Los Angeles finally might get a pro football team again after a 21-year absence, as the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams compete for a berth in the nation's second-biggest market. But whoever loses likely will come out better off anyway, with a brand-new stadium as a consolation prize.
That has been the pattern for past episodes of what's known as "stadium extortion." Many localities can't bear to part with a hometown team playing the nation's most popular sport. This dynamic has sprung up over the past two decades, after the Raiders and the Rams decamped from Los Angeles because they were dissatisfied with the playing facilities there.
According to advisory firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, 20 new National Football League stadiums have opened since 1997, helped by $4.7 billion in taxpayer money. Atlanta and Minneapolis are building stadiums with $700 million in public funding.
Teams from elsewhere have long used Los Angeles' football vacuum as a bargaining chip in the contests over relocations: NFL franchises threaten to flee if local governments don't counter with a sweet offer to stay.
While the value of a pro football venue to local economies is debatable -- some say a team adds little or nothing -- hometown pride is a powerful ally for NFL squads looking for a better deal.
By dangling an L.A. move, the Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings won a total of $1.4 billion in public aid for stadiums, estimates John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University economist who studies the sport's finances.
"Ironically, the empty L.A. market has probably been more valuable to the NFL as the third leg in a public funding extortion triangle over the past 20 years" than if a football team were in residence, Vrooman said.
That's not to say a proposed Los Angeles migration is a sham for the Chargers, Raiders and Rams. Chargers owner Dean Spanos and the Raiders' Mark Davis have unveiled a plan to build a $1.7 billion stadium in Carson, outside of Los Angeles. The two teams would share the site, much like New York's Jets and Giants do with MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadlowlands. Rams owner Stanley Kroenke has called for a $1.86 billion stadium a few miles to the north, in Inglewood. In both cases, the teams would use private money, not taxpayer funding.
The prospect of a team exodus has prompted hometown counterproposals. At this point, though, only the Rams have a firm commitment of public money to stay in St. Louis. A local task force put together a $1.1 billion package to construct a new stadium on the banks of the Mississippi River, with $150 million from the city of St. Louis and $400 million from the state. The rest would come from the team and the NFL, although Kroenke and league officials say they aren't interested. The team did not return a request for comment.
Who will win the right to a Los Angeles address? The 32 NFL team owners will gather in Houston on Tuesday and Wednesday to decide. A franchise needs league approval to move.
How the vote will turn out, or if the issue will be postponed, is hard to say. But three things are clear:
The loser will get a new stadium. Not necessarily in the team's current location. It's possible that the owners may pass over someone but give the losing squad an OK to go somewhere besides Los Angeles. There's no shortage of cities across the U.S. clamoring for an NFL franchise -- and willing to pony up taxpayer cash to land one.
Even if a losing team in the L.A. derby decides to stay where it is now, however, don't be surprised to see some form of local government help for a new stadium. Bargaining over these deals always is a delicate dance.
San Diego and the Chargers this summer broke off negotiations over replacing Qualcomm Stadium. In August the city offered to furnish $350 million toward a $1 billion-plus plan. Many derided that as too low, and voters must approve such an outlay, which isn't a sure bet.
Mark Fabiani, the Chargers' special counsel, accused the city of foot-dragging on this issue over the past 14 years, adding that the team was open to alternatives that didn't involve public money. He wouldn't say what the team might do if it doesn't win the L.A. deal.
In Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf has opposed spending taxpayer dollars to construct a larger and more modern substitute for Oakland County Coliseum, the second-smallest stadium in the game. "Oakland does not have a big check to write," she said. But the mayor did say she could contribute $90 million to upgrade infrastructure to support a new football emporium, such as roads and sewers. The Raiders did not respond to a request for comment.
The winner will enter a lucrative market in Los Angeles. The three teams vying for Los Angeles all rank way down on the Forbes magazine football team valuation list. The Chargers are No. 22 (at $1.52 billion), the Rams are No. 28 ($1.45 billion) and Raiders are No. 31 ($1.43 billion). While a new L.A. team wouldn't benefit much from TV revenue -- which is divided equally among the teams -- the manna from luxury box rentals and stadium naming rights, among other things, is substantial.
By the reckoning of Vanderbilt's Vrooman, coming to Los Angeles will vault an individual team's valuation to around $2.1 billion. (The Dallas Cowboys, the richest NFL member, is worth $4 billion.)
L.A. taxpayers won't foot the bill. No one is even talking about using public money for a new Los Angeles stadium. Since the Great Recession at least, that notion has been in ill repute among Angelenos. Perhaps the city's liberal politics is a reason. "People there," said John C. Phillips, an emeritus professor at the University of the Pacific, "don't want to spend their money on some billionaire" team owner.