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A history of professional sports in Hampton Roads
A history of professional sports in Hampton Roads

By Harry Minium
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 23, 2012

Perhaps the best known professional sports team in the region, the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association, dates to the 1970s.

The team played in Norfolk and Hampton, and also played some games in Richmond and Roanoke. It had some of the biggest names in basketball -- Julius Erving and George Gervin -- but attendance plummeted when owner Earl Foreman sold those players to make ends meet.

The team played six seasons and was folded by the league in 1976, weeks before an NBA-ABA merger finally happened.

Norfolk made contact with the NBA in the 1990s, but there was no major effort to bring a team here until 1996, when Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn attempted to bring a National Hockey League expansion team to the region.

Norfolk agreed to finance much of a $142 million downtown arena. The Hampton Roads Rhinos, as the team would have been known, failed to garner support from the NHL, which instead awarded franchises to four other cities.

Shinn decided in 2001 to move his Hornets and narrowed his choices to Norfolk and New Orleans. Norfolk put a $215 million arena on the table and had a $40 million naming rights deal with Smithfield Foods. But late in the game, the state of Louisiana sweetened the deal, guaranteeing the Hornets a profit.

Norfolk could not match that deal and the team went south. Shinn was also put off by the prospect of playing two seasons at Scope while a new arena was being constructed.

Since then, Norfolk has spent $11.4 million to spruce up Scope, including replacing all of its seats, the lighting system and scoreboards.

In 2004, a local group attempted to bring the Montreal Expos to Norfolk. They began a season ticket drive and cut a deal with the city to build a 38,000-seat baseball stadium on the Norfolk waterfront. Norfolk's effort was a longshot, and the Expos, as expected, became the Washington Nationals.

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