How The NFL Is Using Los Angeles As A Bargaining Chip

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Chris Park)

On Monday, a committee formed by San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer unveiled a plan to build a $1.1 billion stadium to keep the city’s NFL team, the Chargers, in town. The plan calls for roughly $647 million in direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies, meaning the public will be on the hook for more than half of the stadium’s proposed cost.

Though it’s unclear exactly how the city and county plan to pay for the stadium — most of the cost will come from general revenues, part will come from a land sale — the committee promised there would be no new taxes, a guarantee it made in part to stave off the requirement of a public vote. What is clear, however, is that the ongoing rumblings that as many as three NFL teams are interested in moving to Los Angeles, the city that has been without an NFL franchise since 1994, are having their intended effect of greasing the wheels for cities to hand over taxpayer money for new stadiums.

San Diego was the second such city to unveil hastily-drawn stadium plans under the threat of losing its team to Los Angeles. Last month, a task force in St. Louis proposed building a new stadium for the Rams, another team threatening to leave for LA. Similar to San Diego, the details of how the city, county, and state will finance the stadium are fuzzy — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the payment plan as an exercise in “creativity and hope.” The only guarantee in St. Louis, as in San Diego, is that taxpayers will bear the brunt of the cost: as much as $400 million could come from the public. (The third city facing relocation threats, Oakland, is still laboring through the process of coming up with a formal proposal, though the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that stadium talks may be all but dead.)

Though it certainly seems the Raiders, Rams, and Chargers are interested in a potential move to LA, whether the NFL is actually serious about having a team in the Los Angeles area is hard to judge. The league doesn’t need America’s second-largest city to continue its revenue growth, so keeping it vacant so it can serve as a bargaining chip in these types of negotiations has its benefits: namely, that LA can continue to serve its primary purpose of getting the public to foot the bill for lavish new stadiums somewhere.

The NFL, as previously noted, has played this game before, when top officials and members of its relocation committee began chattering about Los Angeles while the Minnesota Vikings were seeking a new stadium in 2012. Goodell himself flew to Minneapolis to warn state legislators that LA was a viable — if not ideal — option, and soon after, lawmakers approved a deal to finance the Vikings’ new stadium (that decision hasn’t turned out well for taxpayers so far).

Goodell might not have been speaking in front of lawmakers at his spring meetings press conference Wednesday, but he was sending a similar message. Asked about Los Angeles, he noted that there is “significantly” more progress on a potential relocation than in years past, while also making sure to say that he and the NFL want to give local markets a chance to present their own proposals. He spoke directly to the situation in Oakland, saying that while the league doesn’t have a deadline in mind, “this is not a new issue here,” and that “we do need need to have a proposal…about how they’re going to keep the Raiders.”

Combined with anonymously-sourced reports from this week about increasing “momentum” in the Los Angeles situation (while, typically, noting a deadline that gives the cities in question enough time to act), it sends the same old message: the cities have time, but if they continue to reject or delay proposals in the name of trying to craft a deal that suits the broader public’s interest rather than those of an already-wealthy owner, Los Angeles is there waiting.

Forget the fact that there are unanswered questions about how these proposals could affect city and county budgets, that they could come far short of fantasy revenue projections and cause major budget problems. Forget that they could lead to the further neglect of homelessness or other important city-wide issues. Forget that exerting this kind of pressure could only lead to worse deals for the cities that make them. Goodell may say, as he did Wednesday, that the NFL wants deals that are “good for both the community and good for the Raiders,” but recent experiences (like Minnesota and Cincinnati) and even the quickly-conceived nature of these plans show that isn’t true.

What Goodell and his owners want are deals that are good for Goodell’s league and its owners, and whatever happens, they will likely win. Whether in St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland or in Carson, Inglewood, and (maybe) San Antonio, the league and its teams will get their subsidies and their stadiums too, because as these recent “plans” show, Los Angeles’s primary utility is still that it is a particularly strong tool for helping the league’s owners get exactly what they want.