandate.

But before we even bother addressing those two arguments, let’s go back to the beginning: ostensibly the goal of this amendment is to reduce voter fraud, specifically in-person voter impersonation (which, after all, is the only type of voter fraud photo ID could possibly prevent). Plenty of information has come forth this year indicating this type of fraud is “virtually non-existent”. This amendment is a solution in search of a problem.

So if voter impersonation is virtually non-existent, and photo ID would place an undue burden on both voters (at least, a subset of voters, who typically tend to lean heavily Democratic) and on state and local government (and, indirectly, on taxpayers, who would need to fund the process), then what really is the motivation behind this amendment?

In fact, what is the motivation behind both amendments?

What is the motivation behind these amendments?

Up to this point I have focused on the details and implications of the amendments themselves in explaining why I am against them, but I don’t think we can honestly discuss the nature of these amendments without addressing the climate in which they were created.

In 2010, as part of the “Tea Party” movement that swept over America in the midterm elections, Minnesota wound up with its first Republican-majority state legislature in… well, as long as I’ve been alive, at least. The Tea Party movement was ostensibly, like the Boston Tea Party which inspired its name, about taxation without representation, or at least something about taxes. Small government. The kind Grover Norquist wants to be able to drown in a bathtub. The kind that stays out of people’s private lives and just does what the government is supposed to do, which is… you know… the military, and… well, that’s about it.

Given the stated motives of the Tea Party, I find it curious then (OK, not really so curious, since I’m not so ingenuous) that the only readily apparent accomplishment of Minnesota’s Tea Party legislature in the past two years has been to foist these two stinking amendment proposals upon our state, which in my lifetime was still a bastion of 20th century midwestern progressivism. (When I worked downtown I would gaze with pride every day upon the statue of Hubert H. Humphrey in front of City Hall. The statue is life-sized, because Humphrey was a man of the people.)

Neither of these amendments has anything to do with what, as I understand it, the Tea Party movement — or small-government, libertarian-leaning Republicanism in general — is supposed to stand for. These amendments are regressive, invasive social engineering at its worst. Sure, you’re letting “the people” decide. That’s democracy, right? But with incomplete and deliberately misleading information, and only a simple majority needed to pass, the Tea Party has seized upon its brief window of opportunity in the legislature to push their backward-looking agenda through before it’s too late. They’re desperately trying to save a vision of a fading “golden age” in America that never really existed, unless you were upper-middle class, white, heterosexual and healthy.

And this is where these amendments come back to the presidential election, too. This year’s election is, perhaps more than any other — even 2008 — a fork in the road the country will take for the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. Are we moving forward, or are we moving back? That’s the choice we’re making tomorrow. But really, it’s a false choice. Because “back” isn’t there anymore. (And, honestly, it never was.)

To learn more about the VOTE NO movement for both amendments, please visit and

State GOP chair Tony Sutton’s faulty logic

“Something doesn’t smell right when you take control of the state house; you take control of the state senate; you win in the 8th Congressional District, and yet, somehow we don’t win the governor’s race.”

—Minnesota Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton*

I was planning to avoid much commentary on this year’s election, but I’m even more of a math/logic nerd than I am a liberal/progressive, and while I can (almost) shut my mouth about the Tea Party movement, I can’t let this glaringly erroneous logic go uncorrected.

First, Sutton makes two unfounded assumptions:

1. Supporters of Republican state house and senate candidates couldn’t possibly — possibly! — also vote for Mark Dayton.

2. Those same supporters of Republican state house and senate candidates couldn’t possibly — possibly!!!! — vote for Independence Party candidate Tom Horner for governor rather than Tom Emmer.

Let’s just talk math. Let’s go with that unfounded assumption that anyone who voted for a Republican for the state house would also necessarily vote for Tom Emmer, and anyone who voted for a Democrat for the state house would likewise necessarily vote for Mark Dayton. We’ll ignore the state senate and third-party candidates for now.

Let’s assume three house districts, each with 10,000 voters. And let’s assume the vote breakdown went something like this:

District GOP House DFL House Tom Emmer Mark Dayton
District 1 5,500 (55%) 4,500 (45%) 5,500 (55%) 4,500 (45%)
District 2 5,100 (51%) 4,900 (49%) 5,100 (51%) 4,900 (49%)
District 3 1,500 (15%) 8,500 (85%) 1,500 (15%) 8,500 (85%)
Statewide Total 12,100 (40.3%) 17,900 (59.7%)

In this scenario, the GOP house candidates narrowly won districts 1 and 2, while the DFL house candidate overwhelmingly won district 3. Still, the GOP outnumbers the DFL in this fictional 3-seat house by 2 to 1. And yet, the citizens in these three districts, all voting straight party tickets, handed Mark Dayton a decisive 59.7% majority victory in the statewide governor’s race.

This is fictional, simplified, and exaggerated, but it proves my point. And yes, I do believe that there’s some accuracy to this kind of breakdown. There are a few “deep red” districts in the state and a few very “deep blue” ones (mostly in the metro area), but most are fairly close to the middle.

In the actual vote, for instance, let’s compare two counties with roughly equal populations: St. Louis (home of Duluth) and Olmsted (home of Rochester). In St. Louis County, Mark Dayton received 61.8% of the vote; Tom Emmer, 28.6%. In Olmsted County, Tom Emmer received 45.9% of the vote; Mark Dayton 37.9%. So Mark Dayton “won” St. Louis County and Tom Emmer “won” Olmsted County. But saying either candidate “won” a particular county is irrelevant; this is a statewide office, and statewide totals are all that matters.

All it takes is a few districts with a very high proportion of Democrats to Republicans, and a lack of correspondingly skewed districts to compensate, and it’s quite easy, even imagining all voters voting a straight party ticket, to arrive at a scenario where the Republicans score a decisive takeover of the state legislature while still electing a Democratic governor (a statewide office).

The Minnesota inferiority complex (and major league sports)

Twins UnderdogI love maps. I love charts. I love rankings. I love comparing the quantitative differences between major cities. I don’t know why I love this stuff; I just do. So bear with me while I geek out on this a little.

Minnesotans (at least, I think it goes beyond me individually) sometimes have an inferiority complex, especially those of us who live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. We are a major city, the 16th largest metro area in the country. We have a diverse and strong economy, with a prominent national and international role in medical technology, arts and design, retail and manufacturing. We have an excellent arts community, and the highest number of theaters per capita of any American city besides New York. We have excellent parks and recreational opportunities. And, as I’ll get to in a minute, we have teams in all four major league sports (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL). In short, this is a great American metro area, and the gem of the upper Midwest.

And yet, we feel inferior. We feel inferior to Chicago. We feel ignored by the rest of the country, who think of this only as a place too cold to ever visit, much less live in. (Never mind the fact that in July and August this place can be unbearably hot, and we typically experience warm weather from April to October.)

I was reflecting on this today, partly as I marveled at the fact that the comparatively tiny city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, has managed to retain an NFL team since the league’s inception (though that’s mainly due to their unique ownership arrangements). I thought about how it always seems like our sports teams are the ridiculed underdogs, occasionally openly dismissed by sportscasters despite their successes. (I’m thinking particularly of the loathsome Cris Collinsworth and his generally disdainful commentary on the Vikings’ pair of ignoble defeats on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in recent weeks.)

I also think about this a lot whenever talk of one of our major league teams relocating comes up. There are frequent cries that this market is simply too small to sustain the teams it has. Never mind the fact that in every one of the leagues its four major teams participate in, Minneapolis-St. Paul is above the median market size (even ignoring Green Bay). We are one of only 13 markets with teams in all four sports. And I think we deserve to keep it that way. But I wanted to have a more complete picture of how the leagues and the markets they “live” in break down, so I created a table. I found the 50 largest metro areas in the country, and compiled data on the number of teams each has in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. I decided to throw in MLS too, since it’s growing rapidly in popularity (not that you’d know it around here). Here’s what I came up with:

Rank City Population NFL MLB NBA NHL MLS Total
1 New York, NY 19,006,798 2 2 2 3 1 10
2 Los Angeles, CA1 12,872,808 2 2 2 2 8
3 Chicago, IL 9,569,624 1 2 1 1 1 6
4 Dallas/Fort Worth, TX 6,300,006 1 1 1 1 1 5
5 Philadelphia, PA 5,838,471 1 1 1 1 1 (2010) 5
6 Houston, TX 5,728,143 1 1 1 1 4
7 Miami/Fort Lauderdale, FL 5,414,772 1 1 1 1 4
8 Atlanta, GA 5,376,285 1 1 1 1 4
9 Washington, DC 5,358,130 1 1 1 1 1 5
10 Boston, MA 4,522,858 1 1 1 1 1 5
11 Detroit, MI2 4,425,110 1 1 1 1 4
12 Phoenix, AZ 4,281,899 1 1 1 1 4
13 San Francisco/Oakland, CA3 4,274,531 2 2 1 5
14 Inland Empire, CA4 4,115,871 0
15 Seattle, WA5 3,344,813 1 1 1 3
16 Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN 3,229,878 1 1 1 1 4
17 San Diego, CA 3,001,072 1 1 2
18 St. Louis, MO 2,816,710 1 1 1 3
19 Tampa Bay, FL 2,733,761 1 1 1 3
20 Baltimore, MD 2,667,117 1 1 2
21 Denver, CO6 2,506,626 1 1 1 1 1 5
22 Pittsburgh, PA 2,351,192 1 1 1 3
23 Portland, OR 2,207,462 1 1 (2011) 2
24 Cincinnati, OH 2,155,137 1 1 2
25 Sacramento, CA 2,109,832 1 1
26 Cleveland, OH 2,088,291 1 1 1 3
27 Orlando, FL 2,054,574 1 1
28 San Antonio, TX 2,031,445 1 1
29 Kansas City, MO 2,002,047 1 1 1 3
30 Las Vegas, NV7 1,865,746 0
31 San Jose, CA 1,819,198 1 1 2
32 Columbus, OH 1,773,120 1 1 2
33 Indianapolis, IN 1,715,459 1 1 2
34 Charlotte, NC 1,701,799 1 1 2
35 Hampton Roads, VA8 1,658,292 0
36 Austin, TX 1,652,602 0
37 Providence, RI 1,596,611 0
38 Nashville, TN 1,550,733 1 1 2
39 Milwaukee, WI9 1,549,308 1 1 2
40 Jacksonville, FL 1,313,228 1 1
41 Memphis, TN 1,285,732 1 1
42 Louisville, KY 1,244,696 0
43 Richmond, VA 1,225,626 0
44 Oklahoma City, OK 1,206,142 1 1
45 Hartford, CT 1,190,512 0
46 New Orleans, LA10 1,134,029 1 1 2
47 Buffalo, NY 1,124,309 1 1 2
48 Birmingham, AL 1,117,608 0
49 Salt Lake City, UT 1,115,692 1 1 2
50 Raleigh, NC 1,088,765 1 1

An interesting list, and it led to a few surprising observations:

1. There are the “old” major cities and the “new” major cities. Strong representation among the major sports leagues — especially the older NFL and MLB — is more common among older, more established cities, even though they may be on the decline in recent decades, like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Kansas City. On the other hand, cities that have grown substantially in recent decades (even though they may be very old cities) typically either have no major league teams, or if they do, their teams tend to be in the newer (or more recently-expanded) NBA, NHL and MLS: cities like Las Vegas, San Antonio, Austin and Orlando.

2. Certain sports are more established in different regions. All of the sports seem to have their greatest representation in the oldest and most densely populated region of the country: the Northeast. But that area is especially well-represented in the NFL, whereas the NFL’s representation in the South is more sparse and newer — expansion teams like Jacksonville and Carolina — which may be due to college football’s comparatively strong popularity in the South. The rapid expansion of the NHL and NBA over the past 20 years has also led to more teams in markets in the South and West that have not typically been home to major sports franchises.

3. Major sports teams make a “major” city. Cities that have major league sports teams — especially those cities with multiple teams — seem bigger and more “important” than those that don’t, regardless of their relative populations. This is highly subjective, I realize, and maybe it’s just my own impression of those cities. But I think the frequent national exposure a city receives as a result of hosting a major team (especially an NFL team, as this is clearly the biggest “event” sport in the country today) creates a nationwide impression of that city as being major in a way that almost nothing else can. (Perhaps this is why we in Minneapolis-St. Paul fight so hard for our status as a “major league” city, and why our governor once compared a Vikings-less Minnesota unfavorably to Des Moines, Iowa.)

Consider for a moment your relative impression of Austin, Texas to that of Milwaukee. Which one seems like a more “major” city to you? Now compare their populations on the chart. Or, compare your impression of New Orleans to Providence, Rhode Island. (I think the fact that I feel compelled to name the state of the city without a major sports team in both of these examples says it all.)

It’s a big reason why all of the sports teams in Minnesota use “Minnesota” in their names instead of “Minneapolis.” Until the Wild arrived in St. Paul, it would have been accurate to discuss the Minneapolis Twins, Minneapolis Vikings and Minneapolis Timberwolves, but what would that do to St. Paul’s reputation and self-image? It’s bad enough as it is.

Addendum: After writing this post, I discovered a handy and closely-related chart on Wikipedia listing US and Canadian cities by number of professional sports teams. Of note: the only city in the United States that is not in this list of the top 50 but is home to a major sports team is, of course, Green Bay. Nine Canadian cities have at least one team in these “American” sports leagues (mostly NHL). There are a few variances in the population rankings comprising this list vs. those I used for my list. Some may be simply out-of-date, but others may be based on different interpretations of what constitutes a metro area. Most notable in this regard is that San Jose is typically considered part of the San Francisco Bay Area rather than a distinct metro area.


1 Los Angeles did, of course, have two NFL teams for many years, until the Raiders returned to Oakland and the Rams fled to St. Louis, of all places, after the 1994 season.

2 Detroit fascinates me for many reasons, not least of which being its ability to hang on to both its four major sports teams and its 11th place ranking (though it’s slipped from its one-time peak at number 3) among major U.S. metro areas.

3 San Francisco’s position at number 13, along with its lack of NHL and MLS teams, may appear somewhat arbitrary; I’ve typically seen San Jose lumped into the same Combined Statistical Area, bumping it up to sixth place and, along the way, giving it San Jose’s NHL and MLS teams.

4 The Inland Empire lacks any major sports teams, true. It also lacks any kind of cohesive center or place of relevance (beyond jokes about funny-sounding place names like Rancho Cucamonga) in the minds of anyone besides its residents. Having lived there myself (in Claremont and Upland) for a little over two years in the late ’90s, I take that personally. It is most especially ignored by those who live in the Greater Los Angeles Area west of the San Jose Hills.

5 I still can’t believe the Supersonics ended up in Oklahoma City. That’s crazier than the Rams going to St. Louis.

6 Denver’s the smallest city with full representation in the five major league sports. But given that Denver is the outpost of metropolitanism for several states — I can attest from first-hand experience that there are people in northeastern Montana whose “local” TV channels are the Denver affiliates — its radius of influence significantly exceeds its immediate physical region.

7 While it’s true that the rapid growth of the Las Vegas metro area over the past 20 years may explain its lack of major sports franchises, the reluctance of the leagues to become (ah-hem, openly) involved in the world of sports gambling is also a well-known factor.

8 Hampton Roads probably suffers mainly from an identity crisis. Officially known as the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News MSA, a name that doesn’t really roll off the tongue, Hampton Roads is one of the oldest established population centers in the country, but it doesn’t seem to have the requisite prominent central city to attach sports teams to. However, it does look like Norfolk has come close to acquiring at least one major team in recent years. (Unfortunately I lost that citation among the mountain of links I clicked on to compile this list.)

9 I never realized Milwaukee was so far down on this list. I guess that’s what having a well-known Major League Baseball team for decades will do for a city.

10 And I’m really surprised New Orleans is this far down on the list, even after the population drop in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.