Last winter, the process of deciding which NFL team or teams would be the first to return to Los Angeles in two decades was in shambles. St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke, having used an "all the other kids have newer stadiums" clause to escape his lease on the Edward Jones Dome less than 20 years after it opened, was turning up his nose at offers of public cash from St. Louis to stay put, and had announced plans for a new stadium in Inglewood. San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos and Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis, similarly unhappy with their cities' offers to help with new stadiums and not wanting to lose their best chance at leverage, had countered with plans for a new shared stadium in Carson. And with a three-quarters vote of NFL owners required to approve any relocation, it was looking like a long road ahead to try to determine which owners, if any, would ultimately get their way.
What a difference a year makes! Today, we have the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders owners still insisting they're unhappy with their existing cities' stadium subsidy offers and formally seeking permission to move, and the other NFL owners still split on what if anything to approve, and...
Okay, so 2015 was kind of a wasted year. At least we got some crazy-ass videos out of it.
Now, though, it's crunch time: The 32 NFL owners are meeting in New York next Tuesday and Wednesday to try to hash out an agreement on L.A. relocation, and even if they're hopelessly split, you know there's going to be a hard push to come up with something that can win the required 24 votes. Especially since, if the latest official rumor leaked to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport on Sunday is true, the rest of the league's owners are now hoping to split $550 million in relocation fees from each team that moves.
That's a buttload of money, swamping any windfall the league would get from re-adding the L.A. TV market (which, seriously, meh, since people in L.A. watch plenty of NFL football anyway). But are any of the Gang of Three really ready to pay those fees, on top of more than a billion dollars in stadium construction costs, just to have access to better food trucks? And if so, who can muster enough support from their fellow tycoons to actually win a vote next week?
There's only one way to address this, and it's with a rundown of the pros and cons of every possible scenario, from the only slightly crazy to the completely demented:
Rams move to Inglewood, Chargers and Raiders stay put
This outcome was the early favorite, in large part because Kroenke really, really wants out of St. Louis, his Inglewood stadium plan is the most fleshed-out (even if no one quite knows how much it would get in tax kickbacks or what the money would be used for), and the other NFL owners may like the idea of a stadium surrounded by 60 acres of other revenue-enhancing development. When I polled several sports economists two months ago, all put their money on Rams-to-L.A. as the most likely scenario.
Why it might happen: Kroenke has plenty of money and possibly enough friends among the NFL's new-guard owners that it's the path of least resistance.
Why it might not happen: It would leave both the Chargers and the Raiders owners with almost zero leverage to extract stadium cash from their current cities, unless they both then started threatening to move to St. Louis.
Chargers and Raiders to Carson, Rams stay put
This option got an unexpected boost last month when Texans owner Bob McNair declared that any team receiving "a reasonable amount of support" from their current home city should stay put —and, in case anyone missed his point, he said he thought the St. Louis stadium proposal was "getting pretty close" to that point. Add in Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson going out and recruiting Disney CEO Bob Iger to spearhead the Carson plan, and at least a couple of owners in the room seem to be in favor of a Chargers/Raiders move.
Why it might happen: Moving the Chargers and Raiders would solve two problems from the NFL's perspective, splitting costs on a stadium worked once already for the Jets and Giants, and St. Louis does have the best offer on the table, even if Kroenke still hates it and the commissioner's office doesn't like it much better.
Why it might not happen: Nobody's likely to move to Oakland or San Diego if the Raiders and Chargers leave for L.A., so the NFL would be without a ready-made replacement threat once L.A. was filled. Plus, it would mean rewarding St. Louis officials even after they asked for an extra $100 million from the NFL to compensate for giving Kroenke $477 million in cash and tax breaks. Finally, it would make Mark Davis happy, and nobody likes that guy.
Rams and Chargers to Inglewood, Raiders stay put
This would solve one problem with the Inglewood plan—saddling a single owner with nearly $2 billion in construction debt—by giving Kroenke someone to share costs with, either as a partner or a tenant. Kroenke's already said he'd be jiggy with that (the tenant option, anyway); Spanos hasn't, but he might learn to like it if the alternative is letting the Rams land on their doorstep and getting shut out of L.A. entirely.
Why it might happen: It would make everyone slightly happy, except for Mark Davis, which is totally the kind of compromise you could imagine the owners gathering in some smoke-filled room to get behind.
Why it might not happen: It took years for the Jets and Giants to figure out how to work the finances of sharing a new stadium in New Jersey after initially each planning their own buildings. Expecting Kroenke and Spanos to hash out all those details in a course of the next week is probably a bit much.
Nobody moves anywhere this year
This is what lots of NFL owners themselves have been hinting at, and it makes lots of sense when you have to get 24 of 32 owners to agree before anything can happen. (Imagine if presidential nominations required a three-quarters vote. The GOP convention could last until December.) The only reason the NFL has to do anything next week is because it said it would, but voting for everyone to come back and participate in a bonus round would still be doing something, technically.
Why it might happen: Both Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson and Michigan economist Rod Fort now say the size of the relocation fee has them thinking the most likely scenario is that nobody bites. "The $550 million now pushes the total price tag to move to at least $1.5 billion and maybe more like $2 billion-plus," says Matheson. "Hard to see how increased local revenues covers that."
Why it might not happen: Another year of threats doesn't seem likely to shake loose much more public stadium cash in any of the three cities, so the other owners might scale down that $550 million fee or find a way to give it back under the table ("Oh, did we forget to mention the $300 million reimbursable revenue-sharing credit for teams in cities with names that anagram as 'Sells An Ego'?") in order to make this whole headache go away so they can get back to not being able to decide what to do about other, less metaphorical headaches.
With no clear leading candidate, you're welcome to hold out hopes for your own pet theories that would otherwise seem impossible. Rams move to L.A., Raiders to St. Louis, and Chargers to London? Kroenke buys the Denver Broncos and makes the Rams somebody else's problem? The entire league moves to a single stadium in Qatar and puts up CGI backdrops of whatever city the home team supposedly hails from? Let your imagination run wild!
Why it might happen: At 2 am on Wednesday, any crazy idea that lets everyone go home with an actual decision might sound good.
Why it might not happen: This is the NFL, whose owners are not exactly known for wild, out of the box thinking. If we were talking NHL, I'd fully expect the teams to begin 2016 playing their games on Netflix.
The fact that there are good reasons to disbelieve every one of these scenarios is a good indication of the corner that the NFL has painted itself into: Normally you'd expect that some city would have made the league's decision easier by stepping to the head of the line with a blank check, so the fact that the bidding war among St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland barely even heated up—Oakland's mayor didn't even bother to submit a stadium finance plan to the NFL—is an indication that cities may not be quite as easy to shake down for cash as they once were. (Though to be fair, a year isn't very long for this kind of thing—remember how long the Montreal Expos were carted around the country by MLB before finally settling in Washington?) But while it's tempting to be encouraged by the prospect of a sports franchise moving for once because it thinks it'll have more fans and not because they were seeking the biggest subsidy payday, this hiccup can hardly be expected to mark a sea change in stadium funding—especially since you know that if the Rams move, somebody will eventually take a run at that $477 million being dangled by St. Louis, even if only to extract a counter-offer from their current city.
We'll all find out together next week. Or, equally likely, we won't. I hate waiting for sweeps.