NFL in limbo as relocation rules

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The NFL kicks off its season on Thursday, ending the seven months of economics and game theory that make up its offseason. However, for fans of three of the NFL’s 32 teams, this season will be consumed with a more pressing issue than merely third-down defence and red-zone efficiency ¾ – the threat that, when the 2016 season kicks off, there will not have a team to support.

The situation, put simply, is this. Los Angeles, America’s second-largest city (and, consequently, its second-largest media market) has been without an NFL team since Christmas Eve 1994, when two teams ¾ the now St Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders ¾ played their final game before moving out of the city. Their reason for doing so was that they were unhappy with their respective stadiums, which they did not own themselves and had to be shared. However, twenty years later, both teams are now under new ownership, and are once again unhappy with their locations.

The Rams has found themselves frequently overshadowed in St Louis, which is one of the few cities in America where baseball remains rampantly popular (although this might have something to do with the fact that they haven’t made the playoffs since 2004.) The Raiders, meanwhile, share the fourth-smallest stadium in the league with a baseball team who have forced them to move the time of a game to accommodate a playoff series. Both of these situations have left them looking back at Los Angeles wondering if they might get a better deal if they moved back ¾ but they’re not the only ones.

The San Diego Chargers only played in Los Angeles for one season, and that was in 1960. However, they, like the Raiders, play in a shabby old stadium that pales in comparison to the glistening capitalist palaces that other teams call home. They also already have proximity on their side, being, at present, the only NFL team in Southern California.

The complications don’t end there. The NFL has a strict policy of only allowing teams to move if they have exhausted any possible options to remain in their city. They want to avoid the bad PR that comes from rushed moves, making sure that team owners don’t just load up equipment onto lorries and flee town under cover of darkness, which the Seattle Seahawks tried to do in order to move to Los Angeles in 1996, and the Baltimore Colts did successfully to move to Indianapolis in 1983. They also don’t want to saturate the LA market, meaning that ideally, two teams would end up playing there, not three.

All three teams therefore have to go through the extensive process of talking to the local authorities in the cities in which they currently play. There seems to be little prospect of a stadium getting built in Oakland for the Raiders, but the San Diego city council seem to be making a decent effort to build a stadium, despite the ownership of the Chargers seemingly lacking enthusiasm for the project. Both of these schemes still have to clear a lot of organisational and governmental hurdles, as Californian taxpayers are reluctant to shell out public funds for a new stadium. St Louis City Council, however, have no such qualms, and last week unveiled plans for a $1billion riverfront stadium.

Their efforts however, may be in vain ¾ The Rams’ owner, Stan Kroenke (who is also a major shareholder in Arsenal) has already purchased land in Inglewood, just outside of Los Angeles, and received planning permission for an 80,000 capacity stadium. It seems all he needs is another team to go with him to complete the move ¾ except the Raiders and Chargers announced plans for a shared stadium in Carson, another suburb of LA, which they will both move to if they fail to get a stadium in their current cities. (The only drawback to this plan is that the Raiders and Chargers hate each other, and have been hating each other for almost as long as the teams have existed).

All of this means that the process is a high-stakes corporate game of musical chairs, where all sorts of situations are possible. For example, if St Louis is happy to build a stadium, but the Chargers and Rams want to move to Inglewood, would the Raiders be happy moving to St Louis? Would the NFL allow it? No-one yet knows, but, with billions of dollars and the hearts of thousands of fans at stake, there will certainly be drama before the music stops.

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