NFL to LA: Who has the advantage?

Picture your regular poker night. For me, the routine usually includes the consumption of craft brews and single malt scotch, followed by the near immediate loss of money. It’s a familiar scene, practiced nightly in homes all over the country.

Now imagine that scene with a bunch of multi-millionaires and billionaires sitting around the table. For some, their chips are the controlling shares of their respective teams. Another player has a stadium site and resources as his buy-in. They’re all playing a single hand. Some will fold early. Others will stay in a little longer. Someone will win, but he won’t win everything, just as the big winner in poker night doesn’t win all of the money. Someone else will do pretty well in the second spot, and someone will go home unsatisfied.

This analogy works best when considered in this context: No one has started playing yet and no one’s desperate. It’s important to remember this when trying to analyze the situation and then predict how it’s going to play out. For now, owners say the right things about staying in their current cities. The guy dangling a carrot in LA wants to deal with teams on his terms, instead of making the first deal that becomes available. Once you take this into account, and then factor in all of the different players and their unique situations, it becomes clear that the only prediction to make at this time is that we will probably be wrong.

Let’s look at the players to try to get an understanding about how they’ll do things. First, the team owners. I mentioned previously that these teams are not desperate. When a team is guaranteed $107 million in TV money every year, it’s clear that it can financially tread water until the next CBA at the very least. The NFL has even girded its loins by creating its own rainy day fund in case of a labor stoppage. The only instance in which an owner would get to that point of desperation would be that he was either so debt-ridden or lost so much money in the last year that it made “liquidating” the team a necessity. No current owner fits that description.

  • Al Davis (potentially Mark Davis), Raiders. The team has been sniffing around the East Bay for a possible site, first by properly working with the Coliseum Authority, then by hiking out to Dublin to see if they were interested (they weren’t). Crossbay rivals have shown interest in a shared facility, but so far the Raiders clearly haven’t. That leads some to deduce that LA is the next logical step, except that logic does not necessarily apply in the franchise’s movement history – why should it now? Al spent over three decades wresting control of the franchise from others. It’s very difficult to see him allowing his family to piss away controlling interest in the team in one stroke. The team clearly has the advantage of an existing fanbase in SoCal. That may actually work against them in a sense, as LA investors may be more interested in bringing in a less difficult brand to town. For the time being, Al and Co. have done the best job of keeping their cards close to the vest.
  • John & Jed York, 49ers. One of the problems that doesn’t get mentioned much is that the Yorks are from Youngstown, OH, which from a cultural bonding standpoint is as far away from the Bay Area you can get without having a drawl (John actually has one). Jed’s young urbanite image makes him more approachable than his dad, though there remain questions about whether or not the prince can handle the job. When compared to Ray Ratto’s musings about Mark Davis, there’s no doubt that Jed wants the throne. Like the Raiders, the Niners have been sniffing around SF and Santa Clara, with the potential for options elsewhere in the Peninsula (Brisbane). Unlike the Raiders, the Niners have publicly shown interest in staying indefinitely through either an extension at the ‘Stick or one of the new stadium options.
  • Ralph Wilson, Bills. The 90 year old has scared fans in western New York by scheduling the occasional game in Toronto. Rogers Centre is too small to be a permanent NFL facility, and the Bills sell Ralph Wilson Stadium out consistently despite its small market status and inconsistent on-field performances. They’re getting over $7 million in annual subsidies from Erie County. They still get over 70,000 for each home game. A move would send thousands upon thousands of Bills fans to Niagara Falls in order to plummet to their demise. Now, it is true that if a team could be snatched from Baltimore or Cleveland, it could also happen to Buffalo. No argument there. It’s just that no one’s really getting hurt by the team remaining in Buffalo as it rides out the recession, so it makes more sense to stay away from the possible PR nightmare that would be associated with a Bills move.
  • Zygi Wilf, Vikings. Like the previouslly mentioned owners, Wilf’s not a local. He’s from New Jersey. All of his attempts to get a stadium deal done so far have fallen miserably short, as the Vikes missed the cut to get financing along with the Twins and UofM football program. Comments likening the Vikes’ stadium project to federal stimulus were inappropriate. Options are simply running out. That could put him on the fast track to LA or to sell to someone else who could move the team to LA. Of the teams with uncertain stadium futures, Wilf is the least tenured. He has the least pull in his home market. Who knows if threats to “throw in the towel” are real or not, by verbalizing such sentiments the Vikes are going to this part of the playbook before anyone else.
  • Wayne Weaver, Jaguars. Occasionally when we talk football on the blog, someone brings up the prospect of having a team play in the Central Valley, either Sacramento or Fresno. The idea is that the large Central Valley population should be sufficent enough to support a NFL franchise. The short schedule would seem to support this since there’s less individual financial outlay compared to baseball. Jacksonville, however, is a prime argument against the idea. Its metro is 1.4 million, though it is a high-growth market. Weaver isn’t entirely a local boy, but he moved the Jacksonville shortly after he was awarded the Jags. Recently, Weaver dismissed any LA talk, though the door may be open now that an option has materialized.
  • Alex & Dean Spanos, Chargers. Again, here’s a case of a team being passed to an heir. Dean Spanos is supposedly buddies with LA’s Ed Roski, but the Spanos family doesn’t want to sell controlling interest. Meanwhile, the Bolts’ efforts to get something going in Chula Vista have stalled. LA would appear to be a very convenient move for them. After all, the team was originally the Los Angeles Chargers. The family has more firmly planted roots in Stockton, not San Diego. Slam dunk, right? Well, the numbers show that the Bolts don’t have to commit to anything right away. Of course, they’d want to make a move before another team does. Perhaps the process will give the Chargers first dibs. Then again, Al Davis may have something to say about that. Update: Looks like the Bolts just made the first move by hiring LA marketing firm Wasserman Media Group to expand the team’s reach into LA and Orange County.

That leaves the last guy at the table, the “outsider,” Ed Roski. Roski’s no stranger to sports, LA real estate, or politics. He has a small city with an approved EIR as his pocket aces. He can wait everyone else out if he wants. He can send out signals that end up playing interested teams against each other – not the NFL’s preferred modus operandi, but still possible. It would look like a reversal of the Montreal Expos’ move to DC, in which several candidate cities whined and dined MLB prior to the league showing the whole process to be a farce.

One thing that could dramatically alter the game would be the imposition of a deadline, especially in LA. I don’t expect this to happen as I’m certain the NFL and Roski have an unspoken understanding about how this should proceed. If one or more city-team relationships deteriorate, there could be some nudging towards desperation, though it wouldn’t be an overriding factor. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. In the end, there will be a clear loser in the city whose team leaves. The clear winner? The NFL, even if a team never moves to LA.

Note: I’m leaving out some additional teams who have made noises, such as the Saints and Rams. They would need to show renewed, consistent efforts (and failure) towards securing a new stadium deal to enter discussion.

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