Montana does not have a single major league professional sports team and is one of 24 U.S. states that does not have any teams in one of the professional sports leagues in football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer. But why are there no Montana Professional sports teams?
I wanted to learn more about why this was so, what minor league teams currently play here, and what has been the history of professional sports in Montana.
1. How do we define a professional sports team?
The four major U.S. professional sports leagues are the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League. Major League Soccer could be added to this list as it secures more of a popular foothold in the U.S.
There are a total of 151 Major League sports franchises (MLB, NHL, NFL, NBA & MLS) across 52 cities in the United States and Canada.
2. Why does Montana not have a professional sports team?
Montana’s size and population works against successfully obtaining a major sports franchise. Distances are far and the smaller size of the main cities is not sufficient to draw interest in establishing a franchise that would be considered economically feasible for the owners.
In looking at specific leagues, the NFL is not currently expanding and would look at larger cities first that don’t have a football team. Montana’s extended period of cold weather and short summers work against having a MLB franchise unless the cost of a domed stadium could be handled.
Then the hockey and basketball leagues have teams play multiple games weekly, and ticket prices could be an issue to fill a new stadium sufficiently to be economically viable.
3. What other “minor” league professional sports franchises are currently in Montana?
Although there are not any of the major league franchises, there are Montana professional sports teams in the form of minor leagues in several sports. Minor league players are paid a salary, so they are indeed professionals in their sport.
- The Pioneer League is a baseball league covering the western states of Montana, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado that currently fields three teams from the state, the Billings Mustangs, the Great Falls Voyagers, and the Missoula PaddleHeads, previously known as the Ospreys through the 2019 season.
- As for minor league hockey, Montana currently has three teams, the Great Falls Americans, the Bozeman Icedogs, and the Helena Bighorns, all of which compete in the North American 3 Hockey League.
4. How well established are the Pioneer League Baseball franchises in Montana?
The immediate future of minor league baseball in Montana was preserved after a recent agreement between MLB and the Pioneer League took effect. In 2021 the Pioneer League became an independent professional partner league.
This replaced a 30-year agreement that expired in 2020 which provided the Pioneer League with MLB affiliate league status, whereby each team was directly associated with a Major League Club.
All eight members of the Pioneer League—including the Billings Mustangs, the Great Falls Voyagers, and the Missoula Paddleheads— will continue playing in the league under their existing team names.
Prior to the new agreement, Billings was affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds from 1974-2020, Great Falls was a Rookie Affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, and Missoula a Rookie Affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Great Falls was previously associated with the Giants, Dodgers and White Sox, and changed their team’s name with each change of affiliation before becoming the Voyagers in 2008, named for the Mariana UFO incident from 1950.
MLB will provide initial funding for the league’s operational expenses, install scouting technology in the ballparks and have procedures for player transfers to MLB Clubs.
5. Are there plans for other professional sports teams?
Yes, there have been plans announced for Montana to field teams in both hockey and indoor football in 2022.
- Billings will add a new professional hockey franchise next year. The as-yet-unnamed team is expected to begin play in the new Western Professional Hockey League in October of 2022. The league will consist of eight teams in its inaugural season.
- The Billings Outlaws will be the city’s Champions Indoor Football team, which will begin play in March 2022. A team of the same name had previously played in several Indoor Football Leagues from 2000-2010.
6. Which professional sports teams have previously been based in Montana?
- The Montana Golden Nuggets played from 1980-1983 in the Continental Basketball Association, the top minor league for the NBA at the time. Ex-San Antonio Spurs guard George Karl coached the Golden Nuggets all three years, leading the team to the 1981 and 1983 CBA championship series and being named the league’s Coach-of-the-Year in both seasons.
- The Billings Volcanos began play in 1980 and folded in the summer of 1983. The Volcanos relocated from Honolulu, Hawaii, hence the odd name for a team based in Montana!
- The Butte Daredevils were a CBA team named after daredevil Butte native Evel Knievel. They folded in 2008.
- The Great Falls Explorers were a CBA team named after the explorers Lewis and Clark. They also folded in 2008.
- The Montana Sky played one year in the short-lived Western Basketball Association, both in existence only from 1978-79.
- The Helena Phillies were formed in 1978 as part of a two-team expansion of the Pioneer League along with the Butte Copper Kings. They were a farm club of the Philadelphia Phillies but finished last in their division from 1981-83. The Phillies did not extend their agreement with the Helena franchise after the 1983 season.
- A new Helena franchise, known as the Gold Sox, replaced the Phillies for the 1984 season. The team’s name referred to gold miners who often stuffed gold in their socks while prospecting. In late 1984, the team became affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers, and renamed themselves the Helena Brewers before the start of the 1987 season. In 2019, the team moved to Colorado Springs and became the Rocky Mountain Vibes.
- The Butte Copper Kings were also a Pioneer League team, finishing their days as the Rookie affiliate of the Anaheim Angels. In 2001 the team moved to Wyoming and became the Casper Rockies.
- The Billings Marlboros of the semi-pro Continental Hockey League played one season in 1985-86.
- The Montana Magic were a Billings-based minor league hockey team that played only one season before folding in 1984 along with the rest of the Central Hockey League.
- Billings has also been home to other hockey teams — the Billings Blazers of the minor league Southwest Hockey League (1975-77) and the Billings Bighorns of the major junior Western Hockey League (1977-82).
- The Billings Bulls were a junior ice hockey organization also based in Billings. It joined the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) as part of the Frontier Division. At the beginning of the 2017–18 NA3HL season, the Bulls franchise folded due to lack of players.
- The Butte Irish were a U.S. Junior A hockey team playing in the America West Hockey League from 1996-2002. The Butte Roughriders were a junior hockey team playing in the Northern Pacific Hockey League from 2003-2010.
The Billings Wolves were a team in the Indoor Football League, the city’s first team since the Billings Outlaws went out of business in 2010. The Wolves franchise folded in 2016 after two seasons.
Although there are no current Montana professional sports teams in the major sports leagues, they do provide minor league sports in the Pioneer baseball league for fans in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula, and minor league hockey teams in Great Falls and Bozeman.
Plans have been announced for a new hockey franchise in Billings, and indoor football will be returning to Billings in 2022.