Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today signed a bill that effectively approved construction on a new football stadium in the City of Industry. This is truly a landmark day for those who have been yearning for the NFL to return to LA, myself included, since the Rams and Raiders left 15 years ago.
For years, the biggest hurdle to NFL football in LA was the lack of a stadium. The city government in Los Angeles was only willing to get behind the Coliseum, a site the NFL desperately did not want. City politics helped kill perfectly legitimate plans in places like South Park and Chavez Ravine. (The latter led Peter O'Malley to sell the Dodgers, which ultimately put us in the bizarre situation we're in today with the McCourts. For the record, I blame Mike Hernandez and Mark Ridley-Thomas for that, but that's a conversation for another day).
There's a laundry list of other failed stadium plans. A plan for the Raiders to move to Hollywood Park fell apart because Al Davis didn't want to wait for it to be built. A plan to renovate the Rose Bowl was rejected by the Pasadena City Council. A plan in Carson failed because partially because it was on a toxic waste dump. Other stadium proposals in Anaheim, El Segundo, and Lynwood never materialized.
But now, thanks to the incredible work of Ed Roski and Majestic Realty, we are as close as we've ever been to a modern football stadium in the greater L.A. area. Make that the state of California actually, as all three NFL teams in the state play in aging stadiums. I'd argue that today is also a victory for development and progress in California, as we showed that eight homeowners in Walnut are not enough to stop a project that will create jobs and benefit the region economically. In fact, those who are upset about the environmental exemption granted by the governor neglect to mention that the proposed LEED-certified stadium would actually be better for the environment than what would go there otherwise.
The biggest remaining hurdle now is getting a team to move here. Now that there is an actual stadium plan approved, expect relocation talks to get serious. The hope is that a team could move to the Coliseum or Rose Bowl in 2011, and the new stadium could be completed by 2013. Of course, relocation could be complicated by existing stadium leases and I am unsure what kind of deal Roski wants to work out in order give him at least some ownership stake in a franchise. There are seven teams that could potentially move to L.A. and I'll take a look at each of them.
San Francisco 49ers: The Niners are the least likely team to move among the seven. The team has been working for a long time on a new stadium in Santa Clara. It's possible that could fall through. But even if that were the case, the Niners are the dominant team in the Bay Area, there is a ton of history with the franchise, and one would reason that the Niners would exhaust every Northern California option.
Oakland Raiders: The organization is completely unstable right now, and it wouldn't surprise me if Al Davis were admitted to an insane asylum at some point. In the meantime, he's in a horrible stadium in Oakland with a lease that expires after the 2010 season. The NFL wants the Raiders to consider sharing a stadium in Santa Clara with the 49ers; however, the team has never given a definitive answer to that idea.
Rumors have persisted for years that anyone from Dean Metropoulos to Ed DeBartolo would like to buy the Raiders and move them south. Al Davis only owns 26% of the Raiders and he is not in great health, so anything could happen there. The Raiders also have as sizable a fan base any NFL team in L.A.
But part of the problem with the Raiders is their brand. When they played in the Coliseum, the Raiders name was synonymous with gang violence. Families stayed away from the Silver and Black. Players were afraid to let their kids attend their games in person. Even the NFL wouldn't allow Monday Night and Sunday Night games to be played at the Coliseum because they thought it wasn't safe.
It's true that USC football and continued development in the region has helped change the perception of the Coliseum and the surrounding area. But it will take a lot to change the perception of the Raiders. Perhaps a new owner with the right personality and the right marketing plan can make a difference, but it won't be easy.
San Diego Chargers: They might be in the best position to move of any team in the NFL. The Chargers can get out of their stadium lease if they're willing to pay a fee that decreases every year. They've been trying to get a new stadium in San Diego for a long time, and as far as I know, there aren't any serious proposals on the table. Still, it remains to be seen how much of a stake the Spanos family would be willing to give up, and at least publicly, they remain very committed to staying in San Diego. I think the NFL would like to keep a team there too, if possible.
Jacksonville Jaguars: If I'm NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, I'm looking at a team in a tiny market like Jacksonville that won't sell out a single home game this year on one coast, and I'm looking at an unserved market with 17 million people on the other coast, and I'd be wondering "how do I get them to move?"
I lived in Florida for two years, and I'd bet the Jaguars rank about fourth in the Jacksonville pecking order -- below Florida, Florida State, and Georgia college football. Certainly Jaguars attendance would bear that out, as the team appears to be nearing a crisis situation.
Moving the Jaguars to LA seems to make perfect sense. Even the name "L.A. Jaguars" has a nice ring to it. Unfortunately for LA though, Jacksonville has one of the toughest leases to break in the NFL. The team can only break its lease if it loses money for three consecutive seasons or if a judge determines that the city has not properly maintained the Jaguars' stadium.
On the first point, the Jags may very well be able prove financial losses at their current pace. But doing so would require the team to open its books to the public, something that sports teams almost never want to do, and the NFL might not even allow it. On the second point, the city has paid millions on improvements to the Jaguars' stadium, and it even hosted a Super Bowl as recently as 2005. Even if the Jaguars found a way to get out of their lease, they might have to pay up to $50 million in rent owed to the city in a lump sum.
The lease was negotiated by Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver, who is a Jacksonville guy and wants the team to stay. But he is also nearing 80 and has also openly talked about selling.
Perhaps a solution can be reached for the Jaguars to move to LA, especially since Jacksonville would appear to have little strategic value to the NFL. But for now, I still wonder why the league granted Jacksonville an expansion franchise over Baltimore and St. Louis back in 1993.
St. Louis Rams: I would absolutely love it if the Rams moved back to L.A. I grew up a Los Angeles Rams fan, and I have to admit -- as bizarre as this sounds -- that I miss them. TJ Simers recently wrote an article joking about how he didn't want the Rams back here because they're a terrible team right now. But good teams generally don't move, and in the NFL, bad teams can improve quickly. On-field performance is the least of my concerns right now.
The Rams have a storied history in Los Angeles, dating back to the days of Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Deacon Jones, Eric Dickerson, and Jackie Slater. Despite what Simers might argue, the name Los Angeles Rams has cachet in this city, and at least has a historical brand to sell.
The Rams have a clear out-clause in their stadium lease in 2014 and have a murky ownership situation. After Georgia Frontiere died, control of the team went to her children Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez. Rosenbloom has made it clear that he'd like to keep the Rams in St. Louis, although I'm not sure why. He lives in Los Angeles where he's a Hollywood producer who made the Shiloh the dog movies. Still, him and his sister have been fielding offers the 60% share of the Rams that they own (Rush Limbaugh's interest became very public), and it might be difficult to find a buyer who wants to keep the team in Missouri when it would figure to be more profitable in Los Angeles. Still, 2014 is a long time from now.
Minnesota Vikings: I would be surprised if the Vikings left Minnesota, but it's certainly plausible. The Vikings' stadium lease expires in 2011, and persistent efforts to build a new stadium have born no fruit. The organization has expressed clear frustration with the state legislature for several years now. If significant progress is not made soon, then Vikings will surely take relocation seriously.
Still, it's hard for me to believe that given the deep emotions Minnesotans feel for the Vikings, that the team would leave. They have a rich tradition in the Twin Cities. However, the same could have been said about the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, and they both found a way to leave. It would be interesting to have two Purple and Gold teams in L.A. that originated in Minnesota. Of course, if the team could always change its name if it moved here.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills are in a complex situation in Buffalo. The city is not what it once was, and it simply cannot support an NFL team. Bills owner Ralph Wilson recognizes this and has reached a deal to play several home games in Toronto each season until the team's lease expires in 2012.
Wilson just turned 91 though and has said he will not give the team to his children. That could leave the Bills for sale and open the doors for an L.A. buyer. Still, it's also possible that the team could wind up playing more games in Toronto, or even move there under a new owner. Additionally, Roger Goodell is from Western New York state and would like to keep a team there. If the Bills did move to L.A. though, then a name change might be a good idea.