Last week, the NFL’s Instagram account wished Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt a happy birthday, and he responded with a wish. “Gift idea hint: Get the Titans to give us the rights to the Houston Oilers throwback uniforms,” he wrote. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, similarly inspired, shared his own fantasy of wearing the Oilers’ blue and white. An online poll by KHOU found that 89 percent of its readers would like to see it happen. Teams regularly don throwbacks to honor their pasts, and the football past of Houston includes the Oilers.
It won’t happen. Amy Adams Strunk—daughter of Bud Adams, the man who founded the Oilers in 1960 and moved them to Nashville in 1997—told Titans beat reporter Paul Kuharsky that the prospect of the Texans playing in Oilers uniforms wasn’t even up for discussion. “Very interesting, except the Oilers don’t have anything to do with the Texans,” she said. “So that’s a hard no.”
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Strunk’s statement is correct from a legal perspective. The Texans and Titans are distinct businesses, each controlling their own intellectual property and trademarks. But what she said is also absurd. Of course the Oilers have something to do with the Texans—they’re both NFL franchises that have called the same city home. The people of Houston celebrated triumphs and mourned failures with each, investing emotionally and buying heaps of team logo-emblazoned merchandise along the way.
Yet when you own something, as Strunk’s family does the Oilers logos, uniforms, and colors, there’s plenty of incentive to remind people that it’s yours, and there’s little reason to acknowledge that someone else (in this case, the Houston community) might feel ownership of it too.
Sports franchises like to play their relationship with their home community both ways. When Bud Adams rechristened his team the Titans, he explained that he was giving them a new identity to reflect their new home. “This is going to be Tennessee’s team,” he said. In one significant way, this was undoubtedly true: the people of Nashville paid $80 million toward building a stadium—something Houston voters had refused to do—and they remain on the hook for millions of dollars’ worth of annual maintenance and upkeep costs. A 2017 study found that Nissan Stadium was in need of $477 million in improvements, although the specifics of who would pay for those are still undetermined. Given the Adams family’s history, folks in Nashville have reason to be concerned that, if they balk at paying for those upgrades, the commitment that the Titans are “Tennessee’s team” might turn out to be less than wholehearted. And the Adams family isn’t unique in this respect. Every professional sports franchise is keen to portray itself as a community asset, but many owners play hardball when it comes time to get stadium deals approved. Most often they threaten to skip town if their demands aren’t met.
In 1994, a wave of NFL relocations began when the Cleveland Browns decamped for Baltimore. The Raiders and Rams both left Los Angeles in 1995, and then the Oilers headed to Nashville. The city of Cleveland sued the Browns, and the two sides brokered a compromise. The Baltimore Ravens would be considered a new franchise, retaining the players and the organization, while the Browns would be reconstituted in time for the 1999 season, launching in Cleveland as an expansion club but retaining the history, records, and intellectual property of the original franchise. There were no such lawsuits to keep the Oilers legacy in Houston, but such arrangements aren’t uncommon. Whenever the NBA returns to Seattle, the city retained the rights to the SuperSonics name as part of the relocation agreement that birthed the Oklahoma City Thunder. A 2006 Minnesota law requires that the history and trademarks of the Twins remain in the state in the event that the team ever plays its baseball elsewhere.
It might be too late for Houston to pass a law or file a lawsuit to reclaim the Oilers, but that doesn’t mean bringing the team’s legacy, name, and colors back to Texas isn’t the right thing to do. It can be done. The Oilers situation has one close parallel—the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA. Like the Oilers, the Hornets were moved (to New Orleans in 2002) by the team’s owner after establishing a legacy in their hometown. Like Houston, Charlotte got an expansion team a few years later with a new identity, the Bobcats. After the New Orleans Hornets rebranded as the Pelicans in 2013, the two organizations and the NBA negotiated a return of the Hornets name to North Carolina. The Charlotte Bobcats were rechristened as the new Charlotte Hornets, and the team’s history, stats, and records came along with the trademarks.
An arrangement like that is possible, in other words, and it might go a long way toward easing the lingering resentment that Houston fans feel toward the Adams family. In 2012—fifteen years after the Oilers’ move—the Houston Chronicle asked readers if Bud Adams was the most hated man in Houston sports history, a question to which a whopping 85 percent responded in the affirmative. Even after Adams’s death in 2013, former Oilers offered only faint gestures of reconciliation to the man.
The McNair family, which inherited the Texans from founding owner Bob McNair, hasn’t commented on the potential for a return of the Oilers. But with two of the team’s star players and a large chunk of the fan base enthusiastic about the idea, it would be in their interest to consider working out a deal with the Titans, whether for a permanent return to the days of “Love Ya Blue” or a regular part of the Texans’ throwback rotation. From the Adams family’s perspective, meanwhile, reaching an agreement over intellectual property that you haven’t used in decades seems like a smarter business move than squatting on it indefinitely.
Arguing what billionaires should do with their assets isn’t really the point. Most likely, Oilers IP stays with the Titans, because that seems to be what their owners want. The bigger lesson in all of this is a reminder that communities should work to ensure that the owners of organizations into which fans invest abundant energy and emotion are, in turn, willing to pay back that investment in ways we don’t talk about nearly enough. Franchise owners tend to be happy to take the tax write-offs that come with contributing to local charities, or to proudly declare that any victories their team has achieved belong to the city. However, when they’re unwilling to grant the communities that have supported them even the rights to colors and logos, much of that talk feels hollow. The Oilers, in the end, belong to Amy Adams Strunk, just like they once belonged to her father. Everything else is just a myth that fans and owners agree to believe in when it suits them.