LA Wins the Rams, But the NFL Wins the Gold
The NFL followed the money all the way to Inglewood, California, Tuesday night, when the league's owners voted to approve the relocation of the St. Louis Rams back to greater Los Angeles. It's a tough break for the two other teams that were vying to move, the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. Yet by approving only one team's relocation for now, the decision allows both those franchises to continue using the LA threat as a bargaining chip to squeeze taxpayer dollars out of their current cities.
At the same time, however, the episode shows that cities -- or at least one as desirable as LA -- can stand up to teams and refuse to publicly fund new stadiums, and owners will still come running.
The vote was a surprise, given that just a few hours earlier a committee comprised of six of the league's most influential owners had recommended by a vote of 5-1 the joint Chargers/Raiders plan for a stadium in the town of Carson, after a pitch by Walt Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger. It seems Rams owner Stan Kroenke and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who championed the Inglewood plan, managed to shift the consensus dramatically in a secret vote, which tallied 30-2 in favor of the Rams by final count.
That was likely the outcome the commissioner's office was hoping for, based on the bottom line. With a net worth of $5.5 billion (and a wife, Wal-Mart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke, worth another $2.6 billion), Kroenke has among the deepest pockets in the league. He'll be privately financing the stadium, which could cost up to $2.66 billion, in addition to putting up the $550 million relocation fee. LA's public officials held fast in their refusal to fork over any money, a welcome change from the usual pattern of politicians bowing to sports owners. The city says it will pay a relatively small $180 million toward tax breaks on things like infrastructure, road improvements, security and shuttle buses. The plan also includes the development of an "NFL campus" in LA to house the league's expanding media operations.
There were other reasons the Inglewood plan was likely much more attractive to the league. Home to the Forum, the old arena of the Los Angeles Lakers, Inglewood has been approved for a new NFL stadium for 20 years now, while the Carson plan had to work out some kinks, mostly because it was to be built on a landfill. And despite the committee's recommendation for Carson, one person who saw both proposals told NBC Sports' Mike Florio that the owners were simply "blown away" by the Rams' plan: "Stan’s proposal was like watching Star Wars," while the Carson plan "was like watching a home movie from the '70s." The Carson stadium was estimated to cost $1.7 billion -- that's not home-movie money, but it apparently couldn't compete with the glitz Kroenke could offer.
For the next three seasons, the Rams will play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where the USC Trojans play, until the Inglewood project is completed in 2019. The Chargers will have until next January to negotiate with the Rams, at which point the Raiders will get priority. There's certainly no love lost between the Chargers and the Rams; in 2013, Chargers owner Dean Spanos reportedly approached Kroenke about going in on an Inglewood development together. Kroenke, previously unaware that the land had been available, spurned Spanos and bought it for himself -- from Wal-Mart. It's clear from Kroenke's behavior through this entire process, validated by the owners' vote, that any team that would join him would be far from an equal partner -- a guest in its own house.
It might be little comfort at the moment, but St. Louis fans mourning the loss of their team (back to its previous home) should take some solace in the fact that they won't be held hostage for the $477 million the city was willing to throw at Kroenke to stay in a place he apparently didn't really like anyway. In the relocation application, the Rams took shots at the St. Louis market as one that "will continue to lag" and send any NFL team that stays to "financial ruin." It also contended that the city is "unable to sustain three professional sports teams" -- an idea which, in order to buy into, one would have to also believe that there's a single city in America in which pro hockey is more viable than pro football. And nowhere in the screed against St. Louis does the team acknowledge that Rams fans have been as loyal as one can expect to a squad that hasn't had a winning record in more than a decade. As ESPN's Trey Wingo notes, since 2011, the Rams have fewer regular-season wins (29) than the city's baseball team, the Cardinals, have playoff wins (32).
Now the Chargers and Raiders have to scramble. The Jones-backed plan reportedly had the Chargers joining the Rams in Inglewood, though the team had said before Tuesday it had "zero interest" in the project. That's probably going to change, at least in public -- the Chargers can now negotiate for some kind of partnership with the Rams while using their potential move to Inglewood as leverage to get a more amenable offer from San Diego. Meanwhile, the city of Oakland has pretty much had zero interest in engaging the Raiders on a new stadium. Vice Sports' Neil DeMause suggests an intriguing scenario: If there's no hope of moving to LA, why wouldn't the cash-strapped Raiders talk to the city officials from St. Louis who were willing to throw a half billion dollars at Kroenke? The NFL says it will kick in only a paltry $100 million to both the Chargers and the Raiders should they decide to build new stadiums in their current cities.
Today, a fan base is at a loss while the NFL's owners wait to reap the gains from voting with their wallets, as Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman put it. But perhaps there's a silver lining. For 20 years now, the threat of a Los Angeles relocation has been used to force cities into doling out of millions in stadium subsidies -- poor investments shown to have no long-term positive impact on the local economy. Now that the vacancy in Southern California has been filled, that threat is eliminated. As the Guardian's Lee Carpenter points out, since the Rams and Raiders left LA in 1994, public money has partially funded stadiums for 22 of the 32 NFL teams, to the tune of at least $4.7 billion. "An LA without football has always been worth more to the league than an LA with a team," he writes.
In terms of public dollars, he may well be right. We're about to see just how valuable football in LA could be. But given the reputation of LA sports fans, the Rams might want to work on fielding a team that can at least win more games than the Dodgers will in October.
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