Sports

The Real Reason The NFL Keeps Talking About Moving A Team To L.A.

CREDIT: AP

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

The National Football League is again banging the drums about wanting to regain a foothold in Los Angeles, a city that hasn’t been home to an NFL franchise since the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams packed up and left 20 years ago this Christmas. Last week, ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reported, via a “league source,” that the NFL’s “current plan” is to “send one or two teams back to Los Angeles within the next 12 to 24 months.”

In theory, a move to Los Angeles makes sense. It is the nation’s second largest city and thus its second largest media market, and every other major sport has at least one team in LA or the sort-of surrounding areas. That the NFL hasn’t had a team there for two decades now is seemingly odd from a business standpoint. Which is why it’s easy to take it as gospel, as Florio (“The Bills won’t be moving to Los Angeles. But someone will. Fairly soon.”) and plenty of others have.

But this should not be taken as gospel — not yet, anyway — because right now Los Angeles is best understood not as a potential destination for an NFL franchise, but as an exceptionally large bargaining chip to help the NFL get what it wants. Namely, new stadiums in St. Louis, Oakland, and San Diego.

The NFL enjoys throwing new cities into the mix in an effort to get its way. It has tossed around London as a future site for relocation repeatedly, despite the logistical concerns that would pose, and the Raiders have already started courting San Antonio as a way to gain leverage in Oakland (this is, of course, not unique to the NFL). And the NFL played the Los Angeles card to get what it wants before. In April 2012, as talks between the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota state government about new stadium lagged, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell got on a plane and visited state legislators himself. A public funding plan had stalled in a legislative committee, and Goodell urged the legislators to reconsider. The commissioner said afterward that no threats had been made about a move to Los Angeles, but the possibility was there.

“One of us — a legislator — brought the subject up,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said at the time. “(The NFL) said they would like to have a team in Los Angeles (and) they would like to have it not be the Vikings.”

Goodell’s message was clear: approve funding for a stadium, and your team won’t be the next one to try to find success in Los Angeles. A month later, the legislature approved the funding for a new stadium.

The situation today is not much different. The Rams, Raiders, and Chargers are all seeking new stadiums, and relocation — to Los Angeles or elsewhere — is an easily fathomed possibility. The Rams are on a year-to-year lease for now but can leave without paying a penalty after 2015. The Raiders’ lease ends after this season. The Chargers need only pay a relocation fee that gets cheaper with each passing year. And after taking some time off from holding Los Angeles over other cities’ heads, the league is back to running its favorite play.

After Minnesota approved the funding for the Vikings stadium (which immediately turned into a financial disaster), the NFL didn’t turn its attention away from L.A., even if it slightly slowed down the process. In June of that year, Goodell sent a memo to owners telling them that the league would control the relocation process, and that even though the stadium outlook in Los Angeles had progressed, teams should exhaust their options with their current cities before looking toward L.A. as a possibility. A month later, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, the chair of the league’s stadium committee, said that the league was still looking to be back in Los Angeles within five years — far from the sense of imminence conveyed in Minnesota. That timeline and the memo seemed to send a message to cities: you have the chance to negotiate, but if nothing gets done, you just might lose your team.

After a year without progress, Los Angeles popped up again. In July 2013, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose son Steven also sits on the stadium committee, said that the league was “closer than ever” to going back to L.A. Two weeks before, the St. Louis city council had formally rejected the Rams’ proposal for a new, publicly-financed stadium.

None of the situations has improved since. St. Louis still doesn’t seem any closer to a financing plan for a new stadium or renovations to the Edward Jones Dome than it was a year ago. Despite rumors of agreements in principle, there is still no deal in place in Oakland, which is now openly exploring other cities. The Chargers renewed talks with the city this spring, but they are still facing skepticism from the public and haven’t gotten anywhere — and likely won’t any time soon. And so back comes the NFL with another timeline, dropping hints that it could be ready to make its triumphant return to the City of Angels within “12 to 24 months.” Given the relocation process, that means franchises that want to move need to start preparing soon.

If the report was designed as a signal to those communities that they better get going lest they lose their team, the media made sure the message got across: outlets in San Diego, St. Louis, and across the country trumpeted the insider-sourced report as a sign that the NFL was growing ever more serious about Los Angeles as an option at the same time their cities still hadn’t completed new deals to keep their teams around.

“L.A. stadium smoke alarming for Bolts,” a U-T San Diego headline blared, with the accompanying column arguing that “this isn’t Chicken Little,” and that the presence of competition — the Raiders and Rams — means the Chargers may need to make a decision on L.A. sooner rather than later. In Oakland, there were reports that the Raiders are willing to switch divisions if that’s what it takes for them to get to be included in the L.A. plans. In St. Louis, where concern about the Rams leaving is already a regular story, the St. Louis Business Journal noted plainly that “the Rams are on the short list” of L.A suitors.

It’s not even clear, though, that Los Angeles is ready for a team. Developer AEG secured a deal to build a football stadium in the city, but said it wouldn’t start construction until it guaranteed a team would come. That project is now nearing its deadline — AEG is supposed to have a deal with the NFL by Oct. 17 — and though the company is seeking an extension from the city to continue negotiations with the league, the NFL admits that negotiations are in the preliminary stages, where they have stalled before. There are two other possible sites, including one owned by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, but those are similarly murky situations. Even NFL owners can’t decide whether Los Angeles is a serious contender.

The NFL maintains that it is committed to bringing a team back to Los Angeles, and that may be true. More likely, though, is that Los Angeles is a way to get cities to act and that the league prefers the outcome its threats achieved in Minneapolis: new stadiums in existing markets, paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers who don’t want to see their football teams leave. In this way, Los Angeles is valuable to the NFL without being an actual home. It gives the league a threat to tell cities that paying for new stadiums is the way to keep professional football, all while it banks on the idea that none of them want to find out if this is all a big bluff.