Relocation, Relocation…Relocation?

The St. Louis Rams got a big win two weeks ago against their division rivals, the Arizona Cardinals. For a team that has scuffled for years, that was exactly the sort of victory upon which can be built a great season, and upon such a great season can be built the kind of community support that a struggling franchise needs to turn things around and achieve great success in their home market.

Except the Rams are as good as gone from St. Louis, probably by next season. So much for building upon success.

The DFR: FootballLast week the Rams promptly went out and got beaten by Green Bay, so perhaps follow-up on that big win wasn’t in the cards anyway. But it does make you wonder: what will it take for the Rams to catch a break? And how did things get to this state in the first place?

However bad it may be for the Rams right now, the San Diego Chargers probably have no sympathy. They just lost a game, against the Steelers, that they had won–and in front of the entire country on Monday Night Football, no less. And that happened in their home stadium, which nevertheless featured a crowd that seemed to be two-thirds Pittsburgh fans.

It may seem like L.A. is a sure thing, but in fact it’s a gamble.

Fan apathy has been a problem up the coast in Oakland, too. Despite all the nitwits who are willing to show up in public wearing black paint and fake spikes poking out through their shirts, the Raiders have struggled to sell out the Coliseum for several seasons. Tarps over the seats atop Mt. Davis have reduced stadium capacity, and recent loosenings of the league’s blackout restrictions have helped the team’s games get on local TV, but the organization’s position in the East Bay remains tenuous–even given recent signs of progress on the field.

All three of these teams share a thing in common: the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders have all been included among the musical chairs dancers for possible stadium spots in Los Angeles.

Ever since the Raiders and Rams abandoned L.A. in 1995, we’ve heard talk about the league putting a team in the market. For a while an expansion team seemed to be the most likely option, but that talk has long since died down. Lately, discussion has centered on moving an existing franchise into the vacuum. At various times the Vikings and Jaguars were considered prime candidates to make the move, but now all the focus has fallen on the erstwhile Los Angeles teams.

At first glance, moving a team into Los Angeles may seem like an obvious step for the NFL. It’s the second largest media market in the country, there’s history there between the league and the city, and football is–let’s face it–football, far and away the most popular sport in the nation. Why wouldn’t you put a team in L.A.?

Well, there’s TV for one thing. The NFL really makes its meat on network television contracts, which are driven by ratings, and you get ratings by having viewers. You get viewers by having something worth watching on the tube. And for the last twenty years, with no local team in the L.A. market, Southland viewers have always gotten to watch the best games every Sunday–no blackouts, no dog games with bad local teams pushing aside the featured matchups. No wonder the NFL has thrived even without a team in Los Angeles: they’ve always been getting maximized ratings in the number two market in the land. That may not happen with an inferior team calling L.A. home.

That one potential pitfall points toward the risks–and there’s more than one–inherent in the push to put a team in Los Angeles. Ratings, and thus revenues, might take a hit with a bad team in the market. Indeed, a new or returning team in the basin might not be successful by any metric: in the ratings, on the field, or in the stands. It may seem preposterous that an NFL team could fail in L.A., but it happened before–twice, in fact, given the bailouts by both the Raiders and Rams. Just because you build it–“it”in this case being a new state of the art football stadium in Irwindale or Carson–that doesn’t mean they will come.

In a place like Southern California, where there are so many entertainments competing for everyone’s attention, a team that performs at anything less than championship level might find itself regularly playing in a half-empty stadium. Los Angeles is not Green Bay; an NFL team there will not be the only game in town, nor will it be supported come what may by a city that can always find something shinier to love.

And then there’s the other side of the shift: what does a relocation by a current NFL team to Los Angeles say about the league? If the Raiders make the move, perhaps that could be shrugged off easily enough; teams that play in Oakland have long been viewed as bastard stepchildren, and little stink will attach if a team moves from there to somewhere else.

But if either St. Louis or San Diego lose a team to Los Angeles, deeper implications start to arise. The NFL enjoys a reputation as America’s athletic Death Star; today its supreme position on the sporting landscape goes largely unchallenged. But what does it say about the league if one of its teams can’t make it in St. Louis or San Diego? And in the case of St. Louis, that would make two failures for the league in the Gateway city. What should we think if the NFL can’t thrive in a city as large and wealthy as San Diego? Even the prior candidacies of the Jags and the Vikes for shifting to SoCal imply that an NFL franchise is not a golden ticket everywhere in the land. The league, formerly seen as bulletproof, would see its reputation punctured if franchises start moving around searching for greener pastures.

Remember, once upon a time baseball was America’s undisputed champion of the sports world. That situation reigned until roughly the 1950s–the game’s putative golden age–when franchise moves brought the major leagues to new markets, but also exposed weaknesses within the industry. New challenges arose in the face of baseball’s weakness–most prominently from the NFL itself. Instability is not good for the brand.

The NFL survived a spate of relocations in the ’90s–the Rams and Raiders shifts, the Browns to Baltimore, the Oilers to Tennessee–without much damage, but a repeat performance is not guaranteed. That time also saw expansion, with new teams entering Charlotte and Jacksonville (and replacements in Houston and Cleveland). That’s not an option for boosting revenues anymore; there are no markets left that will support a new NFL franchise–except perhaps L.A., of course.

It may seem like L.A. is a sure thing, but in fact it’s a gamble. If the NFL turns its back on the patrons of two (or three) cities for the benefit of the fickle denizens of Hollywood, and finds that it just doesn’t have the star power to open with big box office, then the league may wind up paying for its bomb for years to come.


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