When the 2014 NFL season kicks off next week, it will be the 20th without a franchise in Los Angeles. The controversial decision to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore for the 1996 season is often talked about, but we forget that Los Angeles lost not one, but two teams at the end of the 1994 season.
Since then, other sports have flourished in the area, with the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup a combined three times, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim winning the World Series in 2002. Yet, the most popular and profitable sport has remained absent from the market, largely due to local politics and the greed of prospective owners.
The NFL returning to Los Angeles, whether through expansion or relocation, is not a question of “if”, but a question of “when”.
According to a memo obtained this past Tuesday by the LA Times, NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman has been assigned to the task of “stadium development, the return of a team presence to the Los Angeles area, the league’s strategic investment fund, and other strategic initiatives”.
Moving high ranking league officials to focus on establishing a franchise in the Los Angeles market is a clear indication that it is a priority for the league.
Earlier in the NFL off season, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones let the Daily News know how important the Los Angeles market should be to the NFL:
It’s the single-most exciting market out there without an NFL team,” Jones said. “It’s one of the two or three best markets in the country, period, between the entertainment element and everything else. And the prices the Dodgers and Clippers sold for absolutely reflects that.
In the same article, longtime NFL agent, and co-chairman of the “Save The Rams” committee back in 1994, Leigh Steinberg echoed Jones’ enthusiasm about the potential cash cow Los Angeles could be for the NFL:
Here is the reality of the situation; a franchise in Los Angeles would be an amazingly profitable enterprise. We have 15 to 18 million people living within a couple hours’ drive and the reality is in our area the luxury boxes and premium seats would all sell out the quickest. In the same way floor seats at the Lakers and the Clippers are at a premium. We have a massive amount of corporations, including the entertainment industry, that would support the franchise and do naming rights and sponsorship and signage. It would be a major, money revenue-producing franchise. It would be enormously successful.
With the prospective team’s financial success seemingly locked up, one has to wonder what has kept the NFL out of Los Angeles for the last two decades. The main culprit is the same issue that has kept the NHL out of Seattle: local politics and a lack of a suitable stadium.
The NFL originally awarded an expansion franchise to LA back in 2000, but stadium plans stalled and instead the franchise went to Houston to become the Texans. Phil Anschutz of AEG has a plan in place to build a stadium in downtown Los Angeles, but has also demanded a substantial share of the team’s revenue, something that does not sit well with the NFL.
The NFL is so desperate to get a team in Los Angeles, there have been rumors that they have considered fronting the money for a stadium themselves and relocate one or two existing teams.
The Jacksonville Jaguars earn a lot of negative attention due to their sparse crowds, and always come up in rumors of teams that could be moved to Los Angeles. The San Diego Chargers are another team that has been searching for a new stadium deal, but have been unable to secure the funding.
On Wednesday, the city of San Diego did move in a positive direction for a potential new Chargers stadium by striking down a proposal that would have expanded the San Diego convention center. The decision could cause problems for the city to hold onto the popular Comic-Con convention, but it does make room for an alternative proposal that would add an annex to the convention center and build a new stadium for the Chargers.
There are two additional teams in the running that are no strangers to the LA market: the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams, whose stadium deals expire within the next two seasons.
St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought 60-acres of land next to the Forum in Inglewood, CA, fueling speculation that it could be setting up a plan to relocate the Rams when their lease expires at the end of the 2015 season. Kroenke has denied the rumors, but with $3 billion of projected revenue for an LA team, where there’s smoke, there could be fire.
One thing is clear; the NFL’s absence from the Los Angeles market will come to an end; whether that is within the next five years or 10 remains to be seen. There is too much money to be made, and the untapped star potential is too much for the NFL to ignore.
Like most sports leagues, the NFL would rather establish an expansion team and collect the expansion fees, rather than go through the difficult task of relocating a team. Relocation never looks good for a league, and it leaves a disappointed fan base in the dust.
With the NFL finally taking the Los Angeles market seriously, rather than something always further out on the horizon, perhaps the local politics and negotiations with interested buyers can finally be worked out. The nation’s second largest sports market deserves an NFL franchise and would only serve to further grow the league.