HOUSTON -- Anyone coming to the Memorial City Mall in Houston to pick up a new pair of khakis on Tuesday or Wednesday this week will notice a bank of TV cameras and a handful of Raiders fans lingering on the sidewalk in front of the Westin Hotel on the mall's campus. What's going on is a gathering of the NFL's owners and league executives. They're here to finally decide whether the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams or some combination of those three teams is going to relocate to Los Angeles.
This is expected to be the final step in the process: Getting the approval from two-thirds of the league's 32 owners (or their designated representatives) on one of the relocation proposals being presented at this meeting.
The NFL's been trying to get a team in Los Angeles since 1994, when the Raiders and Rams both left. Until now, it's never gotten past the conversation phase. (Turns out, stadiums are really expensive and not all that easy to build). So what changed to get to this point?
How we got here
An empty Los Angeles market has been the league's best bludgeon for getting stadiums built in its existing markets. When the Vikings' owners couldn't get the Minnesota Legislature on board with a public financing plan, the Wilfs parked their private jet in Los Angeles, making sure that some television cameras saw it, to help get things moving again. But nobody could actually crack the nut to put together a viable stadium plan.
Until Rams owner and billionaire real estate developer Stan Kroenke.
In January 2014, Kroenke announced that he had bought the old Hollywood Park race track adjacent to the Forum in Inglewood. A year later, Kroenke and the Stockbridge Capital group announced plans to build a stadium there with the facility being the anchor to a multifaceted real estate development with retail, theaters, easy access to downtown Los Angeles and even a little campus for the NFL to house part of its growing media operation.
How surprised the league was with Kroenke's news depends on who you ask. The Rams owner says that he had been working with the NFL on the land deal prior to his announcement. Chargers owner Dean Spanos was taken aback by the news. He and Kroenke had discussed a potential cohabitation at the Inglewood site in 2013. Spanos was upset when Kroenke went solo with plans to relocate.
Not to be left out of the race, Spanos and Raiders owner Mark Davis teamed up and announced a plan for a joint stadium in Carson in Feb. 2015. Since then, the three home markets have all stepped up to push stadium plans, to varying degrees, but all three teams filed for relocation as soon as the window to do so opened earlier this month.
Though it may not look like it just reading the headlines, the NFL actually does have a process for teams relocating. It stems from Al Davis' successful departure from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982. The NFL unanimously denied Davis' bid to move. He did it anyway and sued the league to make it happen.
The reason teams move, or want to move, can be summed up in one word: stadiums. Those giant boxes where 80,000 fans get together on Sundays to fight, stab and urinate on each other are very profitable endeavors. They're also very expensive. The league and its teams expect some form of subsidy to build them, something taxpayers and political leaders are increasingly reticent to approve considering the economic benefits are negligible.
The most basic stipulation the NFL requires of a team looking to move is that it exhausts the efforts to build or renovate a stadium in its home market. Here's the crux of the league's official policy:
All clubs, at any time during their stadium negotiations, are free to seek the assistance of the League Office and the Stadium Committee, on either a formal or informal basis. If, having diligently engaged in good faith efforts, a club concludes that it cannot obtain a satisfactory resolution of its stadium needs, it may inform the League Office and the stadium landlord or other relevant public authorities that it has reached a stalemate in those negotiations. Upon such a declaration, the League may elect to become directly involved in the negotiations.
From there, a team must submit its official proposal for relocation. Their application to move must also include a "statement of reasons" for the proposed move. Kroenke's proposal to move the Rams infamously included a list of reasons that did not paint St. Louis in a very flattering light, pointing to a sagging local economy and a lack of fan support (for a team that's had exactly four winning seasons in 21 years, the last of which occurred 13 years ago).
Going Through Relocation
Going Through Relocation
The league evaluates the request. It looks closely at the efforts to resolve the stadium situations in those cities. It undertakes market studies and solicits public comment, in this case via a single town hall meeting in each of the three home markets facing relocation.
In considering the request, the league has a list of 12 factors it considers. In addition to the stadium efforts and economic situation of the team and markets, it also considers things like the team's footprint in the community, the size and loyalty of the fan base, etc.
If it sounds like a lot of boxes to check to prevent another Al Davis-like lawsuit and put forward a good public relations effort, well ...
The Chargers, Raiders and Rams
All three of these teams have something in common beyond their subpar results on the field. They can each boast to playing in three of the league's most outdated, dilapidated buildings. The Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis isn't falling apart, but it's outdated, lacking the kind of amenities (particularly the premium seating that makes an owner a lot of money) most facilities have these days. San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium is literally coming apart at the seams and sewage leaks onto the field at Oakland's O.co Coliseum.
The Rams got the sweetest deal in public financing ever offered to an NFL franchise when they moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles in 1994. Besides a lease that charged the team with a mere $500,000 per year in rent and upkeep, it also included a provision that created this current situation, stipulating the facility had to be among the league's "first tier" buildings by 2015. The team was free to break its lease if the Edward Jones Dome didn't measure up.
The Rams and the city's stadium authority went to arbitration in 2012 over the issue. The city proposed a series of renovations in the neighborhood of $150 million. The Rams submitted a total makeover for the Dome, estimated at $700 million.
Arbitrators sided with the Rams and the city's Convention and Visitors Commission, the Dome's landlord, declined the plan. The Rams were officially free to walk away from their lease ... and here we are.
Stadium efforts in San Diego have been going on for 14 years. Spanos' team can break its lease in San Diego for a nominal $15 million fee. The Raiders' attempts to get a stadium in Oakland haven't gotten anywhere, either, and they're a free agent on their lease like the Rams.
What is the NFL deciding on this week?
At this meeting in Houston, the league can either vote to approve the Carson stadium proposal as is, sending the Chargers and the Raiders to the Los Angeles market, or it can approve the Inglewood proposal for the Rams.
Neither of those outcomes is likely. Instead, the league will probably have to broker a deal in an attempt to appease all three owners and their allies in the room. The latest reports have the Chargers shaking up with the Rams at Inglewood, which is generally seen as the NFL's preferred venue because of what it offers for league events like the Super Bowl, the draft, Pro Bowl, etc.
Pairing up Spanos and Kroenke would probably require using some of the $550 million in relocation fees for both teams to help get a stadium solution for the Raiders. They'd also have to figure out a financial arrangement for the Inglewood stadium acceptable to Spanos.
There's even a chance the league punts, pushing the decision down the road by a week or two and possibly until next year. Chances for that seem slim. Delaying this for another year would turn three teams into lame ducks, leaving the team(s) left out to repair a badly damaged relationship with its fans.
What's going to happen?
We're still waiting to find out. Getting a franchise in Los Angeles significantly ups the league's financial outlook, not that it's hurting or anything. It's the nation's second largest market with a whole bunch of potential corporate sponsors. Now that there are viable stadium solutions on the table, the NFL doesn't have good a reason to wait any longer. Football is coming back to Los Angeles this year.
Sure, the playoffs are happening, but that's just one part of what this multibillion dollar sports entertainment conglomerate does. The real NFL action is happening across from a shopping mall in suburban Houston.