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Louis Bien | September 2, 2015

NFL relocation can't be stopped because you care too much

The NFL is headed back to Los Angeles, no matter how many hearts it breaks in the process.

Ray Perez is Dr. Death. Dr. Death is the Oakland Raiders. The Oakland Raiders are everything to Perez, who has been advocating ceaselessly to keep the team in Oakland while attending school at Sacramento State. Dr. Death isn't an alter ego, but an extension of Perez himself, a silver, black and dagger'd face of the movement to retain the team. He has traveled back and forth from Sacramento to Oakland to speak with politicians and developers, and is in contact with officials at least every other day. He hasn't slept much.

"My grades took a hit, because that's how indulged I've been, and that's how much this stadium situation has taken over," says Perez -- Death. "I've been front and center, and people know me as Dr. Death, this guy who is fighting to keep the team here, and I get personally attacked on social media, like, 'You're dumb, you're stupid, you don't know what you're talking about,' to, 'Thank you so much for doing so much for us.'"

The good thing about the stress is that it isn't for naught. Perez has confidence, though tempered, that the Raiders will remain in Oakland.

That's more than fans will say in St. Louis, according to Michael Morhaus, a CPA who is still holding onto his seat licenses even though his father, upset at the product on the field, got rid of his two years ago. Morhaus has been taking the temperature of the fanbase through multiple conversations. Almost everyone is certain that owner Stan Kroenke would rather be in Los Angeles. Only Morhaus' neighbor is optimistic -- "he's at 51 percent thinking that they'll stay."

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"My dad and I used to go to the games all the time, back when you could walk around better," Morhaus says. "It was first row, 35-yard line. We were right behind the offensive line and the Gatorade, so I could literally see Jim Hanifan going over the printouts with Orlando Pace and the rest of the offensive line, and I was 30 feet from Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce."

Morhaus says he'll always be a Rams fan -- "Until they leave."

The Chargers have had the most protracted battle for a new stadium of the three teams up for relocation. Over the last 14 years, the team has wrestled with the city to get a facility in downtown San Diego. When Kroenke bought land in Inglewood, the Chargers, fearing they'd lose the Southern California market, quickly pushed forward plans for a stadium in Carson that could be shared with the Raiders.

That stung Chargers fans. Andy Glickman works as a creative development manager for an online learning company in L.A., but his heart is in San Diego and the Chargers are his team. He hates Los Angeles with a passion. He says that owner Dean Spanos is attracted to L.A. like a man in a stale marriage might be attracted "to the hot stripper down the street." The stadium debate is affecting Glickman's health.

"I was getting headaches, like migraines, and I couldn't figure out what it was," Glickman says. "And then I bolt up at night, in my sleep, thinking about, you know, 'Those fuckers aren't even paying attention to the-- ' that's when I realize that ... 'Oh my god, that's what's creating stress headaches.'"

Andy Glickman & son

Los Angeles is a specter to these fans, something that has wriggled into their heads by its mere possibility. Nobody likes it, everyone respects it. It's admittedly cool, undeniably big, and likely a profitable place to play football even if attendance, much less passionate and long-term attendance, isn't as guaranteed as front offices would like you to believe. Los Angeles has had plenty to fill the the NFL void the last two decades -- the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Dodgers, Angels, Trojans, Bruins and Galaxy -- and fans have plenty of other things to do if wins are scarce.

L.A. will enjoy its new toy, to be sure, but the cost will be tears.

Former Cleveland Browns running back Earnest Byner remembers when the players were informed in a team meeting that the franchise would be moving to Baltimore, the pin-drop silence -- they were shocked -- and the immediate acceptance of the situation. The players didn't protest. Nobody spoke up. They did, however, bear the brunt of the city's heartache.

"It was after a game and I was leaving, trying to get to the car, and this lady was talking to me about the team, and, I mean, she was crying," Byner says. "I just, I just ended up holding her and having her head on my shoulder. I felt the pain. I mean, I wasn't in her place, but I just knew she was hurting, you know?"

Players have the best view of the relocation process, nestled between ownership and fans. They know lots of tales of overwhelming dedication. Houston Oilers kicker Al Del Greco was prepared for the move to Tennessee -- he had relocated once before, from St. Louis to Arizona with the Cardinals -- but to do so he had to leave behind a dedicated group of 15 fans that had been outside the locker room at every game at the Astrodome, and at the Houston airport to see the team take off and land whenever it traveled.

Former Raiders and Rams linebacker Mike Jones recalls Raiders fans in the Bay Area coming to see him play for the Sacramento Surge in the World League right after his innocuous first season as an undrafted rookie ... three years before the team moved back to Oakland.

Two memories will always stick with Rams legend Isaac Bruce: The warm and loving embrace of Rams fans when football returned to St. Louis, and, conversely, the fights in the stands when the Rams and Raiders played each other in Los Angeles.

"I was kind of in awe because I had never seen anything like that,"  Bruce says. "I went to Memphis and we probably averaged about 40,000. You had well over 50,000 people, people pledging their allegiance to their team and willing to fight about it. So for me to just see that in the stands, I was kind of shocked.

"It was something totally new to me."

Football is a business. Players accept that notion quickly because it's vital to their livelihood. Fans ostensibly know it, too, but it's hard to reconcile how they use sports with what an owner might call an "experience" or "product." Sports, to fans, are an escape, a way to bond and an identity. However the Raiders, Rams and Chargers may portray their stadium efforts -- the purported economic benefits and promises to inject vitality into the community -- make no mistake that they know what their leverage truly is. In their bids for new stadiums, it's the fanbases that are being held for ransom.

Michael Morhaus

• • •

From 1992 to 2003, 17 of the NFL's 32 teams built new stadiums, largely on promises of economic growth. From 1991 to 2004, 78 stadiums were built across the United States' four major pro leagues -- the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB -- using 61-percent public funding, according to Reuben Fischer-Baum for Deadspin. The NFL took public funding more heavily than other sports. That trend has only slightly decreased over time, with public funding making up 56 percent of the total costs of new NFL stadiums and renovations from 1997 to 2015, according to the Minnesota Convention, Leisure & Tourism Association. City officials launched effective campaigns to explain to the public why it was in their best interest to give their tax dollars to team owners.

In a 2003 book, Private Stadium, Public Dollars, Rick Eckstein and Kevin Delaney spoke with some of the most influential people involved in bids to build new stadiums in various cities. One business executive in Hartford, Conn., told them how building a new stadium for the New England Patriots would put "feet on the street." A public official in Pittsburgh said that a new baseball park would put "heads in beds."

If teams and city officials couldn't sway the public with handy mnemonics, they'd appeal to their sense of civic pride, sometimes warning that the city would fall off a social and economic cliff. In Cleveland, they warned that it could become the next Akron, in Cincinnati they warned of becoming Louisville, in Denver they warned of becoming Omaha.

A recent estimate by journalist Neil deMause estimated $20 billion in subsidies to big four sports teams from 1990 to 2011. Nearly across the board, pro sports teams did not come close to returning the investment. And quality of life improvements claimed by the franchise were "a load of crap," Eckstein wrote to me.

He continued:

"Los Angeles has been doing just fine without football for the last decade; there has not been a mass exodus from Seattle after the Sonics left; the Long Island suburbs will not go vacant with the Islanders moving to Brooklyn, just as they survived the Nets leaving; Montreal has shown no ill effects after losing the Expos while the Nationals decidedly did NOT put DC 'on the map'" ...

An economist at Lake Forest College named Robert Baade published seminal research on the economic impact of pro sports franchises on cities. In 1994, he found that, among 30 cities that had built new stadiums between 1958 and 1987, there had been no measurable economic impact in 27 of them, and a negative economic impact in the other three.

Others corroborate Baade's premise. Mark Rosentraub, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, found in 1997 that pro teams, on average, account for just 0.2 percent of a city's total employment. Charles Euchner, author of Playing the Field: Why sports teams move and cities fight to keep them, and Alex Fynn, a British author who has written extensively about Arsenal, separately determined that a pro sports team provides roughly the same economic benefit to a community as a large supermarket. In the 1990s, Fynn found that Premier League soccer clubs averaged less revenue than each of Tesco's 20 largest stores.

Studies conducted by teams themselves contradict economists, of course, but their methodology is suspect. For example, deMause pointed out a study done by a consulting firm that claimed that $325 million in public spending on the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington would generate $238 million a year in economic activity:

Critics immediately pointed out that this merely totaled up all spending that would take place in and around the stadium. Hidden deep in the report was the more meaningful estimate that Arlington would see just $1.8 million a year in new tax revenues while spending $20 million a year on stadium subsidies.

The massive difference in accounting has much to do with something called the "substitution effect." Money spent on games means money that isn't spent doing other activities within the city. Because families have limited entertainment budgets, judging the economic benefit of a stadium based solely on revenue can be misleading. Eckstein and Delaney suggest that the ancillary impact is actually negative, because businesses want to get away from stadiums and save themselves from excessive noise, crowds and dearth of parking.

And no, society does not crumble when teams leave, deMause tells me.

"Do sales tax receipts go down? No. Does per capita income go down? No. Do job numbers go down? No."

The best argument for keeping teams in town is that sports arguably make a positive impact on a population's quality of life, but even that claim is rife with problems.

"Clearly if all the teams were to move out of my city, I would consider it a detriment to my quality of life," deMause says with a laugh. "The question then is, how do you put a price on that?"

Measuring a city's quality of life -- its happiness, essentially -- is nigh impossible, and attempts by some teams wouldn't pass the loosest standards test. Eckstein recalls being told "bike messengers noticed people around town smiling more" as justification for Cleveland's Gateway Project.

The intangible benefit of sports teams is probably greater than zero, but if you put a price on it it'd be much less than teams demand for new stadiums. DeMause points out one study published in 2005 by Bruce Johnson, Michael Mondello and John Whitehead that asked citizens of Jacksonville how much they would pay to keep the Jaguars based on their own personal valuations. It came up with a rough estimate between $19.6 million and $53 million.

"Which is significant," deMause says. "On the other hand, the number of stadium deals that have kept a team in town by offering them $40 million or less is virtually none. It's almost always more than that."

In St. Louis, for example, a judge overturned a city ordinance that would have required a public vote on funding for a new stadium, clearing the way for a riverfront project that will cost $388 million in tax incentives and state and city bond proceeds as part of a $998 million plan that may or may not convince the Rams to stay.

Armed with 20 years of research (and with a little help from popular media), cities have recently begun mounting stiff resistance against demanding teams. Mayors in Anaheim, Calgary, Glendale and Minneapolis have all recently stood firm against sports franchises.

In Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf has wielded her leverage freely, stating outright that she would not support any expenditure that she could otherwise "spend on police, parks or libraries." Last January, she tried to pit the Raiders against the Oakland A's -- long-time co-tenants, now both vying for new stadiums -- saying that she would allow both teams to make bids for separate or joint stadiums on the O.Co Coliseum site. Oakland is trying to amend an $18 million shortfall and hire more police to combat rising crime. Schaaf used her city's financial reality as a bargaining chip.

DeMause says that it's premature to consider this influx of resistance a "movement" -- "I say that as someone who has, a couple times before, thought that the tide was starting to turn then realized that it was just a momentary pause."

There are counterpoints still -- St. Louis' current stadium efforts, for example, or $376 million borrowed by Cobb County to build a new park for the Atlanta Braves. DeMause is willing to call the example of Schaaf and company a "mini trend," however, with the potential to grow into something significant.

Still, a longview of economic and quality of life arguments can obscure their impact on an individual level. Dr. Death is happy to make the case that while fighting to keep the Raiders in Oakland, "we're also fighting for generations.

"And having that stadium here in Northern California, it's going to give the quality of life, it's going to raise it so much that it's going to bring jobs, transportation will be better, the quality of life would be better," he says. "And if the Raiders were to leave, our quality of life is going to crumble, literally."

Even worse may be subjugation to Los Angeles. In San Diego, the big brother-little brother syndrome is real, and getting the Chargers would just one more thing L.A. doesn't deserve. According to Glickman, the hate has been passed down for generations. His mom inspired his disdain for what he calls Los Angeles' "veneers" -- i.e., its claims to the best culture, best places and best people.

Robert Carlson, an account executive at a healthcare company in Mission Valley, is considering moving away if the team leaves. The Chargers are one of the few things still tying him to a city that has become financially difficult to live in. Losing the team to Los Angeles would be added insult.

"Even though Carson isn't technically L.A., it's right there," Carlson says. "It just makes it seem even worse, so I think that's why a lot of the true Chargers supporters were even more excited because it is L.A. and it'd be a -- I don't know, it'd be another instance where we lost out to them."

Robert Carlson

• • •

Nearly 20 years ago, the Cleveland Browns caught players, fans and media off guard when owner Art Modell announced, after a 4-5 start, that the franchise was moving to Baltimore. Modell has become a bad word in Cleveland, but it's not hard to understand why he made the move. Baltimore gave him one of the sweetest deals ever given to an NFL team -- a brand new $200 million stadium and up to $75 million in moving expenses. It also left Browns fans in a heap of misery.

Author and Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto covered the fallout firsthand.

"It was traumatic because nobody really believed it would happen," Pluto says. "The rumors were always that the Indians would move, not the Browns, because frankly the Browns were not -- they were the one team that was the most consistently supported."

One problem: The Indians already had a new facility and the Browns were playing in decaying Cleveland Stadium.

An already teetering season cratered after the announcement. The Browns lost five straight games after Nov. 6, four of them by double digits. In what has become a familiar process in Cleveland, starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde was benched in hopes that backup Eric Zeier could revive the offense. It worked briefly -- Zeier led the team to a win over the Bengals in his first start -- but the team promptly deteriorated, successively losing by 27 points to the Oilers, 17 to the Steelers and 11 to the Packers before Zeier was benched.

The quarterback controversy exasperated a tense atmosphere created by Modell's announcement.

"I do remember one of those guys was saying, 'Man, they've got be crazy to think that we're not going to be affected by this,"' Byner recalls. "I remember walking in the locker room, I could see the guy's face. Nobody was naive to what was happening and to the possibilities of how it might affect all of us, not just game-wise but life-wise. Our life was changing at the time. As a matter of fact, it had already changed."

Pluto saw the same thing.

"I think most of them just wanted the season over, and I don't blame them," he says. "Covering it I always wanted the thing over."

Fans were more than demoralized -- they were incensed. Protests sprouted, and angry faxes flooded the NFL office. Byner described the atmosphere inside Cleveland Stadium as "almost eerie," with vitriol toward Modell being the most prominent outward emotion. Red-faced fans yelled at Byner directly at public appearances just to vent.

"I don't think they were mad at me, just mad in general," Byner says. "The ones that did that were expressing their frustration. I didn't feel that they were mad at me. I just stood, listened, and consoled the best I could."

After the Browns left, so did a bit of Cleveland's spirit. Peter Pattakos, a Cleveland lawyer who also runs the aptly-named sports blog Cleveland Frowns, was in high school at the time. He remembers the disillusionment.

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"You're just like, 'How can this happen?' Especially for a team that was supported as well as it was like the Browns by its fans," Pattakos says. "We were selling out the games, there's no question of fan support. To me, I think, what it does, it highlights just what a farce it is to have these owners interpose between the public and the teams.

"You sort of feel like a zombie football fan."

The injustice only mounted. In their fifth season since moving the Baltimore, the Ravens won a Super Bowl under the guidance of general manager Ozzie Newsome, who had once starred for Cleveland. At the same time, the expansion Browns floundered in their second season, going 3-13 in one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

Byner remembers the last game ever played at Cleveland Stadium. The Browns mercifully won, 26-10, over the Bengals, and Byner had one of the best games of his long career, rushing for 121 yards on 31 carries. Toward the end of the game, he turned to offensive tackle Tony Jones on the bench and said he was going to go thank the Dawg Pound, Cleveland's bleacher section of diehard fans. Before he knew it, he had shaken hands with fans in half the sections of the stadium -- "Some people didn't want to turn me loose."

"When you're a fan and the team doesn't play well, if they're losing, you feel like you lose," Byner says. "That's the way we all take it personally as fans. So when we won, some of the people were elated because, again, they felt like they won."

After three seasons without football, fans returned to the stands when the Browns returned to Cleveland.

"The professional game was basically born here," Pattakos says. "The NFL was started in Akron, the Hall of Fame is here. People really love their football here. The Browns were always a big part of that. Just as a community, just as a part of the culture, something that ties together your Sunday with your family or whatever it might be."

• • •

Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani has been the face and voice of the Chargers' stadium efforts since 2002. In that time, he has not shied away from media, nor has he deviated much from his core message. The city of San Diego has failed the team, he says, and so the team has no choice but to relocate at this juncture.

It's business. After failed explorative forays into satellite cities, the Chargers are desperate for a new stadium, preferably in downtown San Diego. Fabiani doesn't make any arguments about keeping the city's local economy strong or make an easy play at the fans' little brother complex toward L.A. He freely admits that Kroenke and the Rams forced the team to make a decision in its best financial interests.

"We patiently tried working to get something done with San Diego," Fabiani says. "We were prepared to continue that work throughout 2015. And then in January, seemingly out of nowhere, the Rams announced a signature gathering effort in Inglewood to entitle their stadium.

"We had two choices at that point. One, we could have done nothing, in which case the Rams would have had the chance to move into the L.A. market and take away the 25 percent of our season-ticket business that comes from L.A. and Orange County."

The Chargers' other option, the one it chose, was to "create an alternative." The Carson project would be a joint $1.7 billion venture with the Raiders. Fabiani is certain it would work. The only public spending necessary would be $80 million to finish cleanup of the landfill site. More importantly to the Chargers, the stadium would be situated off the highway neatly between L.A. and Orange County, and they would be able to begin breaking ground very soon.

Fabiani doesn't hesitate to talk up Los Angeles' earning potential.

"You have to start with the fundamental proposition that there are 21 million people within a 90-minute drive of the Carson stadium, and more if you add another 30-minute drive because you're including San Diego into that," Fabiani says.

"Second, it's a market where people and companies are willing to pay premium prices for premium product, so if you have a nice suite, if you have a nice club seat -- the stadium is obviously extremely well located next to the 405 freeway, the busiest freeway in the world. It will have Super Bowls there so the naming rights would be valuable -- it's all of those things that go together."

The biggest flaw in the Chargers' plan may be the supposition that L.A. is a viable market. Fabiani repeatedly cited the 49ers' privately-funded stadium in Santa Clara as the model that Carson can use to pay for itself. The problem is, Carson's immediate area isn't as affluent as Santa Clara's. A relatively convenient drive doesn't make an attraction worth visiting on its own. Twenty years ago, the Raiders and Rams moved out of the city after Angelenos stopped showing up to the stadiums to watch poorly performing football teams.

Fabiani's response is that Carson by itself will bring in fans because it'll be "a state of the art stadium, which L.A. has never had for pro football," and that's true to an extent. Eckstein and Delaney found that new stadiums have a honeymoon period during which attendance isn't tied to performance. But while an early study by Baade suggested that this period can last up to 10 years, follow-up research by Eckstein and Delaney indicates that the period has recently gotten much shorter.

"My well informed impression would say the honeymoon for honeymoon periods is over," Eckstein wrote to me. "Whereas Coors Field and Jacobs Field had attendance honeymoons lasting 10 years, now the norm would be more like two to three years."

Fabiani says that the team's own market research shows that Los Angeles will be a profitable market for the Chargers. Unfortunately, Fabiani could not provide that research upon request.

As for the glory of bringing professional football back to Los Angeles -- restoring the Rams or Raiders, or starting a new legacy with the Chargers -- that stuff is beside the point. Fabiani doesn't talk much about the Chargers' on-field product, and the Rams and Raiders haven't said much of anything publicly about their futures (the Rams declined to speak to me for this story, the Raiders did not respond to multiple requests).

All three teams seem perfectly at peace with letting the conversations center on finances and glossy animated stadium renderings narrated by a rented Hollywood semi-star. They may not be able to argue that they'll enrich the surroundings in any way with a straight face, certainly not enough to make a difference to a behemoth like L.A., but it doesn't matter. Owners don't need to be the good guys, because fans rarely ever love them in the first place.

For the most part, fans fall in love with the players and coaches long before they get to know the incomprehensible business side.

They might be like Glickman's 12-year-old son, who still takes his sports cues from his dad:

"I'm kind of cluing him into what's going on" Glickman recalls, "and he said, 'So if the Chargers moved you wouldn't be said?' And I said 'no, not really.' And he got really emotional, he started to tear up. Just the idea, the thought to him, that I wouldn't have a favorite team, he couldn't grasp it."

Or they may be like Carlson was, a young kid once in need of an escape during a divorce.

"They went to the Super Bowl in '94 ... I'd get excited over dumb things like the Chargers jacket I wore to school and I thought it was the coolest thing," he says. "Not having a strong family to go home to, something like that cheers up more than just playing a video game or something by yourself," adding a laugh. "It just felt like when everybody was in that year, it just felt like I was part of a bigger family."

Chad Farley & the Bolthawks

"It's like someone telling you Christmas is no longer going to be in your location for the foreseeable future, and I would probably say that to somebody [who's] not a big fan," says Chad Farley, who is part of a group of fans known as the Bolthawks. "That's just one day and you get together with friends and family, but I do that eight times throughout the year, every sporting event, and we all talk about it in the offseason, plan for it, get ready for it."

The Bolthawks are trying to get a mass order of white, blue and yellow mohawks to pass out among their section when LaDainian Tomlinson's jersey is retired in November.

These fans don't have anything good to say about Fabiani. None of them has any idea what they will do if the Chargers move. Farley says he may still root for the Chargers but not the city of L.A. -- that way he can keep his old jerseys. Glickman has already considered "the mortality of the fan life," and his best guess is he'll retreat into fantasy football. Carlson would try to root for the Padres and maybe hope for an NHL franchise to come one day. He may simply move out of San Diego.

"It would suck," Carlson says with a laugh. "There'd be one less thing to look forward to. For football every week you feel like something special could happen even if your team's not in it."

Owners are the gatekeepers to a remarkable product built by GMs, coaches and players on top of a foundation of emotions laid by their customers. That is management's last but trumping advantage that ensures teams will never stay put: The game will never mean as much to them as it does to us.

• • •

Unlike Dr. Death himself, his father was soft spoken. He introduced his son to Raiders football, but rooted for them in a reserved manner. He never wanted a high-five. Mostly, he wanted to be left alone during games.

He had an impressive collection of Raider memorabilia, however, which ingrained Raider football into Dr. Death at an early age, even if subliminally. The two watched games together before the team moved back to Oakland. They went to a game soon after the team returned and sat 20 rows up in the Black Hole section of the Coliseum. Seeing everything firsthand, Dr. Death says he finally understood the meaning and history behind his father's pictures and paintings. He saw Violator and Gorilla Rilla and several other Raider superfans. He had a blast -- "And I told my dad, 'Dad, I want to go again, that was cool.'"

The next year, Dr. Death told his dad he wanted to begin dressing up. His dad gave the OK, but with a caveat: "No skulls and no spikes, you have to do your own thing."

Dr. Death gradually became what he is today: Crazy pants, daggers on a hardhat like a mohawk, jersey over shoulder pads, face painted silver with excessively applied eye black. "Dr. Death" was the nickname for Raiders safety Skip Thomas. Dr. Death, the fan, became a season-ticket holder in 2010, and doesn't really care whether you refer to him as Dr. Death or his legal name. He'll continue to be Dr. Death if the Raiders move, but he won't be following the team to L.A.

"Dr. Death is my complete identity, even amongst my friends," Death says. "Even my co-workers who don't follow football at all, they know that that's part of my identity and that's who -- it's my official merit badge wherever I go. What does that merit badge really mean when the company goes and leaves? It's like wearing a badge for a company that just filed for bankruptcy and left."

The Raiders define Northern California for Dr. Death, too, a point he has argued extensively with fans on his Facebook page who suggest he isn't a true fan if he isn't willing to watch the team if it is playing in Los Angeles. Dr. Death has considered that reality.

"People think, 'I'm going to be a Raider no matter what, I don't care if they play in London or wherever, I'm always going to be a Raider,'" he says. "But to many of us here, where the Raiders originated then left and then came back, this is bigger than football."

About the Author

Writer and editor for SB Nation. Speaks French non-terribly.